MENNO — Many school districts in South Dakota will face changes with the upcoming school year. For the Menno School District, that will include new leadership at the top, with a pair of longtime educators taking the reins as superintendent and elementary principal when the new school year starts in August.
The district hired Tom Rice, a principal with the Gayville-Volin School District as superintendent and high school principal, and Kory Foss, a teacher with the Colome School District, as the new elementary and middle school principal earlier this year, and the pair have been working ever since on settling into their new roles with a new district and new community.
The two step in for former superintendent Charlene Crosswait and principal Lisa Tolliver, both of whom left the district earlier this year.
Rice, who had been middle school and high school principal at Gayville-Volin since 2007, said he greatly enjoyed working with his former district, and noted that only a superintendent position would have enticed him away from a job and community he loved.
“I was the middle school and high school principal, I taught two to three periods every day, coached two sports, drove the bus,” Rice said in a recent interview with the Mitchell Republic. “I had interviews (with other districts about superintendent positions), I just wasn’t fortunate enough to get the call. That was God’s way of telling me I wasn’t ready yet.”
A 1986 graduate of Washington High School in Sioux Falls, Rice sought a teaching certificate during his time at Sioux Falls College and began coaching football and track at numerous spots, including Coleman-Egan, the University of South Dakota and later the University of Sioux Falls. A football devotee, he played as a member of the 1988-89 conference champion football squad at Sioux Falls College under renowned coach Bob Young.
His family still has a house in Gayville, though he is now living in Menno during the week to be closer to school operations as he helps faculty, staff and students prepare for what is likely to be an unusual school year. Rice is dealing with all the adjustments that come with moving to a new district, such as learning names and familiarizing himself with the community and established district procedures.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into the preparations for the new school year in school districts around the state. Rice said Menno expects to begin classes on time for the 2020-21 school year, and school leaders will take whatever steps best serve the purpose of keeping students, staff and district patrons safe.
“We’re trying to figure out how to operate a school during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rice said. “We’re going to start on time, but what that looks like we don’t know for sure, but we have ideas.”
Rice was actually diagnosed with COVID-19 back in March. He was asymptomatic and has since recovered, but he said the experience lent him a perspective about the disease that he carries with him to this day.
“I was asymptomatic and I never flashed a temperature,” Rice said. “But you just don’t want it.”
Kory Foss, who will assume the position of elementary principal for the Menno School District, will be taking on his first administrative role in a school since the Twin Cities native became involved in education at Augustana College in Sioux Falls. He spent time in coaching and teaching roles around the region before settling in at Colome, where he was a high school history teacher.
For Foss, pursuing education was something instilled in him by his grandfather, an educator who also rose up the ranks to leadership roles in education administration.
“My grandfather was my role model, and he had done something similar and just really enjoyed it,” Foss said.
Foss was officially hired in April and takes over his duties in August, but he has already seen the appeal of working in a community like Menno.
“Menno had a good feel to it. Talking with Tom and meeting with the board and teachers over Zoom, it just had a great feel,” Foss said. “There are a lot of good and down-to-earth people. When we got to Menno for the first time we were nothing but impressed. The people, the town and the school itself is about as nice as it gets for a Class B school.”
Rice agreed. With the improvements made to the facilities over the last few years, the Menno School District has positioned itself to serve its students into the future. Rice credits previous administrators and a supportive community with getting much of that work done.
“With the district itself, you notice the plant. The facilities are top-notch. It really is something else to walk through the building and see what previous administrators along with a willing community can get done,” Rice said. “Kudos to Dr. Crosswait, who got a lot of things pushed through. You walk through here here and it is really, truly amazing.”
Over the last few years, upgrades to the school complex include new classroom spaces and locker rooms in the gym, a new library and a community wellness room. The district also transitioned in recent years to modern smart board technology to enhance the learning experience in the classroom, as well.
Now it will be a matter of getting himself up to speed on the culture of the Menno district. Rice said he enjoys getting to know people, a characteristic he feels should help him integrate into the system during his first year as head of the district.
“(I’m looking at) getting up to speed with how Menno does business in school, because it’s a lot easier for me as one person to learn what they’re doing than it is for 60 people to learn what I want,” Rice said. “Getting into the handbook and the course offerings and the schedule,” Rice said. “Menno has been conducting their business very well, it’s just a matter of me getting up to speed with that and maybe introducing a little change to make it better.”
Foss will also be taking over coaching for the boys basketball team, something he has enjoyed getting started on as a way to get to know the high school students. And as a baseball player during his time at Augustana and a member of the Winner/Colome amateur baseball squad, he has also been prodded by community members about bringing his pitching arm to the Menno Mad Frogs, one of the favorites in the District 6B amateur baseball tournament this year.
That will have to wait for the time being, he said, as he is still technically committed to his previous team. And then there is the work of settling into a new routine and preparing the district for the new school year. With all the variables in play, he said it will be a challenge, but he’s confident he and Rice can help guide the district to a plan that works best for its students and community.
“No two schools are the same, and no two communities are the same. Everyone is going to have to find what works best for them, and we’ll have to figure out what works best for us,” Foss said.
Rice said he’ll continue to read up and study the Menno School District as well as continually engage with community members as it heads into the 2020-21 school year. Between himself and Foss, the faculty and members of the community, Menno has a great deal going for it, he said, and that can only mean good things for the educational experience of its students.
“I love getting to know people, and I’m not afraid to get out there and meet people and talk. Our job is so much more than the administration of the school. It is investing in our teachers and students especially and helping them grow into the people we want them to be,” Rice said. “That’s why we got into this. Because we love kids.”