With no more ‘unfinished business,’ IRSD superintendent plans to retire

DAGSBORO – One year shy of four decades as an Indian River School District employee, superintendent Mark Steele says there is nothing left on the “things to do” list and the time has come to retire.

During Monday night’s Zoom board of education meeting, Mr. Steele announced his retirement after 39 years as a teacher and building/central office administrator.

“We’ve done so much. We don’t have anything left right now. We’ve got our finances to where we are super strong right now. We’ve got our schools; we’re ready to take care of those,” said Mr. Steele. “So, I just felt, ‘You know what? I don’t have any unfinished business.’”

Mark Steele

His tenure as district superintendent will end June 30.

At the June 22 meeting, Indian River School District’s board of education appointed current assistant superintendent Dr. Jack F. “Jay” Owens as the new district superintendent, effective July 1, 2020.

A 1996 graduate of Sussex Central High School, Dr. Owens has been an Indian River School District educator for more than 20 years. He has been the district’s assistant superintendent since July 2018. He will be Indian River’s seventh superintendent since the formation of the school district in 1969.

Dr. Jack “Jay” Owens

“I am very excited for the opportunity to lead one of the finest school districts in the State of Delaware,” Dr. Owens said. “The district has had many great accomplishments in recent years, and I look forward to continuing this tradition of excellence. Many challenges lie ahead in the coming weeks and months, and district residents can rest assured that my staff and I will work tirelessly to provide the best possible educational services to our nearly 12,000 students. 

Mr. Steele is leaving the Indian River School District with plans for a new fully state-funded Howard T. Ennis School in the works.

With successful referendum passage back in February, a new Sussex Central High School will be built several years down the road. That new school will pave the way for re-purposing of the existing Sussex Central High School and Millsboro Middle School to address space needs and growth that has enrollment around 11,000 students district-wide. 

“I have been extremely fortunate to work with so many gifted staff members, each of whom has always had the best interest of our students at heart,” Mr. Steele said. “We faced many challenges during my time as superintendent, but I am extraordinarily proud of our accomplishments, which include the passage of a critical current expense referendum in 2017 and an equally-important major capital improvement referendum in 2020. I am comforted by the fact that the district is in perhaps its best financial shape ever and has a solid plan in place to relieve current and future overcrowding in our schools. It has been a privilege to work with Dr. Owens for the past two years. He is truly a talented educator and the right man to lead the Indian River School District moving forward.”

Punctuated by several emotional moments while announcing his retirement plans during the Zoom meeting, Mr. Steele said, “I can tell you that where we have gone and where we’ve come, particularly in the last four years, it has been a combined effort of all of the people that you see in this room.”

“We’ve had hard discussions. We’ve agreed. We’ve disagreed. In some cases, we’ve even yelled at each other. But at the end of the day I believe we made the right decisions in the decisions we made,” Mr. Steele said. “I don’t have any doubt about the strength of this school district, with the people that we have involved. Our school leaders are phenomenal. The best part of my job is, nobody in this room is afraid to tell me that I am getting ready to make a mistake or I am wrong. That is what has helped me develop the leadership abilities that I have developed over the years, by listening to good people.”

“This district is a great district,” Mr. Steele added. “We managed to accomplish more things in the 50 years that we’ve been in operation than anybody else of this comparable size.”

“It’s humbling to be chosen to follow in the footsteps of so many great IRSD superintendents and I thank the board of education for this tremendous opportunity,” said Mr. Owens. “I also want to thank Mark Steele for his many years of dedicated service and leadership to the Indian River School District. Mr. Steele guided the district through many challenges during the past three and half years and he did so with conviction, enthusiasm and optimism. He is the epitome of a leader and I wish him the best in retirement.”

Dr. Owens has worn many hats in the IRSD. He previously served as the district’s Director of Student Services (2017-18), Director of Special Services (2016-17) and Director of Assessment and Accountability (2014-16). Prior to joining the district office staff, he was principal of Sussex Central High School from January 2011 until June 2014. Between 2006 and 2009, he served stints as an assistant principal at Sussex Central High School, North Georgetown Elementary School and the Howard T. Ennis School.

Dr. Owens, who holds a Doctor of Education from the University of Delaware, a Masters of Education from Wilmington College and a Bachelor of Science degree from Salisbury University, began his career in the Indian River School District in 2000 and served six years as a special education and regular education teacher at North Georgetown Elementary School and the Richard Allen School. He was Richard Allen’s Teacher of the Year in 2000-01 and 2001-02.

Mr. Steele said he briefed the board of education on his plans during executive session prior to Monday’s regular board meeting.

Several school board members shared their thoughts.

“Mark, you live by example. You work and your staff work very hard,” said IRSD board vice president Rodney Layfield. “The positivity of being out there, being judged by the public, you did an outstanding job. You’ve done a great job at Indian River. Words cannot express my true feelings for you as a leader. Nice job!”

“Speaking for myself, I am definitely going to miss Mr. Steele and his very strong leadership,” board member Dr. Donald Hattier said. “He has never been afraid to kick the proverbial butt when it needed kicking, and praise when it needed to be praised. I feel grateful that I have had a chance to work with somebody like that the last few years. And I know I am going to miss you a lot, Mark. So, thank you for being there.”

In retirement, Mr. Steele plans to make room for plenty of family time. He and wife Linda have three children, Stephanie, Brittany and Justin, and three grandsons.

“Linda, she has put up with me doing the school administrator part of my 39 years for 30 years, and I have missed a lot of things,” said Mr. Steele. “I wanted to go ahead and do it when I am young enough that we can go and do things that we haven’t had a chance to do. Just be able to go fishing when I want to go fishing and do what I want to do without having to worry about what is going on in school and, ‘Can I get away’ and that sort of thing.”

“I feel content,” said Mr. Steele, who turned 61 last week. “I feel so much pressure off my shoulders, it is unbelievable.”

A 1977 graduate of Indian River High School and 1981 graduate of Salisbury State, Mr. Steele returned to his alma mater in the 1981-82 school year as a teacher.

After nine years of teaching he became an assistant principal at IRHS under then principal Dr. Lewis Patterson. When Dr. Patterson retired in 1999, Mr. Steele became IRHS principal. He held that position until June 2013 when he joined central office at the Indian River Education Complex as assistant superintendent.

In January 2017 Mr. Steele was promoted to interim superintendent when IRSD Superintendent Dr. Susan Bunting retired to take Gov. Carney’s cabinet position of Secretary of Department of Education. Several months later he was named superintendent.

“I’ve been an employee of this district for 39 years … and it has been an honor to represent the district and I thank the school board for giving me a lot of leeway in the last four years,” said Mr. Steele. “But I think I’ve reached a point where retirement is where I need to go. You’ll hear through the course of your careers that you’ll know when it’s time, and I have been battling this for the last year. My family has discussed it with me. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I think at this stage of the game, I think it is time for me to hang it up. It’s time – and that’s where I am.”

The district has posted the assistant superintendent’s position and has begun an immediate search for candidates to fill that post.