The South Summit School District recently announced that a former Murray City superintendent with 38 years of education experience would lead the district on an interim basis when current Superintendent Shad Sorenson steps down at the first of the year.
Steve Hirase will step in as interim superintendent at a precarious time in the academic calendar for a district that has recently seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases and faces overcrowding and teacher retention issues. It has twice in the last four years unsuccessfully asked voters to bond to build new school facilities.
Sorenson is pursuing a position with another district, and a district spokesperson did not provide further details.
Superintendents are tasked with seeing that the district’s education goals are met and work collaboratively to make decisions on issues ranging from snow days to staffing. But this year amid the pandemic, superintendents of the three districts in Summit County have met regularly with the county’s health director and work in close consultation to determine how to protect their classrooms from COVID-19 and when and if to close a school to prevent the spread of the virus.
In a recent interview, Hirase said his preference is to keep students learning in person for as long as possible, adding that he’s learned that schools seem to be the safest place for students. He acknowledged the disproportionate price that some older teachers and staff members might pay if they contract the virus, and he mentioned the burden that moving to remote learning puts on some families, especially those with younger children.
“Any decision like that, I would never make in isolation,” he said. “Certainly there would be a lot of conversations with the school board. There would be a lot of discussion prior to those discussions with the school board, with my admins as well as with the teachers, as well as with the classified folks because they’re all impacted.”
And Hirase, 65, acknowledges that his outsider status means he’ll have to earn the community’s trust.
“Members of community don’t know me, they don’t know if they can trust my decisions,” Hirase said.
Hirase said the timing of the transition makes his experience particularly important, as he’ll take over when the district will face budget season, contract negotiations and the beginning of a hiring push. He said his decades of experience should help those administrative processes.
He mentioned the importance of transparency, saying that it sets the stage for productive negotiations with teachers unions, as well as with community members when discussing the district’s needs in the context of bonding to pay for new schools.
Hirase spent three decades in the Murray City School District, he said, retiring 3 1/2 years ago as its superintendent. He also held positions in the Jordan School District and was the first principal of the Utah State Prison school, South Park Academy.
Hirase lives in Riverton and said he has long loved the Kamas Valley, where he’d stop during backpacking, camping and fishing trips in the Uinta Mountains — though he said he did more backpacking in his younger days.
He said he was the first person in his family to receive a college degree and was the first Japanese-American to be named a superintendent in Utah.
He originally pursued a career in civil engineering but was turned off with the competitiveness among peers who shunned collaboration and viewed classmates as future competitors for jobs.
When a friend asked if he’d help volunteer with schoolchildren, it inspired a new career path. He remembered the welcome feeling of working collaboratively with other adults for the betterment of students.
“Long term I probably wouldn’t be in a position where I’d be making as much money,” he recalled thinking at the time. “(But) there was a lot to being happy with what you’re doing.”
Hirase said he took the South Summit job on an interim basis, but did not rule out applying for the full-time position. He said he and his wife had looked forward to traveling after he retired, but he’s been busy in various volunteer positions, including as a trustee with Intermountain Healthcare and as a commissioner with the Utah Parent Teacher Association.
He said he’s long wanted to work in a smaller school district where the schools become community centers and a superintendent can become enmeshed with the community.
Sorenson submitted his resignation in October, according to a prepared statement. It was less than a year after the district’s latest bond measure failed by 103 votes. Sorenson joined the district in 2014.
In the release, the outgoing superintendent touted Hirase’s experience, especially in the realm of special education, and said the transition would enable the district to reexamine the services it provides.
“Superintendent Hirase is an amazing and experienced leader. He has compassion and his expertise will be valuable in assisting to onboard new board members, assist in the legislative and budgeting process, and effectively manage a unique year during a pandemic,” Sorenson said.
Hirase was unanimously selected by the South Summit Board of Education, according to the statement, and the interim term will last through the spring. He will help the district transition to a permanent superintendent who officials are hoping will be in place by July 1.
Hirase seemed energized by the prospect of leading a district, even if it is for a short stint.
Recalling his days leading a program to educate inmates, Hirase called education an equalizer.
“I think everybody really deep down values education, and I know, not only from working at the prison, and just in my own life, I know that almost anything is possible for anybody through education.”
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