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New era in Millard as Superintendent Schwartz takes the helm

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The new superintendent of the Millard Public Schools says that in a time of political division, school districts need to be open about what they’re doing and why.

John Schwartz, whose first day on the job was Friday, said “trust comes from transparency.”

“Obviously, we’re living through a time where there’s more political divide than I think I’ve experienced in my adult life,” Schwartz, 42, told The World-Herald. “I think transparency is key, having good systems and processes in order to make important decisions.”

He said Millard, for example, has a transparent process for developing curriculum and adopting instructional materials.

“There’s opportunities for our stakeholders to give input, to be involved and to see what it is we do, and we invite that,” he said.

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Millard Superintendent John Schwartz talks about his first day on the job on Friday.

Millard school board members on Feb. 10 unanimously selected Schwartz to replace Jim Sutfin, who retired June 30. Sutfin had been superintendent since 2014.

Schwartz was formerly superintendent of the Norris Public Schools, which is located 12 miles south of Lincoln and has nearly 2,500 students. Millard has 24,000 students, 35 schools and nearly 3,000 staff members.

Schwartz has experience in larger metro-area districts. He was assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Papillion La Vista from 2015 to 2019, when the Norris school board tapped him as superintendent.

He has worked in several districts, among them the Bellevue Public Schools, as a high school principal, director of secondary education and social studies teacher.

Schwartz said schools are a nexus for communities, and people have different beliefs on a lot of different issues and topics.

He said it’s important that schools “try and show respect and dignity to those that may have differing opinions.

“Certainly, in my prior school district we had to navigate some of those issues, like other schools across Nebraska and across the country,” he said.

The Norris Public Schools experienced the challenge that many districts did the last couple of years as it wrestled with differing opinions on mask policies, critical race theory and other hot-button issues.

Residents tried unsuccessfully to recall five Norris school board members over a district mask mandate. In May, a Hickman, Nebraska, man sued the district alleging officials violated his constitutional rights by banning him from school grounds in August 2021 over his criticism of the mask policy. In his complaint, the man says he missed out on his daughter’s first grade year.

The case file contains a letter from the Norris assistant superintendent saying the ban was because of the man’s “increasingly hostile and threatening” messages to district staff.

Schwartz said “disagreement doesn’t have to result in loss of decorum.”

“We want parents to be involved,” he said. “They are absolutely the most critical partner we have, and we’re in this together with them in order to serve and meet the needs of their child.”

He said districts have to keep the focus on kids and on growing and improving as an organization, in spite of the distractions.

Millard will start a strategic planning process in August, he said.

“Strategic planning has been one of the pillars that our district has used to operate for nearly 30 years now,” he said.

District officials will bring together a diverse stakeholder group to identify and establish the missions, beliefs and parameters of the district, he said. They’ll figure out strengths, weaknesses and needs, he said.

“We’ll set objectives. We’ll identify strategies to target,” Schwartz said.

Millard’s facing some of the same issues as other districts — one being figuring out how to attract and retain high-quality staff, he said.

He said the district expanded its programs that give younger students a chance to be exposed to education careers.

“There’s going to need to be some statewide systemic solutions that we all tackle together in order to meet that need,” he said.

He said district officials have done a good job planning for the fall. It appears that average class sizes in Millard schools won’t increase above what they’ve been historically, he said.

Another challenge will be to meet changing mental and behavioral health needs among students, he said.

Schwartz and his family are moving to Millard this month. His two sons will attend district schools.

He said he’ll be “forever grateful” for Sutfin’s assistance with the transition.

As of Friday, more than 1,000 people had signed an online petition to name a Millard school for Sutfin.

Millard school board member Mike Kennedy posted the petition. Kennedy proposes renaming the district’s Central Middle School, 12801 L St., because the school played a significant role in his life: Sutfin was a student, teacher, assistant principal and principal there.

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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