The Manhattan School Board hired an interim superintendent to take charge of the district, following the abrupt resignation of former Superintendent Scott Chauvet in mid-June.
Jeff Blessum, 62, of Bozeman, was one of three candidates considered for the interim job, though one dropped out of the running before the school board appointed him on June 27. Blessum told the Belgrade News that he was asked to apply for the job, and the decision to accept was not difficult.
“My answer was pretty simple: God willing, and it all works out,” he said. “There is a group of retired administrators around the state, kind of like Godfrey (Saunders, interim superintendent in Belgrade), who still want to be helpful.”
Since Blessum retired from his last administrative job at Anderson School near Bozeman five years ago, he has put that desire to be helpful to work for the nonprofit School Services of Montana and the School Administrators of Montana, which provides support for new school superintendents around the state.
Dennis Grue, a Manhattan school board member, said the board was impressed by Blessum’s administrative experience. During his 33-year career in Montana schools, Blessum taught for seven years in Highwood, then served as principal of Bigfork Elementary, followed by nine years as the superintendent in Highwood. He was associate principal at a Great Falls middle school, and principal at two Havre elementary schools for
five years, before taking the helm at Anderson for his final five years before retirement.
Blessum holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s in elementary administration, both from Montana State University.
Grue said that the board was familiar with Blessum, because he previously had applied for the Manhattan superintendent job 15 years ago. Blessum said he withdrew from consideration then so that he would be available to assist some relatives with their health struggles, but he finds it remarkable that some of the Manhattan board members are still serving all these years later.
Grue said Chauvet’s resignation came as a surprise to the board, so the search for an interim replacement had to happen fast.
“We liked (Blessum) at that time,” Grue said of the new superintendent’s prior application in the early 2000s. “We’re happy that he was able to take the position.”
Chauvet, who had served as Manhattan superintendent for the past four years, said he chose to resign for a combination of reasons. A native of Big Sandy, he said “there was a need for me to be a little closer to home” to help on the family ranch. He and his wife decided they needed to make the move now for the sake of their three young boys.
“It made sense to move the family now, when (the two oldest) are in eighth and sixth grades, rather than when they are a sophomore and in eighth,” he said
Also for the kids’ sake, Chauvet said the family decided to move to Lewistown rather than Big Sandy, where there is a bigger school and more opportunities for young people. Chauvet said he has accepted a job as development coordinator for Central Montana Workplace. Interviewed Tuesday, just days before his 51st birthday, he said he expects the new challenge to be a “nice change of pace from school administration.
“Being superintendent isn’t the easiest job in the whole, entire world,” he said, citing the rapid growth taking place in the Gallatin Valley and coming up with and implementing new ideas as specific challenges for Manhattan.
“I think when you’re a successful school, it’s easy to not to push yourself or change,” he said. “That’s always going to be a challenge – people are going to have to give.”
Specifically, he pointed to the need for curriculum changes, including expanding elective offerings and taking pressure off core class loads.
“When an English teacher is packing 20-plus kids in a class, that a big load,” he said, adding that the size of the Manhattan district makes it difficult to achieve the correct balance.
“We’re too big for some stuff, and not big enough for others,” he explained.
Asked about the high points of his tenure in Manhattan, Chauvet said he is proud of passing the $19.8 million bond issue in 2018 for school expansion, adding wrestling and softball programs to the school sports lineup, and remaining fiscally responsible to voters while accomplishing upgrades around the district.
“I appreciate the support the community members gave us, especially in terms of building,” he said. “I hope the board and community continue to keep and open mind and keep supporting new programs.”
Blessum agreed that the growth of Manhattan schools does pose significant challenges, but in a good way.
“It’s so much better than the alternative of schools losing students,” he said “This is exciting, but also a little scary.”
He said Manhattan’s school principals are working hard to implement effective strategies that are helping give new staff members “more tools for their toolboxes.”
At the same time, he said, “we need to be sure we’re relevant, with respect to the wishes of the community.
“We need to listen and not move too quickly,” he said.