For the Grand County School District’s next superintendent, a job in Moab gives him the opportunity to pursue two of his greatest interests in life: education and geology.
JT Stroder is the son of a geologist father, and he pursued a degree in the same field before he embarked on a career in education, taking him from school districts in Texas and Idaho to Montana and now Moab. Stroder said that his interest in geology, as well as his frequent trips to Moab since he was a child, were among the factors that drew him to the position.
The Grand County Board of Education voted unanimously on Tuesday, June 6, to hire Stroder for the job. He is set to replace Dr. Scott Crane, who is leaving Moab after five years to work as the executive director of the Southeast Education Service Center in Price.
Stroder, who currently serves as the Gardiner Public Schools superintendent in Montana, told the Moab Sun News that he expects to begin his new job as early as July 3.
His three children will be attending the district’s schools, and he said his family is excited that they will be involved in community activities.
Stroder won’t be coming to the job with a fixed agenda in mind, and he said he plans to hear what others have to say, while helping the district implement a strategic plan that fits the community.
“As a younger administrator, I probably came in with a lot of ideas about what to do or what to change, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to listen more,” he said.
Stroder said his educational philosophy is rooted in the belief that each student is a unique individual.
“They have a soul, a purpose and an eternal destiny, and it’s our job to make sure they achieve that special purpose,” he said.
The district’s board chose Stroder from a field of nine applicants following a comprehensive review process.
Grand County Board of Education member Peggy Nissen said the board interviewed many qualified applicants, and all of them had great things to offer the district. Stroder stood out, she said, because he served as a superintendent in three very different places and will bring a fresh perspective to the Grand County district.
“Everyone we spoke with – and there were many, from all aspects of the district – said he had moved their district forward, always keeping the best interest of all students in mind,” Nissen said.
Grand County Board of Education member Beth Joseph said that by all accounts, Stroder has a solid track record of fair, collaborative, inclusive and steady leadership.
Board member Jim Webster said that Stroder’s work with students who have special challenges is especially noteworthy.
“JT has been leading an academically high achieving school district, which was made possible by ensuring success for all of its students,” Webster said.
Grand County Board of Education President Melissa Byrd called Stroder a “great addition” to the district’s team.
“He is calm, steady and supportive,” Byrd said. “He is an experienced superintendent and will support both certified and classified staff.”
Stroder was raised on a cattle ranch in Texas.
He obtained his associate’s degree in 1988 and briefly worked for a seismic processing firm in Dallas before he enrolled in classes at Baylor University, with the aim of getting a bachelor’s degree in geology. However, his plans changed when an opportunity arose to teach a group of at-risk students through his local church.
“I fell in love with the teaching-learning process,” Stroder said. “When I would see them grab onto an idea and get excited about it, I knew that I wanted to devote my career to education.”
He soon switched majors, and in 1998, he received his bachelor’s degree in secondary education from Baylor.
“I knew at that point that education was my calling and life’s work,” he said.
He later helped design and develop the Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program in Texas, and then returned to school to obtain a master’s of science degree in educational administration.
As a superintendent, he’s worked for the Camas County School District in Fairfield, Idaho, which received the U.S. Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon Award for “Dramatic Academic Growth” in November 2009.
In addition, he led the Ingram Independent School District in Texas. During his time there, the district received a Gold Leadership Circle award for financial transparency. That district was also removed from a watch list it was placed on for mismanagement of funds before he became its top administrator.
Most recently, Stroder guided Gardiner Public Schools through a challenging time when that 200-student district was at risk of losing funds for one-fifth of its students.
The funding went to schools that educated children of Yellowstone National Park employees who lived on the southern side of the Montana-Wyoming state line.
According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the U.S. Interior Department mistakenly sent money to the schools for almost four decades until officials learned that the funding authorization had expired in the 1970s. After the error was discovered in 2014, the Interior Department not only stopped the payments, but asked the district for at least $7 million in compensation.
During that time, the district was exploring the possibility of combining administrative positions, so Stroder said he began looking elsewhere for work. But he ultimately held on, and the State of Wyoming came forward with funding to help the students. Today, Stroder said, the district’s fiscal health is significantly better than it was just three years ago.
“We’ve navigated through that and really have the district on solid financial ground right now,” he said.
Its academic performance is also noteworthy: For four of the last five years, Stroder noted that Gardiner has been ranked as the top school district in Montana.
As he prepares to pack his bags and hit the road, Stroder sees at least one commonality between his current and future homes: Like Gardiner, Moab is struggling with housing issues for district employees and the community as a whole.
“That’s certainly something that Moab is going to have to tackle in the next couple years,” he said.
JT Stroder to begin work in July