When Julie Critz took over as superintendent of the Alexandria School District in 2015, Rick Sansted also came on board as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. On Friday, he was the unanimous choice of the Alexandria School Board to succeed Critz when she retires this summer.
"I am honored and humbled, and excited to serve the community in a new role," Sansted said after he was summoned into the board room and given the news.
The board is expected to approve a contact agreement with Sansted on Friday, March 6, that calls for Sansted to assume his superintendent’s duties on July 1.
Sansted, 46, is a Fargo native who started his career in Parkers Prairie as a social studies teacher, and also served as a counselor at Alexandria’s Luther Crest Bible Camp. In 16 years with Edina Public Schools, he was a teacher, middle school principal and elementary school principal. He is presently on the board of directors for the United Way of Douglas and Pope Counties.
His wife, Katie, is a former elementary school teacher who is founder and owner of KT Design. She is an Alexandria native who graduated as Katie Reif in 1995 from Jefferson High School. The couple have four children: Peter and Myles, 16; Ellen, 12; and Teddy, 11. They are members of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Alexandria.
Critz, who hired Sansted nearly five years ago, recalls why he was the right choice. "He was bright, ambitious and personable, which, along with his wealth of experiences, made him a good fit for our district," she said.
Over the years in Alexandria, Critz said that he has led many significant initiatives with curriculum and to ensure students are college and career ready. "The reach of his good work will continue to grow as he steps into this new leadership role, ensuring that the district will continue its focus on excellence," she said.
“He has a wealth of knowledge and a servant’s heart,” board member Sandy Susag said. “He knows when he has to be hard, and when he has to be soft. I think we made a great choice.”
An overwhelming choice
Sansted was one of six finalists to interview for the job last week. In discussions following the last of the interviews, board members spoke of how impressed they were of the field.
“You did a nice job of training us to follow the process, and I was amazed at how good the candidates were,” board member Bob Cunniff told the Minnesota School Boards Association’s executive search team. He noted that some were also finalists for other superintendent jobs.
“These are six incredibly educated people. I learned from everybody here,” board member Dave Anderson said.
“There are some stars in this group,” board member Angie Krebs said.
The plan outlined by the search team called for the board to narrow the group down to two or three candidates to bring back for a second round of interviews on March 6. However, once board members began deliberating, it quickly became apparent they all preferred the same candidate.
“We've had a batting average of .500 when we hire outside of the district. Our inside hires have been home runs,” board member Alan Zeithamer said, adding that being a good fit was more crucial to him than skills. “Part of the strategy was to start growing our own, and these numbers would suggest that that process has worked.”
The numbers he referred to were scores that board members gave to responses to each of the 17 questions asked of each finalist.
“They were custom designed for the Alexandria search,” said Barb Dorn, the MSBA’s director of leadership development and executive search. They were based on the school board’s hiring criteria and the listening sessions and survey conducted with the public.
Several board members referenced how their scoring had one candidate significantly above the others. In that case, board members Pam Carlson and Susag wondered if it was fair to bring back others when one had already risen to the top.
“Are we going to learn more by bringing back two or three?” Carlson asked.
In response to a question, MSBA Deputy Executive Director Gary Lee told the board that it could choose to forgo a second round of interviews, and in a short time the board voted to offer the job to Sansted.
Following the meeting, Lee said that shortening the process only happens rarely and with special circumstances.
“You had a real strong internal candidate. That’s the real difference here,” he said.
Board members debunked the idea that from the outset they had made up their minds to hire Sansted, and that a search was unnecessary.
“I think we listened to the last candidate just as intently as the first,” board President Dean Anderson said. They entered scores as each interview was being conducted, and Sansted emerged as a clear-cut consensus.
“We really went into this with an open mind,” Carlson said.
Krebs related a comment from someone who didn’t know why a search was being done when the best candidate already worked here. But Dorn pointed out that roughly half of the residents surveyed felt that previous superintendent experience was important and wanted the board to look outside the district.
Undertaking a search was also a matter of fairness to Sansted, showing that the job wasn’t just being handed to him, Cunniff said.
“We learned a lot, and I think it showed us what we have,” Dean Anderson said.
While hiring someone from within presents advantages, it wasn’t the reason Sansted was chosen.
"He's going to be able to continue what we've been doing here in Alexandria," Dave Anderson said, noting Sansted can switch offices and pick up things from the start. "It will be a seamless transition."
“You say it will be convenient because he knows a lot of the players,” Dean Anderson said, citing a year’s learning curve for new superintendents. “But he clearly rose to the top, and not because he's already here.”
Cunniff recalled a conversation many years ago where he was told, “Bob, I’ve got a superstar in Edina who's going to be something special.”
Carlson was impressed that Sansted sought out a freshman social studies class to practice interviewing. “He just loves kids, and that’s what you want to have with the person to lead the district,” she said.
Krebs said that Sansted is very well respected. “When you look at the last five years, his impact on this community has been amazing.”
Cunniff summed up his feelings by going back to a comment Sansted made during his one-hour interview: “Even if I don't get the job, I'm not leaving here. This is my place.”