When the superintendent announced that she wanted to retire, many parents thought they knew who the school board would pick to replace her.
The principal who had been with the district for eight years, and who in that time had worked in each of its three schools, was the natural choice, according to Sarah James, the president of the parent-teacher organization in Belleville’s Harmony-Emge School District 175.
The agenda for the school board’s July 30 meeting included Superintendent Pam Leonard’s intention to retire and a contract for a new district leader.
Board members discussed the position behind closed doors but didn’t make a decision. They were weighing the options of either promoting the principal, Dave Deets, or starting a search to find candidates outside the district.
James, the PTO president, said she and other parents wrote letters to the board after that to say that it should choose Deets. Some attended the board’s next meeting, three days later on Aug. 2.
“Nobody had any doubts that he was going to get the job, and then when it turned out that he might not, that the board might open up the search for someone new, everyone I knew kind of jumped in to see how they could throw support in his direction,” James said.
Ultimately at that August meeting, the board picked Deets, who said he respects board members for taking their time with the decision.
“I’m thankful they gave me the opportunity to prove that I’m ready,” Deets said.
Rachael Liebmann, a district parent and Belleville business owner, said she attended the meeting along with at least six others who spoke out against a superintendent search.
“Why would we invite a stranger to our school, who does not have the experience with our families and the staff?” Liebmann told the board.
School board members couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, but Liebmann said she thought they took community members’ opinions into account.
“I feel like our school board really listened to us,” she said.
Deets described the amount of support he received in the days between those two school board meetings as “almost overwhelming.”
“It was very touching that I had a lot of letters from community members, from PTO, from teachers and staff that were wishing me well but also were sent to the board in my support,” Deets said. “And that really meant a lot.
“So I would say to the community who has believed in me and trusted in me for the past eight years that I’m going to continue working my absolute hardest to continue that confidence in me and to keep our district moving forward.”
Deets will take over for Superintendent Leonard after she retires Aug. 30.
Meet Dave Deets
Deets, 38, grew up in Belleville. His dad and uncle were both educators, so he would hear about the profession in conversations on holidays every year.
He said he has known since college that he eventually wanted to become a school administrator.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I could be the right person for the job,” Deets said. “I think it’s too important when you can have an impact on a building level and or a district level. That challenge excites me. It’s very rewarding.
“There’s some days where you wonder why, but when you look at the kids in the building and the teachers, you know why. You know, ‘It’s because I love what I do.’”
Deets’ first job in education was teaching world geography and U.S. history to seventh- and eighth-graders in O’Fallon at Fulton Junior High School. He worked there for five years before becoming principal at Marissa Elementary School.
He returned to Belleville in 2010 when he took a job as principal at Ellis Elementary School in Harmony District 175. Deets also has experience as principal at District 175’s Harmony Intermediate School and, most recently, at Emge Junior High School.
John Griffith is taking over for Deets as principal at Emge Junior High. Griffith had been the assistant principal at Harmony Intermediate.
Sarah James, who said she has volunteered in Harmony schools for the last 14 years, described Deets as “deeply involved” in the district.
She said he makes appearances in school plays; he was the voice of the wizard in last year’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.”
He was willing to kiss a frog and let kids tape him to a wall to encourage the students to participate in school fundraisers, according to James. She said her daughter, Wini, 13, has raised $13,000 for the American Heart Association through the district since kindergarten.
“Part of her raising money is to make Mr. Deets proud of her,” James said.
Rachael Liebmann, who has also volunteered with the PTO, said that after Deets finished the specialist degree he needed to become a superintendent, parents asked him to hold out until Leonard retired rather than taking a job in another district.
“Everybody just assumed that’s the way it would go,” Liebmann said.
Last year, Deets took on a new responsibility as curriculum coordinator for the district. He and a team of teachers made a recommendation to the superintendent about which science textbooks and materials the district should buy.
Representatives from different textbook companies gave pitches for their curriculum. Then, teachers tried out those textbooks in different lessons, looking at student engagement, opportunities for kids to use technology and results. They gave students a test before and after using the new material to see if their understanding of science concepts improved.
In the coming school year, Deets said they plan to repeat the process with the district’s English and language arts curriculum.
Teachers will also be meeting every week to analyze data on their students’ academic performance and share what’s working in their classrooms with their colleagues. According to a letter Leonard sent to parents in the spring, students will start leaving an hour early on Wednesdays to give teachers time to meet.
What won’t change in the new school year are the programs that the district created with feedback from the community, including award-winning lessons on character and an accelerated program for students considered gifted, according to Deets.
Leonard said the national award for character education, in particular, is a district achievement she’s proud of from her tenure.
After 11 years with District 175, Leonard said she plans to move into the private sector in her retirement.
“I’m sad to leave all the friends and colleagues here, excited to take a look at the next chapter in my life,” Leonard said. “… It has just been such a pleasure serving the community and being a part of a community that really cares.”
Deets said his dad, David, and his uncle, Jed, were especially proud when he told them about his promotion to superintendent. David Deets is a superintendent in Missouri, and Jed Deets is a former St. Clair County regional superintendent.
Harmony-Emge School District 175 has more than 800 students and almost 50 teachers.
As the district’s new leader, Deets’ salary will be $104,000.
At a glance
▪ Name: Dave Deets
▪ Age: 38
▪ Education: Bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville; master’s degree from McKendree University; specialist degree from SIUE
▪ Experience: Five years as Fulton Junior High School history teacher; two years as Marissa Elementary School principal; seven years as Ellis Elementary School principal; three years as Harmony Intermediate School principal; one year as Emge Junior High School principal
▪ Family: Wife Ashleigh and three sons: Tyler, 15; Jack, 10; and Luke, 5