‘It’s been a very fulfilling career,” USC superintendent says ahead of retirement

Published 2:43 pm Thursday, April 27, 2023

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Keith Fleming, superintendent of United South Central Schools, is a little more than two months away from retirement.

But people within the district knew about his decision over a year ago after he informed the United South Central School board. Not wanting to leave them scrambling to find a replacement, he agreed to stay on for an additional year, which in turn gave the board time to find a replacement.

“It’s been a very fulfilling career — 27 years in school administration,” he said. “I’m ready to move on.”

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While he’s content with his decision, he admitted he enjoyed his conversations with staff and said he would miss those.

At the same time, he’s relieved about not having the responsibility of the entire district, something he described as a 24/7 job and admitted it was an adjustment when he first took over.

“I had a pretty good idea of what a superintendent in a district this size would do simply because at the previous district I was the high school principal,” he said, referring to his time at Southland Senior High School in Adams. “I had a working relationship with that superintendent where I knew exactly what the position involved.”

But it was still an adjustment.

Fleming was most proud of his guidance of the district through the pandemic, and said he felt he kept staff morale up.

“To have to deal with all those issues and still maintain that collegial, cooperative relationship with the staff here throughout all that, I’m very proud of how it’s all turned out,” he said.

According to Fleming, there wasn’t much contention among district employees and said staff worked to find common goals.

On the other hand, he acknowledged there had been disagreements on staffing and its configuration. There was also a labor shortage, especially paraprofessionals, coaches, special education teachers and bus drivers. Exacerbating the issue, the candidate pool for teachers and staff has also shrunk since he started, and said back in 2017 the district could have received 15 to 20 applications for an elementary position. Now he said the district received six or seven for an elementary position at most.

“Some positions you’re happy to have one that the person is actually licensed for,” he said, admitting without the alternative licensing option available through the Department of Education he wasn’t sure if the district could fill all of its positions. He was hopeful staffing issues would get better, but said realistically the situation wasn’t likely to improve much, especially as the district competed against bigger schools.

One big surprise in taking over was adjusting to becoming the district’s final decision-maker, especially as it pertained to day-to-day operations

But serving as superintendent has helped him build his confidence and shown him he was capable of handling a high amount of responsibility, and said when he started his career in education he didn’t know if he’d ever serve in a superintendent role.

Moving forward, Fleming wanted to ease into retirement. He and his wife, Kelly, enjoy traveling, and the couple plan to move closer to the Twin Cities to be closer to his daughters. Fleming also enjoys exercising.

Deb Lackey serves as an administrative assistant and had known Fleming would retire for a while.

“He’s been a good boss,” she said.

She also wished him the best in his retirement.

Kathryn Johnson is payroll coordinator and has known Fleming all seven years he served at USC.

“I’ve seen a lot of growth in him from when he first started,” she said. “Just how he is, understanding of the whole school finance and payroll.”

She also wished him enjoyment in his future travel plans.

Stacie Whiteside, finance manager for the district and a person who worked with Fleming throughout his tenure at USC, said she wasn’t surprised when Fleming announced his retirement decision.

“I just wish him best of luck on his retirement,” she said. “I hope he enjoys his time.”

Fleming said he enjoyed working with his team and getting to know them personally, something he admitted he’ll miss.

His last day at the district is June 30, with Taylor Topinka set to take over the next day. Topinka is currently sixth- through 12th-grade principal at Granada-Huntley-East Chain in Granada.

Prior to serving at USC, Fleming was principal at Southland High School in Adams, a role he described as akin to being a middle manager.

“That district is real similar to this district,” he said. “A rural district — several communities associated with that district.”

Before retiring, he encouraged Topinka to take time and build relationships with his administrative team and the board, describing the superintendent’s relationship with the board as “vital.”

“This is a great district and I know they’re doing great things for students, and I just wish them the best,” he said.