When Mark Brajcich became Red Lodge Schools Superintendent 15 years ago the high school students were sharing a 37-year-old building with K-4 while the 5th-8th graders where housed in the 1920s Roosevelt School. And in keeping with the past, the school mascot was the very un-PC Redskins.
By the time Brajcich plans to retire this coming June he will leave behind a Red Lodge glowing with a new up-to-date, technology friendly high school; the K-8 sharing one school building; a very kid centric philosophy, and a mascot with the more PC name of the Rams.
All these changes were just part of a giant laundry list given to Brajcich when he first became superintendent, that included improving management, controlling budgets, and minding the store for the district’s most precious commodity, the student’s and their future.
“It’s been a great ride, with a lot of work done on the curriculum and policy, and obviously the building projects,” said Brajcich.
It is however seeing the students’ graduate that Brajcich feels is the most rewarding.
“The highlights are getting kids’ achievement levels higher than average statewide and national scores. It’s all about student achievement. The best part of my job is graduation, those kids getting across the stage. Sometimes I don’t know if they will but the commitment from the staff to help them do their personal best, that is my ultimate achievement,” he said.
Keeping the school system and its staff kid centered is essential he feels.
“The most important thing is the environment the kids are learning in, over time we’ve done a fairly decent job,” he said.
When Brajcich got here the board set a fair amount of goals for him, ranging from academic textbooks to facilities that hadn’t been maintained, to extracurricular.
“ I t was very muc h directed by the board and those goals, for years, and it is the solid direction we continued to follow,” Brajcich added.
Brajcich, whose term of 15 years surpasses the average limits by most superintendents 3 to1, is wise to some of those original goals becoming “stale” over time.
“It is one reason we did the staff and parents survey this past fall to get input for more current goals to be defined. This is a huge opportunity for the person going to follow me to sit down with the current board and define the goals to take the district further along,” he said.
Brajcich has always been an advocate that “you’ve got to have a fire in your belly and you’ve got to enjoy it and run hard while doing it.”
“Once you’ve run as hard as you can and you see an opportunity for somebody else to do a different job, or approach it in a different way, an educator's obligation is to step back and let them carry that torch,” he said.
Brajcich’s efforts have also been amply rewarded in comments from others who have worked closely with him.
John Elsberry, one of the original board members who hired Brajcich, said his experience of working with Brajcich had been “incredibly rewarding.”
“He ’ l l b e ha r d t o replace, he put kids first, and never hid from a controversial issue or failed to address an issue,” he said. “He is exceptional with management and money, kept us informed about everything including changes in law and conducted an exceptional management of the school building, going above and beyond with his knowledge of construction. He is as good as it gets.”
Doug Mann, Red Lodge Elementary School principal, described Brajcich as a “great guy.” “I’ve probably worked with 5-6 superintendents in my time and he is the best by far. He goes above and beyond. Mostly he is student centered and fair and straightforward. Another aspect is his sense of humor. We have Central Leadership meetings and they are always fun. It’s rare to call your boss their friend,” said Mann.
John Fitzgerald, Red Lodge middle school principal, talked of Brajcich’s knowledge of administration and his ability to listen and to run a “tight ship” but give free rein and flexibility to his staff. “I don’t think I’ve seen any body better with people than Mark. He’s a tremendous boss to work for, very open to working with others and communicates extremely well with us as administration. I couldn’t be happier to have him as a boss and mentor."
“He gives us the autonomy as long as it is in the best interests of the kids. And I think Mark has always been a kids’ first super. We are going to miss him. There is not a better person to lead the district in the right direction,” said Fitzgerald.
Steve Haman, Trustee Red Lodge School District, called Brajcich a “phenomenal leader who has been an outstanding asset to the district and our community.”
“He will be greatly missed. We would like to thank him for his many years of exceptional service and his dedication to our students, teachers and staff and although we are sad to see him retire, we understand his desire to pursue other interests after such a long and distinguished career in our district.”
“While he will be difficult to replace, Mark’s leadership, dedication and hard work have established Red lodge School District as one of the finest school districts in the state with a very bright future.”
Moving forward said Haman, the board would begin the process of finding Brajcich’s replacement.
“The hiring of a school superintendent is one of, if not, the most important decision any board will make,“ he said.
“Having a superintendent who is student centered and is excited about taking a great school system, a phenomenal foundation built by Mark and his staff, and moving that forward in new and exciting ways, will be things, I think, what we’re going to be looking for.” While the board has not formalized the process nor established timelines yet, confirmed Haman, “we are committed to involving parents, students, teachers, staff and community members throughout the selection process and we look forward to and value their input.”
“Where do I begin?’ was Red Lodge High School principal Rex Ternan’s immediate thought on the news of Brajcich retiring.
“It has been a privilege to work for someone like Mark. He has such a holistic view of education. He has a good pulse on the entire district from personnel to budget issues. School finance is very complicated and I’ve learnt so much from his knowledge and he has the ability to explain it to people; the mill levies and all the formulas,” said Ternan.
“He always has your back, is always running to walk alongside you and not pass the buck. That is a rare commodity any more. In my 16 years, I’ve worked 15 with him. I can’t believe where the district was. We were kind of a challenge, struggling with upgrades and things on the wayside for years," said Ternan. “I guess the commitment to recogni z ing that kids deserve better has been a journey: convincing the community that they did deserve better, creating that awareness and going into the facilities' needs surveys and assessments of our facilities and what are our options. We are now sitting in one of the nicest schools in the state, with beautiful athletic facilities and more opportunities for kids.”
“What stands out the most is his absolute brutal honesty. It builds trust in the board and the community and that’s hard to do that sometimes. You always know you’ll get the straight line with him and it’s unique how he can present it without getting people upset,” he said.
Ternan alluded to the c o n t r o v e r s i a l ma s c o t change; suggesting the stress of altering a decades old name would have driven other superintendents out of town.
“He had an eloquent way of standing firm. A way of balancing that,” recalls Ternan.
Ternan also talked of Brajcich’s way of breaking down the wall between bosses and workers.
“It is unique to be a friend, a cohort and be involved in this thing called school administration. I admire him as a man, a leader and where we’ve come in this journey in Red Lodge. This business is always changing, when you think you’ve got it figured out, you have a whole set of different students, parents, issues and I guess having someone like him with knowledge, experience and wisdom keeps us navigating in the right direction,” said Ternan.
“I’m going to miss the heck out of him,” he said.
Brajcich with 29 years in education, 25 as a superintendent and 4 as a principal, feels he is leaving Red Lodge on a high.
“I’m a true believer that education needs to be competitive. You can’t sit back, you have to put out a product that is very good and catches the eye of parents. I’m a believer that parents should be able to send kids wherever they want, and we’ve managed to keep the district enrollment up, maintain a good strong curriculum and have the technology resources at the new school, and that is a real cre
dit to the community. It takes money and the community has supported us,” said Brajcich. Brajcich’s June date is a “little daunting” to him. “I’ve no idea what I will do,” he said. “I think it is the right thing to do, the district has been incredible to me and my family. It will pull at the heart strings this September when the students come back.”