Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela once said “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” while U.S. President Ronald Reagan said that “the greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.”
When you put education and leadership together, you have a superintendent.
Defiance County has five superintendents that work hard to ensure their community, district and students have a bright future.
Here is a look at each of the county’s superintendents:
Beth Hench – Ayersville Local Schools
For more than 20 years, Beth Hench has been part of the Ayersville community. When the superintendent position opened, she knew it was an opportunity to do more for her community.
"I started my teaching career at Ayersville and now my own children attend school here," she exclaimed. Hench and her husband of 21 years, A.J. Hench, have three daughters, senior Cassidy, eighth grader Donevin and third-grader Elaina. "I was ready to take the next step into a superintendent's role and I knew that Ayersville needed someone they were familiar with to be their next leader. After a lot of thought and prayer, I felt blessed that the board offered me the position, and I was excited to take on the challenge."
There have been many challenges since Hench became superintendent in August 2021. One challenge led to something Hench considers her biggest accomplishment as district leader thus far.
"Due to a failed levy in November of 2021, there was a gap in time when taxes were not being collected; this gap led to the Natatorium being shut down because of lack of funding," she explained. "However, an impassioned group of community members wasn't going to let it stay closed for long. It was amazing to watch this group reach out to the community at large, organize fundraisers, request donations and move stakeholders to make a difference. The diligence of this group allowed the Natatorium to reopen four months ahead of schedule."
Hench stated her biggest accomplishment has been helping that group with the donation campaign that raised more than $60,000 to reopen the Natatorium.
She praised the people of Ayersville who recognize that the school is the center of the community.
"It is a place where people come together and share something in common - a pride that runs deep," she beamed. "It is awesome to be part of a group that works so hard everyday to keep that tradition of pride going."
There still are several issues facing Ayersville and other school districts including all the roles educators have to fill, which Hench notes is the biggest challenge.
"We are asked to be counselors, safety offices, nurses, politicians, dieticians, etc. while also trying to educate our students," she explained. "As superintendent, I try to keep as much of that off our teachers' plates so they can focus on students, but it's a lot to ask of schools. We will overcome it by continuing to do our best to stay on top of all the issues that the districts are mandated to keep informed of, but more importantly, we will continue to keep the focus on doing what is best for the students in our classroom every day."
Hench pointed out that her overall goal for the district involves the school's mission.
"The school mission is to provide a challenging learning environment that sets high expectations for success by offering individualized instructional and diverse learning opportunities, to celebrate differences and to develop life-long learners," she proclaimed. "My goal is to continue to maintain an environment where that can happen."
She foresees a lot for the future of the district.
"I envision Ayersville to continue to be academically successful while offering additional rich opportunities in athletics, arts and other STEM-related areas," she confided. "I envision a financially stable district that is able to provide for students and staff as needed. I envision continued community engagement and support in ways that can ensure success outside of Pilot nation."
Best of all, she sees a bright future for her students and having them share their knowledge with future generations.
"I envision graduates to continue to be successful in a global marketplace and return to Ayersville to share with others how they achieved their successes.
Steve Arnold – Central Local Schools
It’s education in rural areas that is Steve Arnold’s passion.
The superintendent of Central Local Schools (Fairview) knows the strength a rural community offers and brings to the table when it comes to education.
Arnold became superintendent of the district in 2018, but had served in that capacity at Wayne Trace Local Schools from 2011-16. Though he “thoroughly enjoyed” his time at Wayne Trace, he left for the unique opportunity to be superintendent at two Educational Service Centers with offices in Paulding and Lima.
“After managing (the service centers) position for two years, I realized that maintaining two different offices 50 miles apart was not for me; and I wanted to work in a traditional school setting again,” Arnold explained.
When the superintendent post opened at Central Local, he felt it was a perfect fit – “knowing Central Local is a small, rural district similar to Wayne Trace.”
“Being from the area, I know that I could easily commute to my office and be a very visible member of the community,” stated Arnold, who with his wife, Susie, have four children and five grandchildren.
Being part of the community and having its support is vital for the district. Arnold said his biggest accomplishment as superintendent only happened because of the community’s support.
“My biggest accomplishment at Central Local has been helping to pass the permanent improvement (PI) levy in 2019,” he remarked. “This levy is allowing us to remodel and redecorate several interior spaces in the Fairview High School/Middle School building. It has also provided the funding to construct a new bus garage; expand and completely pave the parking lot; purchase severely badly needed new school buses; and purchase thousands of dollars worth of textbooks and other educational materials.
“This goal was achieved with the help of a hardworking levy committee and a community that wanted to see improvements in its facilities without putting up a brand new building,” Arnold continued.
With his primary goal for the district “to provide a high-quality, 21st Century education for our students at a fair and reasonable cost to our tax-paying community,” the permanent improvement levy greatly helped.
“I also would like to see the final projects from the PI levy come to completion, with the big projects being a renovated varsity gymnasium and a reconstructed, visitor-friendly front entrances to the high school/middle school building,” Arnold added. “Other smaller projects include painting hallways and classrooms, updating the flooring and doors and adding school spirit-type verbiage throughout the high school/middle school building.”
While the levy passing was a boon for the district, there still are several challenges it is facing. The biggest challenge is being able to maintain its budget “while providing exceptional educational opportunities for our students.”
“With very little industry in our community, we rely heavily on our land and property owners to fund our day-to-day operations,” Arnold acknowledged. “We greatly appreciate the community’s willingness to continue to pass our operating levies, one of which just passed in May 2022.”
Arnold stressed that he is proud of the district with its “very caring faculty and staff with a student body second to none.”
“Central Local will maintain its solid status in Defiance County and northwest Ohio long after I’m no longer its superintendent,” he reflected. “The community cares deeply about its students and staff members and will do all it can to assure a promising future. When I do walk out the door for the final time, I would like to think that I will have left the district in a better place than how I found it. That is not a knock on any previous administrators or employees. It’s simply the goal of all leaders: to make a lasting impression that takes an organization at least a few steps forward.”
Robert Morton – Defiance City Schools
Education is about partnerships – between educators and students, educators and support staff, the community and the school district.
“What I want people to know about the district is that we have an outstanding student body, teaching faculty and support staff that are dedicated to their job,” said Robert Morton, superintendent of Defiance City Schools. “Strong partnerships based on consistent, transparent communication keep our schools a place where everyone feels welcome and supported.”
Morton has been superintendent at Defiance since August 2019. He had served as high school principal in the district for 16 years prior. Morton decided to apply for the superintendent post “because I have always loved kids.”
“We strive for every student, when leaving Defiance City Schools, to find themselves fully prepared to enter the realm of higher education, the workforce and to become contributing members of the community in which they live,” expressed Morton, who with his wife, Melissa, is father of three children: Mallory, Cooper and Madeline.
Morton said his biggest accomplishment so far at Defiance has been “navigating education through the COVID 19 pandemic.” Partnerships, again, made education possible at that difficult time.
“It was achieved by communicating with the Defiance County Health Department (sometimes daily) as well as the other superintendents in Defiance County,” Morton recalled. “It was also achieved with total support from the students, faculty, staff and community of Defiance City Schools.”
While education in the time of COVID presented difficulties, the biggest challenge Morton sees is something that schools have been struggling with for years.
“Mental health is a serious challenge for all schools,” remarked Morton. “Our plan is to continue to partner with community agencies to assist our students in need.”
Morton stressed that his overall goal for the district involves student success.
“A successful school district places a high degree of importance on ensuring all children have the opportunity to reach their full potential inside and outside the classroom,” he declared. “At Defiance City Schools, that means fulfilling our mission to facilitate maximum learning for every student. Our vision is not only to provide a variety of high-quality options and opportunities for our students but also to ensure that all of our students are actually engaged in those offerings. To maximize our success in this effort, we recognize that we must effectively involve our families and the wider community.”
Keith Countryman – Hicksville Exempted Village Schools
Sometimes people just sort of fall into the job they were meant to do.
“I actually did not have intentions of being a superintendent,” admitted Keith Countryman, superintendent of Hicksville Exempted Village Schools. “The opening happened during the school year in the fall (of 2012). It would have been difficult to find a superintendent in the middle of the year. I agreed to be an interim and finish out the year. I actually enjoyed the change and decided to just stay in the superintendent spot. The board was actually thankful as they did not have to do a search.”
Countryman had served as Hicksville Elementary School principal from July 2003-November 2012. He and his wife, Gail, have been active in the community for many years. The couple have a daughter, Ariana, who is married to Phil Handy. The Countryman's have three grandchildren: Vivian, 9; Scarlett, 5; and Hugh, 3; with a fourth one coming soon.
While Countryman has done a lot for the district since becoming superintendent, he said his biggest accomplishment has been the implementation of the Hicksville Initiative. The initiative is a program that incorporates culture, climate, high academic and behavioral expectations as well as student engagement.
“It has changed the environment of our district 100 percent,” he shared. “We foster a very positive end culture with high expectations for students and employees. The implementation of the Hicksville Initiate was really a group effort of my administrative staff at the time. It has proven to be very successful for our district.”
Countryman is very proud of what the district has accomplished.
“I am confident Hicksville Schools will continue to improve each and every day. We don’t accept being idle. We are always moving forward,” Countryman added.
Education always will face challenges however, while moving forward to the future.
“I would say the biggest challenge for the district is keeping up with all the state mandates (that are usually unfunded),” Countryman confirmed. “It seems like every time you turn around there is something new we have to do that usually takes a bunch of time. The state should look at schools that are successful like ours and many others in the area and simply leave us alone. Obviously, with our test scores we are doing something right.”
Countryman continues to look toward the future of Hicksville schools.
“My overall goal would be to leave the district in better shape than when I took over,” Countryman admitted. “I know I have achieved that. Hicksville Schools is an awesome school (district) that is historically showing great success.”
He added that the district’s success isn’t because of him, but “because of the hard work of everyone here, students and staff.”
When Countryman eventually leaves as superintendent, he has one wish.
“I want people in our community to say ‘he did a great job,’ not ‘glad he is gone,” he quipped.
Nicole Wells – Northeastern Local Schools
Few superintendents are as faithful to their district as Nicole Wells is to Northeastern Local Schools (Tinora).
“This is where I started my career, and I am so proud to call myself a Ram,” exclaimed Wells. Prior to becoming superintendent in January 2020, she served as principal of grades 2-6. She also taught fifth-grade for eight years in the district. Wells started teaching immediately after earning her degree from the University of Findlay in 2007.
“The reason I wanted to be the superintendent at Tinora is because I love every single thing about Tinora: The community, the staff, the students, the school,” Wells explained. “My husband and I want to raise our daughters in a community and school we are part of.”
Wells and her husband, Kirt, have two daughters, Kalli and Kenlee.
Speaking of pride, Wells said her biggest accomplishment as superintendent thus far for Tinora is seeing the completion of two building projects during the global pandemic. The new middle school/high school and a performing arts building were completed at that time.
There still are a lot of challenges for the district, Wells stated. Inflation and the need for bus drivers are the biggest ones.
“To overcome these challenges, we will continue to be financially responsible and continue to promote our positions within the district,” she declared.
Her overall goal for the district involves the students.
“The overall goal for the district is to see the students succeed not only academically, but learn life skills to be well-rounded individuals, where they can contribute to society after they graduate from Tinora,” she remarked.
“The future is bright for Northeastern Local Schools, and I would love to continue to offer opportunities for our students inside the walls of Tinora. We get the pleasure to see our students grow every day.”
Wells is very proud of the district and the work that goes on daily.
“I want people to know that Tinora is a special place that has a staff that cares about each student individually,” she said proudly. “Our Rams are tough, resilient, passionate and zealous. Our district will continue to put kids first, and make sure this campus is a place to remember.”