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Dr. Heller retires after serving 12 years with Montevideo School District

Danae Milbrandt
Montevideo American-News

For 12 years, the Montevideo School District has had the pleasure of having Dr. Luther Heller serve as Superintendent within the administration. Those years have brought many positive changes to the district, and this year marks his last year before retirement.

Dr. Heller is originally from southeast Wyoming, and moved to northwest Iowa when he was a sophomore in high school. Heller graduated high school from Primghar, IA, before teaching and coaching in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Prior to moving to Minnesota, Heller spent most of his career in Nebraska.

Prior to Montevideo, Dr. Heller spent 11 years as superintendent in Springfield, followed by two years as the Director of Administrative Services at the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative.

“I’ve been around a little while,” said Dr. Heller.

It was the opportunity, Springfield at the time, that brought Dr. Heller to Minnesota.

According to Dr. Heller, working for the service cooperative wasn’t exactly what he had in mind for a career, and eventually went back into superintendency when the opportunity presented itself. 

“Springfield was a school district with about 780 students,” said Dr. Heller. “About half the size of Montevideo. But it was about twice the size of the district I was in down in Nebraska; so it was a move forward as far as the size of the school, and it was an opportunity, so I spent 11 years there and enjoyed that. Eventually the position for superintendent opened in Montevideo, and I was fortunate enough to get it.”

Dr. Heller became the superintendent of Montevideo Schools in July of 2009, and after 49 years working in education, 31 of them as a superintendent, he feels that it’s time to start a new chapter.

“The time just seemed right,” he said. “It’s time to move on to the next phase of my life and be able to spend some time with my family and be able to relax a little bit. It’s been a good career, a long career, and one that I’ve enjoyed, but now I’m looking forward to taking that next step.”

When Dr. Heller first arrived to Montevideo, the district was going through some financial difficulties, which, with the assistance of the renewal of an operating referendum and some budgetary changes, as well as a strong business office waters, managed to get things back on track financially.

Heller said, “The referendum we passed a couple years after I arrived here, we’ve been able to make work, and make available to the district to continue to operate on without going out and asking for it to be increased. Also with that referendum, part of it was earmarked for technology, and I think that was a very important aspect in that it allowed us to eventually develop a 1:1 technology initiative, where today every student in grades 1-12 has available for their own use a personal Chromebook to use.”

Without the technology initiative, as Dr. Heller explained, and as many people have experienced due to the pandemic, it would have been nearly impossible for students to continue an education due to the changes between distance and hybrid learning over the past year. “That became very helpful because we were doing a lot of things with distance learning and things from home, and it provided students with a platform to be able to function. I think that was very important,” he said.

Another important thing that Heller is very proud of is that while he has been superintendent in Montevideo, the district became involved with daycare and childcare programs, which opened in 2012. The programs began gradually after the district had closed the Sanford building as part of budget cuts soon after Heller became superintendent. A year after closure the district reinstated all-day, every-day kindergarten, as well as the preschool programs and early childhood special education, and it was reopened as the Sanford Education Center.

“We now have the capacity within our district that we serve students literally from their birth until they’re ready for their career;” Heller explained, “all the way through grade 12 when they’re ready to go on to college or to a career at that time. We have children that are coming in at six weeks old, and they can go through our childcare program, our preschool programs, and can move on to the regular K-12 systems, so I think that’s a real plus. 

“I had heard for years people talk about how someday that’s going to come about in schools, and indeed we made that happen here in Montevideo. I think that is something that speaks well of the people that work in the Sanford Education Center, and something that I’m very proud to have at least had a little bit of a hand in helping to provide some guidance for that,” he said.

According to Dr. Heller, Kinder Kare, which had previously been run by the county, was looking for a new place at the time, and so the district had allowed that to move to Sanford. Eventually the county turned the program over to the district, which then became the current Little Thunder Hawks program. Soon after they started the infant program, which turned the Montevideo School District into a “cradle to career” school district.

“That’s a part of our vision, is to serve students over that whole span,” said Heller.

With success comes challenges, and Heller can recall a challenge or two faced over his career working as Montevideo’s superintendent.

“Obviously the greatest challenge has been the past year in dealing with the pandemic,” stated Heller. “It’s not one of those things that you’re ever completely prepared for, because nobody’s really gotten through a pandemic like this before, and I think that we were positioned well to face that. We had the 1:1 initiative in place, we had the Chromebooks available for the kids, we were able to address that and move forward, but I think that was really the greatest challenge.”

Heller continued, explaining that other challenges that go along in sync while he’s been here include the ongoing challenges of trying to operate with state funding, which never quite keeps up with schools’ needs; not just Montevideo, but for schools all over Minnesota. He added that the changing expectations over time have shown to be challenging at times as well.

“All in all,” he said, “I would say that the challenges that we’ve been presented here in Montevideo have really developed into opportunities, and we’ve grown upon those. Much like our daycare program, and so forth.”

Dr. Heller, over the past 12 years, has greatly enjoyed his stay here in Montevideo, and will always find his time living here memorable.

“It’s been a good place to work. I’ve worked with some excellent people, I have a strong administrative team, and they’ve been great to work with and have helped us mold the things that we’ve done. The school board has been good to work with over the years, we’ve had very excellent staff in all of our buildings, and some very high-quality teachers. They’ve been a joy to work with, and I think they’re really a credit to the profession on all levels. Just the opportunity to have worked in this setting has been wonderful.”

In addition to the district and its staff, Dr. Heller has enjoyed living in the community of Montevideo, and is proud to have called the town home for the past 12 years.

“I’ve enjoyed the community itself; there’s a lot offered in Montevideo,” said Heller. “We’re close to Marshall and Willmar if you want to go to a larger community, but Montevideo’s large enough that if you don’t want to go anywhere else to get other things, you don’t have to, you can stay here. And it’s a community that’s enjoyable to show off when you have company, you can show them around and show them everything we have to offer. I’ve really enjoyed my time here.”

Right now, Dr. Heller is undecided about his plans going forward, but would like to eventually relocate to be closer to his family.

“We’d like to live someplace where we’re within an easy drive between our two sets of grandkids. We’d like to be located someplace where we can go to either community and not be quite so far away, but we’re not heading to Arizona. Although, I wouldn’t mind necessarily doing that, especially with the way the winter is starting to progress right now,” he laughed.

Heller hopes that after his departure, the district continues to grow and excel. He hopes that people feel he left the district a little bit better than how he found it, and he hopes that the things that have gone well continue to go well.

“Up until the pandemic hit, we’ve been going through a rise in enrollment, I hope that returns and we start getting that student base built up again very strong. I think that the school district is an educational leader in this area, and I really hope it continues to be that way.”

Heller spent, what he feels, were 12 very good years with the district. He is very happy to have had the opportunity to serve both the district, and the community.

“It’s been really a joy, and I’ve enjoyed everything the community has to offer. I wish the best to the community and to the school district as I move on to that next phase,” said Heller.