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David Law had just announced he was stepping down as superintendent of the Anoka-Hennepin schools when people in the district office started asking, "Do you think Cory would be interested in coming back?"

It turns out Cory McIntyre, superintendent of Osseo Area Schools just to the south, was getting the same question. And about six months later, the Anoka-Hennepin school board chose him as the district's next permanent superintendent — tasked with leading the state's largest district of 38,000 students.

McIntyre said he wasn't looking for a job, but said this was an opportunity he just couldn't pass up.

"I've got mixed emotions about leaving," McIntyre said. "I'm not running from anything, not by far. That's what made the decision so difficult."

When McIntyre takes the reins at Anoka-Hennepin on July 1, he'll inherit a district grappling with many of the same issues faced by other schools systems across the state, from pandemic recovery to achievement gaps. Community members and the school board asked McIntyre how he planned to address elementary literacy and student mental health.

"It's a bigger-than-you feeling. It's a lot," McIntyre said of the job. "I'm ready to do what I was trained to do."

Colleagues describe him as a thoughtful, deliberative leader. McIntyre was one of Law's assistant superintendents until he was hired away by Osseo in 2019.

After moving to Osseo schools, McIntyre regularly sought Law's advice. When McIntyre was working through a problem, he would call, Law said, then call again three days later to run through the scenario again and make sure he was making the right decision.

"He's not impulsive. He wants to listen to people. And, he wants to listen to kids," Law said.

That tracks with Osseo High School senior Linnea Noeldner's experience. She's one of four student representatives on the school board, a relatively new position created with support from outgoing Board Chair Kelsey Dawson Walton and an assist from McIntyre.

Noeldner recalled how excited McIntyre was during orientation, calling it "a supportive experience."

"Cory is always very involved with our little group and it's really neat he wants to have student voices involved in the board meetings," Noeldner said.

McIntyre relishes exploring the facets of school life that keep kids engaged, he said, partly because teachers helped guide him through life from middle school through college. His parents divorced around the time he was in eighth grade.

McIntyre was a devoted drummer and played several sports in high school. His coaches, and especially his band teacher, pushed him when he felt like he couldn't keep up.

"Whenever kids have a connection with at least one trusting adult, that can make all the difference," McIntyre said.

As a psychology student at what was then Mankato State College, McIntyre wasn't sure what he wanted to do when he graduated. Then one of his professors asked if he'd ever consider becoming a school psychologist.

"That had me thinking, 'Wow, there were a number of adults in my life through school who were key role models in my life,'" McIntyre said.

He met his wife, Jennifer, when they were each pursuing master's degrees in education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. McIntyre's first job as a school psychologist came when he was hired by the tiny Blue Earth Area district in southern Minnesota.

Then the Seattle area came calling.

The McIntyres had both visited the school district in Kent, Wash., a nearby suburb, when they were on the job hunt shortly after graduating. They promised officials they would relocate if the district ever had two concurrent openings.

"There are days we long for it," McIntyre said, fondly recalling the sight of Mt. Rainier on clear days.

Still, Washington state was a long way from home. And when the McIntyres started talking about having kids, Minnesota was the clear choice. They wanted to be near their friends and family as they raised three daughters.

The Rochester district had an opening for a school psychologist, a development McIntyre calls "pure, dumb luck."

He soon became director of student services at the Hudson School District in Wisconsin, before taking the same job at North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale. In 2016, Law hired McIntyre as the Anoka-Hennepin district's executive director of student services; he was promoted to assistant superintendent in 2018.

And because of McIntyre's extensive experience in special education, Law leaned on him even after he was hired away by Osseo.

"I would call him up and say, 'Hey, talk me through this,'" Law said.

When McIntyre starts in Anoka-Hennepin this summer, his salary will be $270,000 plus perks. Among his priorities will be to huddle with other district decision-makers and brainstorm ways to change the way they approach education.

The pandemic forever altered the way students engage with school, McIntyre said, and it's time for administrators to reassess the experience from top to bottom.

"How do we reimagine how this works? How do we reimagine the day?" he said. "We have to rethink on how we do school."