After 44 years with the Diagonal School District, Superintendent Karleen Stephens was waiting to hand off the torch until the right person came along.
That person came in the form of her former student, Larry McNutt.
Officially retired as of December, Stephens has handed the torch to McNutt, who is serving as athletic director, elementary principal and superintendent.
“She was my fifth grade teacher so I’ve known Karleen my whole life,” McNutt said. “When I student-taught here she was superintendent and elementary principal.”
While half of her career was spent as superintendent, Stephens knew from a young age she wanted to be an elementary teacher. “I would have been content,” she said. “I always missed it.”
Stephens only taught one year outside the Diagonal School District. Then after teaching elementary for many years, she assumed the role of principal. Again, she would have been content, but after a number of short-term superintendents, the district was looking for someone long-term.
Most of her time as superintendent was shared with her role of elementary principal. “Being superintendent is more budget, paperwork, hiring — working more with adults,” Stephens said. “How I charged my battery was to get in the classroom.”
McNutt said Stephens was a valuable mentor. “She’s just great to work with, she lets people do their jobs. I could make decisions without her looking over my shoulder,” he said. “She was really good at what’s good for kids and what’s good for the school.”
After 22 years as superintendent, it was important for Stephens to have a replacement dedicated to providing long-term support for the school.
“I was kind of waiting for someone like him to come along,” Stephens said of McNutt. “I just turned 68, and it’s an exhausting job. I wanted to turn it over to someone who cared.”
McNutt began in education in 1998. “Twenty years ago I would have laughed at you if you said I would be a school administrator,” he said. “Seven years ago I was teaching special ed at Creston, and I had a few principals over the years mention it to me. I coached basketball for many years, and there’s many leadership things you do in coaching that translate over.”
In 2018, McNutt had his first opportunity in administration — becoming the preschool through 12th grade special education director and program specialist in Creston.
It was from there he became Diagonal’s K-12 principal, overseeing the 100 students.
“It just worked out perfect. I told him I’d help him any way I could,” Stephens said. “I’ve just had the best career. I’m so so appreciative of just the community support I’ve received, the staff support.”
One of her fondest memories will be the school boards that have supported her over the years. She recalls when the first female board member was elected, to raised eyebrows, and yet she also remembers the years of having an all-female board.
“I attribute much of our success in a K-12 to our board and a community that doesn’t harp on it,” she said.
As McNutt navigates the early days of handling three administrative roles, the district is looking at options to lighten the load.
“We’re in the process of advertising a grade 6-12 principal,” McNutt said. “Maybe we’ll hire a K-12 principal like I was and go from there. I foresee hiring an athletic director down the road someday.”
Stephens said the best way to describe how she feels is relieved. “I’m very relieved someone came along and going to stay awhile,” she added. “He was always just a super nice kid. He was a hard worker, volunteered, coached a lot and always liked working with kids. I know he’ll do a good job.”