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UPDATE: Columbia Schools Superintendent to Retire in June

Peter Stiepleman, who has led Columbia Public Schools as superintendent since 2014, will retire in June, he announced Thursday morning.

"I will look back on the last 16 years as a Columbia Public School teacher, principal and superintendent with great pride," Stiepleman, 45, said in a letter he read to the Columbia School Board at the close of a 3½-hour work session of the Columbia School Board.

"I will be ever grateful for the relationships I’ve made with the community, with colleagues, with the Board of Education, with families — and with my students," he said. "So many I’ve followed from when they entered as preschooler to when they crossed the stage as high school graduates."

A long-term plan for Stiepleman's retirement at the end of this school year has been in place for several years, according to an email from district spokesperson Michelle Baumstark. The announcement now, coming more than eight months before plans to step down, is meant to give the School Board plenty of time to hire a successor.

"I informed the Board of Education over two years ago that my eldest son would graduate high school in 2021," Stiepleman said in the letter. "I shared how he had joined me at West Boulevard as a kindergartner and that it was my plan to graduate with him — how we’d walk off the stage together as graduates of the Columbia Public Schools.

"And that’s what we will do."

The district released a video statement from Stiepleman, in which he talked about his decision to retire.

Before succeeding Chris Belcher as superintendent, Stiepleman was an assistant superintendent overseeing elementary education, assistant principal and principal at West Boulevard Elementary School, and a third-grade teacher.

Last month, he was named the 2021 Missouri Superintendent of the Year by the Missouri Association of School Administrators.

Stiepleman said that because he has rarely taken a sick day during his years working for the district, he is eligible to receive about $50,000 in accrued sick leave. He plans to donate the money to three areas: the Nature School, the CPS Japan Connection trip and the COMOEd Future Teachers Program. The donations reflect his commitment to enrichment opportunities for students, a claim he staked when he was hired as superintendent in March 2014.

"I know I was born with blessings — and I know I have an obligation to share those blessings with others," he said in the letter.

The Nature School will be set on 207 acres adjacent to the Three Creeks Conservation Area in southern Columbia. Every fifth-grader in Boone County will spend seven days at the Nature School to learn about the place-based science and history of Boone County.

Place-based learning anchors the early lessons locally, so, for example, students will learn about Boone County's ecosystem and history before expanding outward.

"Our children will be the key to tackling climate change and that starts with understanding how to be a responsible steward of land and water," Stiepleman said.

Groundbreaking will be this spring and the center will open in 2022, district science coordinator Mike Szydlowski said Thursday. The timeline is slightly behind because of challenges related to fundraising and COVID-19.

The CPS Japan Connection is part of a renewed partnership with Columbia's sister city of Hakusan, Japan. Community and school leaders, including Stiepleman, traveled there in 2019 for a culture exchange. A planned trip for high school students this past summer was canceled because of the pandemic.

A start to the Japan reconnection came in 2018, when a drumline comprised of student percussionists from Hickman, Rock Bridge and Battle high schools traveled to Nagano, Japan, with Stiepleman, district fine arts coordinator James Melton and the ensemble's directors to participate in a summer festival there.

"This world has so much good, and yet we spend so much time tearing each other apart," Stiepleman said. "I have faith in our children and our teachers who are incredible ambassadors of empathy and compassion, intelligence and hope. I want to contribute financially to future collaborations with Hakusan so that our kids, regardless of financial constraints, can be eligible to go."

The COMOEd Future Teacher Program is a pipeline for locally educated students from diverse backgrounds to become Columbia teachers. Stiepleman called it a legacy for Columbia.

School Board President Helen Wade said members appreciate Stiepleman announcing his retirement well before it happens.

"While we’ve known as a board that this was the long‐term plan for quite some time and that this day would come, it’s still difficult to hear Dr. Stiepleman say it out loud publicly," Wade said in an emailed statement.

"His donation announcement exemplifies the type of person he is, the character with which he leads, and the legacy he’s created for the work around Achievement, Enrichment and Opportunity (AEO) to continue," Wade said.

She said the board will begin te search process "in the coming weeks."

Jan Mees served on the School Board from 2007 to 2019. She said that when she served as board president in 2017, Stiepleman told her of his plans to retire the same year his eldest son graduated from Hickman High School.

"Although his announcement comes at a challenging time for all school districts in our state and nation and world, he will leave a definite imprint on the education community," Mees said in an emailed statement. "It is with respect and appreciation that I was able to work with him as he led our school district during his six‐year tenure."