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Ladue schools choose inside candidate as next superintendent

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2013 - The Ladue School District has reached down into its own administrative ranks and chosen Assistant Superintendent Donna Jahnke as its new superintendent.

Jahnke, who assumes her new role July 1, is currently the district’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. Her new contract is for three years, with a starting salary of $180,400.

She succeeds Marsha Chappelow, who in September said she would be retiring at the end of the school year; then, in November, Chappelow abruptly requested to leave immediately. She was paid her full salary of $190,900, plus benefits, for the balance of the school year, and agreed to be available for the district but had no set duties.

Jahnke has worked in the Ladue schools for 22 years as a teacher, director of community services and principal before becoming an assistant superintendent in 2008. One of two finalists for the top job, she was chosen over Fred Czerwonka, school superintendent in West Plains, Mo. The vote to select her was unanimous, school board president Jayne Langsam said.

Jahnke’s selection was a clear favorite with the standing room only crowd at the cafeteria at Ladue Middle School Tuesday night, which gave her a hooting, hollering standing ovation when her promotion was announced.

“I look forward to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead,” she said in a statement released by the district. “Our teaching staff is exceptional and our leadership team is engaged and solid. Most importantly, our parents are involved and bring to us some of the most remarkable students in the nation.

“I am confident that, together, we can maintain the traditions that have made Ladue schools an excellent school district, while continuously improving to ensure we set the standard for academic excellence.”

Langsam praised Jahnke as “a proven and trusted leader in our district. She has a clear understanding of the needs of our students as well as the expectations of our district.”

Jahnke will take over as Ladue’s fourth superintendent since 2000, after the district had just two people serving in the top job between 1942 and the end of the 20th century. The district has had a spate of bad publicity lately involving misbehaving students. In addition to the turnover in the superintendent’s office, the principal of the district’s high school resigned suddenly late last year, citing philosophical differences with Chappelow and the board.

Those kinds of tensions appeared far from the minds of both the board and the crowd after Jahnke’s appointment was announced. Judy Sclair, who has been acting as superintendent since Chappelow’s departure, praised her successor as “one of the finest educators I’ve known…. She knows how to connect with people, as is evident this evening.”

Board member Sheri Glantz, who led the nationwide search process that led to Jahnke, said she thought the procedures lived up to her goals of being honest, fair and transparent. She also addressed the question of whether the search was sincere or just going through the motions to land on an in-house favorite.

“Any speculation that there was a preconceived notion about who would fill this important position,” she said, “was just that – speculation.”

Believing anything else, Glantz added, would be a discredit to members of the board.

Langsam said that the decision was made after lengthy input from students, staff members, teachers and members of the community, plus “many, many hours of lively discussion.”

In the end, she said, board members “voted with our conscience.”

After the meeting, Langsam elaborated, saying that “we looked at each candidate based on the criteria we had in place. It wasn’t really a question of an inside candidate versus an outside candidate.”

She called Jahnke “the perfect candidate. She’s been in the district for 22 years, she knows the traditions and also knows what needs to be changed.”

So what needs to be changed? Jahnke said in a brief interview that she wants to make sure Ladue maintains its tradition of excellence, “but it’s also important for us always to be looking for what our students need next.”

She acknowledged that the district’s families have high standards and expectations, but they also have a tradition of being supportive of the schools.

“I think that’s one of the things that makes us great,” Jahnke said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.