Godfrey Saunders, who has served as interim superintendent of Belgrade schools since June 2018, will remain on the job for another three years after his current contract expires in June.

Belgrade School Board trustees voted 6-0 Monday night to approve a three-year employment contract for Saunders, which will go into effect July 1 and expire on June 30, 2023. Saunders will earn an annual salary of $160,000, an increase of $20,000 per year over his current fiscal year contract.

While working under the interim contracts, Saunders remained on retirement status with the Montana Teachers’ Retirement System, allowing him to collect TRS benefits. He said he will come out of retirement when the new contract goes into effect.

Saunders, who served as principal of Bozeman High School for 12 years before he retired in 2009, agreed in 2018 to serve as Belgrade’s interim superintendent for one year at a salary of $132,000. Last spring, the School Board offered him another year-long contract and an $8,000 raise to stay on the job through June 2020.

Saunders, 66, said Wednesday that what started out as an interim gig has now turned into a labor of love he didn’t anticipate.

“I came in thinking I’d go in and give it my best shot – that’s what educators do,” he said. “You don’t think about the love that you develop for a community and a school district going in, but you become committed to the needs and welfare of a district.”

Trustee Dee Batey said the school board chose not to search for additional superintendent candidates because Saunders has “proven himself” over the past year and a half.

“We are thrilled about him deciding to come out of retirement, and so is the staff and the community – everyone is excited about it,” Batey said Wednesday.

Calling Saunders “a phenomenal leader,” Batey credited him for last year’s passage of a $48 million bond issue to finance construction of a new elementary school, expansion of Saddle Peak Elementary, and the purchase of property south of Interstate 90 for a new elementary and middle school.

Batey said the next priority for the board will be to pass an operational mill levy to cover expenses for the rapidly growing school district, and he believes Saunders can help persuade voters of its necessity. Belgrade voters have approved only two levies in the past 11 years – one in 2008, and the other in 2015.

“It’s so important to continue to educate these kids,” Batey said. “Godfrey’s a really good communicator, and he can explain it.”

Saunders said he believes the relationship between the school district and the community has improved during his 18-months in the position.

“When I first arrived, there was this issue of trust in the community,” he said. “We’ve been working on transparency and bringing the community more to the district and the schools themselves.”

Batey described Saunders as “a good, honest person” who has the skills to instill public confidence.

Saunders said he is looking forward to finishing numerous district initiatives that are in process, such as installing a resource officer at the high school, continuing to improve student academic performance, and completing business/school district partnerships aimed at qualifying students for real-world jobs.

“I feel truly blessed to have the opportunity to serve the district and community for another three years,” he said