Ames Community School District superintendent Jenny Risner resigns

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

The superintendent of the Ames Community School District has resigned, after having led the district through one of the tumultuous and transformational years in its history.

The district announced Friday that the Ames school board had accepted Superintendent Jenny Risner's resignation that morning. 

A joint statement from Risner and the school board described that she and the board had reached an agreement whereby she would resign at the end of the current fiscal year, June 30, 2021. 

Risner, who was hired in 2018, had two years remaining on a three-year contract extension agreed to last year. She intends to pursue "other professional opportunities," according to Friday's joint statement.

The statement added: "The Ames School Board expresses its sincere thanks and deepest gratitude to Superintendent Risner for her tireless work and leadership through what has been one of the most difficult years any of us have faced in public education.

Superintendent Jenny Risner

"Superintendent Risner never lost sight of students’ needs and how the District could best serve its students, especially those students who are most vulnerable to the challenges they are facing in these times. The School Board wishes Superintendent Risner the very best."

The board will immediately begin recruiting for a new superintendent.

Risner's background, the challenges of the 2020-21 school year, and her commitment to equity

Risner came to Ames from the Ocean Beach School District in Long Beach, Washington, where she had been superintendent for four years, as part of what at the time was a more than 20-year career in education.

She was hired in Ames by a 5-2 vote of the school board to replace retiring superintendent Tim Taylor, and, according to the district, was selected out of a pool of 69 applicants after two rounds of interviews.

Every school superintendent in the state and in the country had to deal with an unprecedented 2020-21 year, given the COVID-19 pandemic and its disruptions to schools that started in the spring of the 2019-20 school year and continued, and Risner was no exception.

Ames students started the current school year online and were primarily in a hybrid or fully remote model until the school board voted in December to move elementary students back to in-person learning in January, followed by making the same decision in January for middle and high school students to return in February.

In addition to the changing learning models, it’s been a school year of ever-evolving health guidelines, evolving forms of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, efforts to vaccinate staff and more recently students, and dealing with an Iowa Legislature and governor that debated and sometimes imposed restrictions on school districts’ authority, from learning models to mask-wearing.

More on the state's decision on masks:

The district will continue to face challenges going forward when it comes to helping students regain the academic ground lost since the pandemic started.

Ames schools were part of the ongoing national examination of and reckoning with racism that took on greater momentum in the past year after the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.

While efforts to address equity and inclusion in Ames schools began before Risner's arrival, she recently told EducationWeek that she had received emails from white alumni who told her that while "proud of the education they'd received, they wished that they had learned more about American racism."

Risner said, “Those letters were really powerful to me in knowing that our white students are not getting what they need. They’re not gaining the understanding of valuing diversity and differences. And it’s simply because we haven’t exposed them to it."

The district had a Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action in February to affirm Black students and all their identities and teach them and other students about Black experiences beyond slavery.

More on Ames' Black Lives Matter week:

The efforts attracted a huge amount of attention, including from the Iowa Legislature. 

Risner was among the district leaders who testified about the week before the House Government Oversight Committee, where some lawmakers delivered intense criticism.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, at one point in the hearing accused the district of "indoctrinating kids with this garbage," and said some lessons were "an egregious abuse of your power, an abhorrent use of resources.”

More:Ames school leaders defend Black Lives Matter week; one Iowa lawmaker called it an 'abuse of power'

Risner said, "We’re not here today saying that everything went perfectly," adding that how materials were posted was confusing for parents and more time could have been given for people to review and comment on materials.

She later told the League of Women Voters of Ames and Story County in April that “I don’t know that we really were given an opportunity to show our work” at the House hearing.

Details of the agreement on Risner's departure

Starting with the current school year and through June 30, 2023, Risner was to be paid a salary of $207,937 a year. She was also allowed $1,700 a year in addition to her salary as reimbursement for the use of her personal vehicle for official school business, and benefits including vacation time and sick leave.

As part of the agreement on her resignation, Risner will receive around July 31 from the district more than $29,000, less any withholdings, for unused vacation, personal and other paid leave days, and there will be no payout of sick or other paid leave days after her resignation.

More substantially, she will at around the same date receive $120,403, less any withholdings for taxes, and will be paid another $120,403, with the same stipulations, around Jan. 31, 2022.

The district and board will also provide her with a "positive letter of reference describing her accomplishments and those of the District during her tenure as superintendent."

What comes next after Risner's resignation?

Parents, community leaders and students had all sorts of reactions to district decisions over the past year.

One student out of the district's more than 4,800, Adam Wolf — a graduating Ames High School senior who described himself as active with following school board meetings and district decisions, even before the pandemic — said while he did not agree with every decision made, he credited Risner with having made tough decisions.

Wolf said “everyone was put in a position they didn’t want to be in," given a difficult year that often offered very little information to go on.

"Obviously, I wish her well, and I hope that the next phase of her life suits her well," he said of Risner.

Wolf, headed to Iowa State University, has two younger siblings — one still in high school in the district and another who will be at Ames Middle School next year. He wants to see the next superintendent be someone who especially has an interest in guiding the construction of the new high school to a successful opening, including by giving staff the support they need. He added that a superintendent should also build partnerships in the community.

Wolf also wants more of an "academic focus" in the district. He said while school culture and climate are important, he wants to see a superintendent make plans for students to be in a position to succeed in the classroom and graduate.

District spokesperson Eric Smidt said Friday that a new superintendent will need to be in place starting July 1.

The district did not immediately comment on whether an interim superintendent would be employed if no one could be found in time, or if an outside company would be used in the search as other area districts have recently done.

Gilbert will have new superintendent too:New Gilbert superintendent wants to hear from community on COVID-era needs, insights

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.