San Antonio’s largest school district, Northside ISD, names Killeen ISD leader its next superintendent

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John M. Craft, the superintendent at Killeen ISD, is the lone finalist to be the next superintendenbt of Northside ISD.

John M. Craft, the superintendent at Killeen ISD, is the lone finalist to be the next superintendenbt of Northside ISD.

J ohn M. Craft, the superintendent at Killeen Independent School District, is preparing to transition from the largest district in Central Texas, with nearly 45,000 students, to lead the fourth-largest in the state, with nearly 102,000.

“I feel pretty familiar, having opened two high school campuses. We’ve completed, during my time period, almost ten campuses,” Craft, 46, said on Monday, just after Northside ISD trustees unanimously named him their lone finalist for superintendent.

“I feel like there’s a lot of experiences that are absolutely going to translate into Northside ISD, but at the same time, I’ve got a lot to learn. This is a large school district,” he said.

After a 21-day waiting period and contract negotiations, the board is expected to finalize its vote to hire Craft to succeed longtime Superintendent Brian Woods, who announced last fall his plans to retire at the end of the 2022-23 school year.

Craft, an educator for 24 years who started as a biology teacher and coach, said it was Northside’s leadership style, in which students are at the forefront of decisions, that attracted him to apply for this role.

“It’s about being student-centered,” Craft said. “The job, it really needs to be focused on, ‘How do we best take care of students and student’s needs?’”

Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods looks over his notes as he walks with 4th grader Beau Blanding during May Elementary School’s 25th anniversary celebration last fall.

Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods looks over his notes as he walks with 4th grader Beau Blanding during May Elementary School’s 25th anniversary celebration last fall.

Robin Jerstad / Robin Jerstad

Craft’s transition to Northside ISD will likely begin in mid-April, he said. Craft and Woods said they have lots of work to do in the meantime as they prepare to hand off their districts.

Woods is officially on the clock until June 1, the end of the school year, but said he plans to be available beyond that to help as much as needed.

“We’ll work out a transition schedule that enables him to be in Northside some, and obviously in Killeen some, and then that will get progressively more Northside with time,” Woods said. “And he’ll be here to help with important things like closing out the budget during the summer, and those things that are really important for the upcoming school year, when I’ll be completely gone.”

Woods said he has known Craft for years and is confident in his ability to lead a district like Northside. The board’s choice of a finalist checked several important boxes in Woods’ wish list for a successor, including somebody with teaching experience and, most importantly, well versed in the Texas education system.

There are obvious challenges. The number of students in Northside ISD schools grew every year for decades until the coronavirus pandemic suddenly decreased it. Assessing future enrollment trends will be one of his first tasks as a superintendent, Craft said, to figure out where students in the area have gone and how to bring them back.

Since Craft became superintendent at Killeen ISD in 2015, the district opened two high schools, including an early college high school, plus two middle schools and seven elementary schools.

He will be taking over a district with 13,000 employees, 125 schools and an annual operating budget of nearly $1 billion.

Craft began teaching at Carroll ISD, where he also coached football and baseball. He was an administrator there and in two other school districts, including as superintendent of Hamilton ISD. Craft has a doctorate in educational administration from Tarleton State University.

He and his wife, Choe Lan, have two children who will be attending Northside ISD schools.

Woods has led Northside for 10 years and started his career as a teacher in the district more than 30 years ago.

A shift in the state’s political climate, rather than the difficult years of the coronavirus pandemic, convinced him to announce his retirement last fall, Woods has said.

“We always have instructional and learning challenges that we are working on,” Woods said in November. “The thing that really perhaps drove me to the decision is the toxicity of the environment with regards to politics and the distraction that it causes for people doing really important work in classrooms, certainly across Texas, and I suspect throughout the nation.”

Woods, 53, said he is not done with public education and will likely take on an advocacy role — an announcement that might come in a couple of weeks.

One of the most pressing items for his successor, Woods said, is Northside’s budget for the coming year, with possible changes in funding from the Legislature’s current session and the constant question of enrollment and attendance.

“Otherwise, I think the district is in wonderful shape and is one of the reasons I was comfortable handing it over to somebody,” Woods said. “We’ve got great leadership from our board, (and) great staff who are going to be here still when Dr. Craft starts.”

The board is entering an election season, with four single-member districts in play but only two incumbents seeking reelection — Gerald Lopez in District 2 and Robert Blount Jr. in District 4.

“I always have concerns over board election time,” Woods said. “It’s just about having reasonable people run for the board who are willing to understand school business and put a lot of time and effort into it, and get up to speed, because there’s a lot to learn.”

The Northside ISD board hired Mike Moses and David Thompson to help search for Woods’ replacement and agreed on a candidate profile developed with community input. Trustees this month began the interview process, talking to a selection drawn from 34 applicants from Texas and eight other states.

At Monday’s meeting, board president Karen Freeman acknowledged the entire board, staff and community members who contributed long hours to the search.

“I am so proud of this board. This board has canceled vacations, canceled trips. We’ve met a lot in the last couple of months,” Freeman said. “The process of selecting and hiring a superintendent is the most monumental and impactful job that a board has.”| @DanyaPH