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New superintendent braces for 'New Year's Day'

Tucked into her office in the Leidal Education Center, Dana Diesel Wallace has had a whopping 27 days to prepare for the month of August. This month, after all, is the month when all focus changes from vacation back to preparation, as the imminent arrival of students means new life and a new school year.

"It's what we all look forward to," Wallace said with a smile. "It's been pretty quiet. But you do what you do in the summer and then the kids come back and it's like New Year's Day. It's a celebration. There's no one in this business that will deny that everything we do is directed toward having the kids there at school. That's what it's all about. So it will be a great day."

That day will be Thursday, Aug. 24. It will be just 60 days after Wallace officially earned the title of Superintendent of West Fargo Schools. She's had even fewer actual work days to prepare. Yet, she's ready to kick the year off in style.

"I'm just impressed with the people here," she said. "From the very start, during the interview process, what impressed me was the people here and their commitment. That's what it is with any job, is the people. There are other considerations, of course, but fundamentally it comes down to who you're working with. And the administration has such a can-do attitude here. It's very exciting."

Wallace, who came here from North Carolina, has been somewhat of a world traveler. A former photographer, Wallace didn't receive her bachelor's degree until she was 31. Yet, when the passion for education took hold, it never let up. She's worked through the ranks as a teacher, a vice-principal, a principal and most recently as a member of the central office in Raleigh in charge of that district's middle school education.

Her commitment to education was found in her fondness for athletics. Wallace, who said she played several sports throughout her school career, was someone who loved to coach. Her first job in education was teaching health and physical education and coaching a new swimming team.

"I've always been involved in athletics," she said. "I've loved all the jobs that I've had. But there's something about being there with the kids. When you work from a central office, you kind of miss that."

That's why, on Day One of the 2006-2007 school year, Wallace will be in the halls at area schools, mingling with the kids. She has the day blocked out on her calendar. No appointments, no calls. She'll be out of the office all day.

"I hope the administrators don't mind," she said. "I'll just kind of mix in, stay out of the way. But that first day has such a great feeling to it."

That's not to say she doesn't face a year that calls for entirely smooth sailing. The State Legislature will meet in January, and education funding will be the primary issue on the agenda. Some people are calling for big changes, while others are still expecting large schools like West Fargo to foot their own bill through local taxes.

"Obviously, if something happens, you just have to kind of deal with it," Wallace said. "It's interesting, as an outsider, because you talk to different people and almost everyone has somewhat of a different take on things. It would be helpful to have a new formula that moves us toward equity."

It's also the final school year for the West Fargo Education Association's two-year agreement with the School District, meaning the two sides will be set up for negotiations this spring.

"You always have to take things that come out of the Legislative session into consideration when you meet at the table, and this year will be no different, ultimately. If we have a different formula, then the two sides will have to work together to see what works," she said.

With teachers making concessions in early retirement (by force) and health insurance (by choice) over the last two years, many feel it could be a contentious negotiations session this year. However, Wallace thinks that can be avoided with some common ground.

"It's a process. You have to suspend judgment until things kind of get rolling," she said. "It will be contentious at the start. But you always find that, in the grand scheme of things, there are the best interests of the District at heart. If you both go down different paths, though, you set yourself up for failure."

One issue the District finds itself emerging from is the crowding situation at the high school. This will be the final year for freshman at their current location, moving to the new ninth grade center next year.

"Gary (Clark) and his staff have planned very well," Wallace said of the high school principal. "They've done some great things and really should be applauded for that. But this isn't just about space at the high school. And people shouldn't forget that. It's really about our freshmen and addressing their needs."

Wallace said the trend toward ninth grade centers is being looked at nationwide, and that this move helps breed more success once those ninth graders get to the high school.

"We have a lot of people who will be chomping at the bit throughout the year, ready to get that center going."

The center will be one of two schools to open in Wallace's second year. The other, of course, is the elementary school down in the Eagle Run development.

One of the fun aspects of Wallace's first few weeks here has been the campaign to round up ideas to name the two buildings. With the cooperation of the School Board, the District is reaching out to the community for ideas, asking the public what they feel the two schools should represent. The only criteria put in place, basically, are that the names should represent a person, place or thing that is relevant to the District or the location of the school itself.

"It's a great opportunity to engage the community in this, and community involvement in the schools is something that the District really has been stressing in the past few years. So you can go on the Web and click your way to the area where you can offer your suggestions, and then we'll have a vote, ultimately. It's great," Wallace said.

She'll also have a conversation about the naming of the ninth grade center with the current eighth-grade class.

"It's going to be their school, after all," Wallace said.

So it's so far, so good, for West Fargo's newest mover and shaker. Wallace, who lives in Horace with her husband of 20 years and their "several" pets, said she's adjusting to the community. Now, that adjustment will take a whole new turn this winter.

"I'm sure I'll be calling in a lot, asking someone to come help me out," she said of the imminent snow. "They'll be like, 'Oh, it's just Dana. She's in the ditch again.' So, that's maybe the one thing I'm not looking forward to."