Indian Prairie Unit District 204 will say goodbye next year to Superintendent Kathy Birkett, who is stepping down after a 35-year career in which she rose from teaching physical education to holding the district's top administrative post.
Birkett, 56, told the school board and staff Monday of her decision to retire following the 2013-14 school year from the state's third-largest district, where she has spent her entire career.
"I have a great love for District 204. I came to this district when it was just Waubonsie Valley junior and senior high school and kids were still taking a week off in the fall and spring to tend to the crops," she said Tuesday. "The district grew so quickly and I just never had a desire to leave. This is a great community, with great staff and the best kids in the world."
Birkett joined the district, which now serves roughly 29,000 students in portions of Naperville, Aurora, Plainfield and Bolingbrook, in 1979 as a physical education teacher and rose through the ranks. She served as deputy superintendent beginning in 2007, and was instrumental in preparations for opening Fischer Middle School and Metea Valley High School.
Former District 204 board member Mark Metzger said Birkett always exceeded expectations when she took on new roles, such as serving as the principal who opened Steck Elementary School and later Neuqua Valley High School. "Kathy Birkett has done nothing but exceed the expectations laid out for her and left nothing in her wake but a group of people who have been impressed and appreciative of what she's done," he said.
In July 2009, Birkett was promoted to superintendent and signed a three-year contract.
Board Vice President Cathy Piehl, who joined in 2008, said Birkett was clearly the best choice to lead when former superintendent Stephen Daeschner stepped down.
"She knew the district, knew the direction we were going in and held great qualifications," Piehl said.
Curt Bradshaw was president of the school board that promoted Birkett to superintendent in 2009.
"I absolutely wish she could stay in that role forever but we won't be that lucky," Bradshaw said. "I always told her she reminds me of Ronald Reagan because she is such a visionary, a great leader and a gifted communicator."
In May 2011, the district extended her contract for three years. At the end of next year, Birkett will retire with a base salary of $236,265.
Board President Lori Price said she was not surprised to hear Birkett's announcement and she appreciates the full year's notice.
"Regard of what capacity she's been in, she has made every decision with a focus on doing what's best for our students," Price said. "She definitely sets a good example."
In a statement announcing her retirement, Birkett highlighted achievements including cutting "more than $40 million from our budget since 2009, all while striving to have minimal impact on the classroom," and "equipping our students with 21st-century skills so they can best succeed after graduation."
Birkett said she will approach the coming year just as she has the past several.
"I'm the superintendent of District 204. That hasn't changed yet. We're coming off the best academic performance in our history, our finances are in good order and we're going to continue to build on that," she said. "People laugh about it, but I'm a coach by trade. My team is what it's all about and I expect this year to be a team effort. I'm always looking for my next win and I've had a lot of them. This district has had a lot of them."
Birkett, whose pension maxed out two years ago, said she's wrestled with her decision to retire but made peace with it.
"I'm at the end of my contract with a district that has been extremely fair to me," she said. "Everything is on the up and up, but I'm ready. It's time."
Birkett and Price said the board will begin discussing a succession plan during a Monday night workshop.