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With a new job, a new town and even a new coat of Bulldog-orange paint on his office wall, Mahomet-Seymour Superintendent Rick Johnston is ready to start a new school year.
Johnston replaced former superintendent Keith Oates, who took a new job in Marion, Ill., at the end of June.
Although his contract began on July 1, Johnston said that he started work in Mahomet "well before" that date, as he works on getting up to speed on the inner workings of the district. He and his wife Vanessa are also trying to sell their current home and find a place to live in Mahomet.
An array of administrative changes—including the appointment of former Lincoln Trail Principal Mary Weaver as the new director of instruction—have meant that Johnston has had to hit the ground running.
Johnston comes to Mahomet-Seymour by way of El Paso Gridley, where he spent four years as superintendent. Before that, he taught business and technology classes and coached basketball at Mt. Carmel, in southern Illinois.
A native of Indiana, Johnston said that he's "worn a lot of different hats" during his three decades in education. As superintendent of El Paso Gridley, a district about half the size of Mahomet-Seymour, he gained expertise in a wide variety of different administrative duties.
His background in business also informs his work as a school administrator, he said, noting that school districts shares something in common with private enterprise: the need to keep operations "lean and efficient" without sacrificing quality.
And that's an issue that's foremost in the minds of staff and parents alike as the district faces another year at a spending deficit. With funding from the cash-strapped state of Illinois so unreliable, Johnston said, districts all across the state are dealing with the same issues.
"In every conversation we're going to have in this district, the elephant in the room is finance," he said.
In the wake of the budget cuts announced earlier this year—which slashed library and enrichment programs across the district—some parents began to question the value of Mahomet-Seymour's slate of administrators.
Johnston said that changes to the administrative structure in the past few months mean that the budget for administrative salaries will decrease by over $30,000, or three percent, during the next school year. That decrease comes in spite of the previously approved raises.
And he feels that the present network of building and district administrators is doing a great job putting children's interests first. "We've got a lot of professional, strong people," he said, noting that parents in the district have been quick to praise the dedication and hard work of staff.
Johnston sees a light at the end of the financial tunnel. If the state legislature can find a solution to pension reform, he feels that the burden on school funding can be eased.
"I'm more of a glass-half-full kind of person," he said.
And with that in mind, he's putting the focus on the future: what the district will look like after the financial storm clouds pass.
"We've got to weather the storm so we can come out even stronger," he said.
In the months before classes start, Johnston is busy meeting with staff, parents and community leaders in the hopes of building the partnerships that are so crucial to the success of a school district.
"We're in a people business, and all of it is based on relationships," he said.
A welcome reception in Johnston's honor will be held at Mahomet IGA on Sunday, July 22, from 2 to 5 p.m.