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Cheney winds down with final days

When West Fargo Superintendent Chuck Cheney looks back at 40 years of service in the West Fargo School District, he doesnt see the highs and lows. After all, its flown by too fast to keep track.

I still feel like I started here just 10 or 15 years ago, Cheney, who will wrap up his career as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent on June 30, said. Its amazing how fast the time has gone.

Cheney started his career at the only School District hes ever been employed with back in 1965, when he was a student teacher at South Elementary, then West Fargos lone elementary school.

He stayed in West Fargo, he said, for two reasons. One, he enjoyed the community. The second reason would motivate him to advance his career as a teacher, and came in the form of an early adviser.

The advice came from Jim Claypool, a principal in the West Fargo School District at that time. Claypool convinced Cheney that he had a future both in West Fargo as a teacher, and later as an administrator. It was a bode of confidence for a young teacher who thought he might go into counseling, and had teaching opportunities presented to him elsewhere.

He was a very big influence on my life, without a doubt, Cheney said. Jim was the kind of guy who attracted people to him. He convinced me that this was a good place to be, and I always remembered that. To this day I tell our administrators around the District that they can have a very strong impact on our young teachers and the way they look at the future.

As a result of their relationship, Claypool entrusted Cheney with a lot of different roles early in his career. Cheney was sent to the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1966, where he first learned about using paraprofessionals in the classroom, a practice still used today.

I went through the course, and he handed me the file and said interview these people and hire four of them. So I was on the panel that hired the first paras in this District. And I was 25, Cheney said with a smile. Jim gave me a lot of opportunities.

As a result of his efforts and exploration into new trends, Cheney was named the Districts Teacher of the Year back in 1967-68.

Cheney went on to receive his masters at the University of North Dakota, and became principal of the Middle School when L.E. Berger retired and Augie Keller took over as superintendent. He would stay there until 1986.

Well, sort of. He took a one-year hiatus in 1976, when he headed back to his hometown to work as a banker. It was an opportunity that, when presented, he couldnt refuse. However, he soon found out it wasnt for him. After just a year away, Cheney longed to be back in the halls of the school he knew in West Fargo. Fortunately, things fell into place where he could come back, as the administrator hired to replace him was not a good fit for the District.

I learned that I had really developed a love for helping lead a team, making progress with them in a building like Berger, and really being a position where people sought my guidance, Cheney said. I felt that at the bank, I lost significance. I like being part of the action. At the bank I was in the background. I was in a spot where I couldnt make things happen. And I just liked the energy of being around the kids and I was frustrated that I couldnt be there, Cheney said.

So, with a little perspective, he returned. He served as the buildings only principal until it moved to the old high school, what is now the Clayton Lodoen Community Center and Public Library. A short time later, he became the Districts assistant superintendent under Marvin Leidal.

Hes a great leader and good friend, Cheney said of Leidal when he announced his retirement back in 1999. Its been an honor to work with him.

With Leidal, Cheney was part of a team that continually served multi-faceted roles. While Leidal led the District, Cheney worked with teachers on curriculum, hired new staff and personnel, and helped guide the District through the leanest years it ever saw financially.

Dean Hall, Marvin and I had served as principals, the only three at the time, so Marvin and I knew the process well, he said of the new role. We knew the buildings well.

Cheney came in at the crescendo of one of the biggest growths spurt any North Dakota school district had ever seen when he took over for Leidal in 1999. By then, West Fargos elementary schools were in need of some help and additional space, the Middle School building had run its course, and there was a glaring space issue at the high school.

Since taking over, he has guided the District through two building projects. While he will most likely be recognized for building the $20 million middle school that now bears his name, it cannot be overlooked that the District did a lot to move the existing buildings into the 21st Century.

If you spend time at Eastwood, its almost like walking into a totally different school, he said. I think its easy to forget about all of the upgrades at the schools. We had great Boards, and we had the trust of the voters when we went to the polls with those issues. That involved a lot more people than just myself. And there will be more building ahead, thats for sure.

Cheney said its easy for a superintendent to possibly get caught up in the capital improvements, but its been a balance to also meet the academic needs of a growing student population. And, with the introduction of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, things took another turn.

It is for that reason that Cheney is spending the final weeks of his tenure doing what he can for the Districts new head, Dr. Dana Diesel Wallace, who takes the reins in July. As students break for the summer, Cheney has been helping with budget issues, curriculum and other aspects of the next school year.

Wed like to have what we can get done nearly completed, with enough room for her to come in and look at it and make changes if she needs, Cheney said. Dana has a lot of experience. She will be able to question how we have done things in the past and might have ideas of how we can do them differently or better.

The District will hold a special retirement ceremony on Thursday afternoon at Cheney Elementary School for their former leader. Seven years after he said he would serve four to six years as the head of the District, Cheney, 62, isnt afraid of the next step. He said he and his wife, Margaret, will have a large presence in West Fargo for years to come.

Well travel, and well spend more time at the lake if we can, he said. But I dont see us moving away from here. Ill still be very interested as to what is going on in the West Fargo School District.

Leading a school system has strengthened Cheneys mind over the years, he said. Now, hes ready to work with his hands.

Ill play golf and do different projects. Youll see me walking or biking around town. Ill be around. Definitely.