DULUTH – Superintendent Bill Gronseth admits it won't be the same, looking out his office window and seeing the Minnesota River instead of the vast Lake Superior that has always greeted him.
To the lifelong Duluthian, a change of scenery this week will signal a new life chapter after 23 years working for Duluth schools, the last eight at the helm of the 8,800-student district.
Gronseth's wife, Deanna, took a job with Waseca Public Schools two years ago and next week Gronseth is set to begin a superintendent job nearby. He moved to the southern part of the state two weekends ago before returning north for his last days of work in Duluth's Historic Old Central High School, the castle-like brownstone building downtown that houses the district's administrative offices.
For some in Duluth, Gronseth represents an administration still resented for a $300 million long-range facilities plan that closed seven public schools and completely refurbished other sites. Known colloquially as "the Red Plan," the controversial decision made in 2006 has dogged district leaders for more than a decade, still frequently drawing mentions at board meetings from residents complaining about the project's costs, handling or outcomes.
Gronseth was an assistant principal at Duluth's East High School when the plan was passed. But loose ends remained when he took over as superintendent in 2012 — debt payments and unsold properties that kept the past decision at the forefront of minds.
A week and a half ago, during Gronseth's last school board session in Duluth, a resident called into the virtual meeting to say he never thought Gronseth was the right pick for the superintendent job.
"You were so biased toward one side of an intense civic debate," said Loren Martell, a longtime critic of the Red Plan. "I know there are wounds in this city that have never been addressed."
In a subsequent interview, Gronseth breathed a small sigh, reflecting on the complaints that clung on through his entire superintendent tenure.
"Sometimes decisions aren't easy and not everyone will agree with them," he said. "But I feel like the decisions I've made have always been centered on the kids, and what's best for them and for our school district and for our community. I feel good about the decisions that we've made. I'm happy to continue to own those."
Gronseth said he's proud of the district's efforts to address the achievement gap in the past eight years, of the improvements to Duluth's career and technical programs, of the burgeoning Spanish and Ojibwe immersion programs.
"He has persevered through some very tumultuous times," Board Member David Kirby said at the June 16 meeting. "I think that grace under pressure defines him, really."
Gronseth started teaching in Duluth in 1997 at Nettleton Elementary, which was shuttered in 2013 as part of the long-range facilities plan. In the years since, he's taught or served in an administrative role at four other Duluth schools.
His roots with the district are even deeper, stretching back to his own days as a student at Stowe Elementary, now-defunct Morgan Park Middle School and Denfeld High School.
"I've had the opportunity to be connected with thousands of families," Gronseth said. "Everywhere I go I see someone I know. Lately when I visited elementary schools, the parents were my students, which is absolutely something special."
He remembered one of his early years as a teacher when the class guinea pig, Mr. Harry, died — a traumatic event for elementary students. Gronseth organized a funeral where the students read poetry and a colleague played the violin. Years later, one of the students from that class joined the district as a social worker, citing that day as inspiration for her career choice.
"It's those moments, the lives that we touch that we don't even realize at the time what it means, that are just so meaningful," Gronseth said.
On Wednesday, Gronseth will take over as school superintendent of St. Peter, a smaller community that's home to Gustavus Adolphus College. He's been in frequent contact with John Magas, who is moving from Green Bay, Wis., to fill the top position in Duluth.
"When someone comes from the outside, they have an opportunity to see the district and the community through fresh eyes, through new eyes. And sometimes they can pull down that barrier for us to see things that we don't necessarily see because we are so ingrained in the community," Gronseth said.
He'll have that perspective in St. Peter. But he'll also miss the place he's known and loved his whole life.
Gronseth's family has been in the area since 1886; his grandparents watched the construction of the distinctive building where his Duluth office is housed.
Because he still has relatives and a cabin in Duluth, the superintendent says he will make the 3 ½-hour drive to visit — particularly since the global pandemic has made it difficult to say proper goodbyes.
School board members said their farewells via webcam, waving through computer screens and offering a smattering of applause as the longtime Duluth educator logged off for the last time.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478