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Meade School District Superintendent Don Kirkegaard will begin his new role as South Dakota's secretary of education in January.

Deb Holland, Journal staff

Don Kirkegaard believes that knowing the ins and outs of both small and large school districts will serve him well in his new job as South Dakota's secretary of education.

"I will try to bring a practitioner's perspective to the office," he said.

Kirkegaard steps into an office that is under scrutiny for its handling of the GEAR UP embezzlement scandal.

Investigators believe that Scott and Nicole Westerhuis stole in excess of $1 million from an education cooperative in charge of the college-readiness grant program. Scott Westerhuis is believed to have shot his wife and their four children before setting fire to their house near Platte and killing himself when he was informed by state Department of Education officials that the cooperative was losing a $4.3 million federal contract for GEAR UP because of financial problems and accounting failures.

"This whole incident was totally unfortunate. I wish that we could go back in time and fix it before it ever got to that point," Kirkegaard said. "We will go forward and try to make sure that we provide the oversight that is necessary, including the openness and transparency that is necessary."

Being asked to become South Dakota's secretary of education surprised even Kirkegaard.

The Meade School District superintendent admits at one time he may have aspired to hold the position, but when a representative of Gov. Dennis Daugaard's office called a couple of weeks ago it caught him off guard.

The day before Halloween, Kirkegaard received a call from Tony Venhuizen, the governor's chief of staff, who informed him that the governor wanted him to consider being the secretary of education.

"I truly was dumbfounded. I was honored, but also surprised," Kirkegaard said.

So, he told Venhuizen he would talk over the offer with his wife, Lois, and would get back to them the next morning. Kirkegaard had some questions about the job, which he said the governor answered. He took one more day to ponder the offer, then told the governor he would take the position if he could get the support of the Meade School Board.

"We have a lot of stuff going on in this district, and I didn't want to leave this board high and dry," he said. "I know that I am replaceable, but I didn't want to leave them midyear without a plan in place."

This past week, the school board chose John Pedersen to serve as interim superintendent to fill out the remainder of the 2017-2018 school year. The board will talk about the search for a new superintendent at its December meeting.

Kirkegaard comes from a family of educators.

His mother taught for 45 years and a sister for 40 years.

"My mother was certainly instrumental in my background in education,"  Kirkegaard said.

Kirkegaard grew up in Trent and graduated from Flandreau High School in 1976.

Looking back at his early education, Kirkegaard said he considered himself a good student.

"I wasn't a stellar student. My kids were much more studious than I was," he said. "I knew what I needed to do to succeed. I'll leave it at that."

He attended and graduated from South Dakota State University, earning a degree with emphasis in political science and economics.

"I had a couple different opportunities right out of college. I truly wanted to try education first to make sure that was what I wanted because it can be difficult to go back," he said.

His first job was in Bristol. Not only did he teach, he also was the head basketball coach there.

"It was a great experience. I was there for seven years," he said.

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He taught six different classes, including government, economics, history, geography and two different junior high social studies classes. In addition to being the boys basketball coach, he also was assistant girls basketball coach and head track coach.

In his second year at the school, he became the athletic director and in his third year he became the secondary principal for seventh through 12th grades.

"I have fond memories of my time in Bristol," he said.

Kirkegaard said the administrative part of his job really resonated with him.

"I always enjoyed that. I started out as the head negotiator for the teachers until I became the head negotiator for the school board," he said. "It's always been something that I have been interested in."

Through the years, Kirkegaard said he has had some great mentors in the education field, namely his mother.

After Bristol, Kirkegaard became the principal and superintendent in Britton. He spent 23 years there.

"I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Britton. It was time to look to do something different when I learned that the superintendent job was open in the Meade School District," he said. "I was very impressed with the community and the school."

Kirkegaard actually had opportunities to serve in other districts but chose Meade School District and began his new job in 2011.

"This was the best fit for me," he said.

The Meade School District has wonderful students, excellent teachers and administrators, and a supportive community, he said.

"I'm extremely proud to have been part of the process for so many years," Kirkegaard said.

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