May 15, 2021

WHAT A TIME TO BE SUPERINTENDENT

Messinger joined Newton in midst of pandemic, was setback by the derecho and yet still recalls a positive first-year experience

Tom Messinger has had an interesting first year as superintendent of the Newton Community School District.

From the start, Messinger has faced an uphill battle. In addition to navigating through the pandemic with staff he had met, Messinger was trying to manage a school district in a town he was relatively unfamiliar with. Then to make matters worse a derecho swept through the county and delayed school openings.

Still, Messinger looks back on the experience fondly and viewed the working conditions under the pandemic as a positive because “everybody was forced to come together and work closely from the very beginning.” The COVID-19 pandemic was not only new for him, it was new for his staff, too.

“I can tell you a lot of times when you come into a place, into a new position — this is the fourth school district I’ve worked at — if there’s already a lot of things that are still in motion from before, you don’t necessarily get to dive right in and be apart of that decision making process because it’s already started.

“We hit something brand new at the time I was coming in here. So it really kind of provided that opportunity to be a part of working on something with everybody from the ground up. That, I think, helped me get to know some of our school staff and some of our processes better than if it wasn’t in place.”

Perhaps some other districts would have been deterred by the setback of both a derecho and the pandemic, but that added time allowed Messinger to see how schools fared with online learning and hybrid instruction models for students. He saw those early obstacles and saw how Newton could prepare.

Of course the turbulence of the 2020-2021 school year wouldn’t let up. Messinger recalled when Newton experienced a cold snap — which did affect the calendar — but rather than look back on it negatively, the superintendent said it gave him an opportunity to learn the county roads a bit better.

“It’s really been a year where there’s been a lot of opportunities that have come up for me to learn more about Newton and the school district here than any other year might not have been as possible,” he said, adding that it is easy to take a positive approach now that the district is past those larger obstacles.

Although Messinger said if he would have had been asked the first day he still would have viewed some positives and potential opportunities; but there was also a lot more fear and anxiety about some of those heftier topics and circumstances than what there is now. It was all so unknown, he said.

“But it’s been interesting to see some of the moods change or to see some of the outlooks that people hold change over the course of the year once we began to get some of those first cases of COVID in the district,” Messinger said. “It didn’t all of a sudden blow up into 300 people or more getting it.

“We were able to somewhat maintain the educational direction that we have here with our processes that we have in place. I think people began to gain some respect and appreciation for those processes all the way up to the point now where we’re maintaining the lowest numbers that we’ve had all year.”

Messinger will never forget the look on staff members’ faces when they received their vaccinations this year. The clinics, organized by Newton Clinic and the Jasper County Health Department, were held in the E.J.H. Beard Administration Center. Messinger said it was a “major turning point” in the year.

“I’ve never seen that big of a change in outlook or a mood swing in school in my 28 years in education,” he said. “It was something that was a major milestone that people were waiting for, that people were wanting to get to that point. Once it got here I think it was just a huge relief to people.”

When the pandemic restrictions begin to loosen up a bit more, Messinger expects he’ll have more time to acquaint himself with the community. COVID-19 has occupied a lot of time, he said, and it replaced the time an ordinary year would have been spending on other things.

Get to know Tom Messinger:

Messinger is a graduate of Adair-Casey High School, which is now known as Adair-Casey/Guthrie Center High School or AC/GC. His parents moved to Casey in 1970, the year Messinger was born. They still live in Casey in the same house to this day, Newton News previously reported.

Messinger looks back fondly on his upbringing. It was “the greatest life any kid could have.” Oftentimes he would work odd jobs for farmers and played baseball every day until his mom told him to get back into the house.

After high school graduation, Messinger attended the University of Iowa and received his bachelor’s degree. From there, he got a job at the school district in Eddyville teaching high school math, before the school consolidated with the neighboring Blakesburg. He taught there for four years.

Once Messinger secured his master’s degree through Drake University, he transitioned into a joint position as assistant principal and athletic/activities director at Eddyville-Blakesburg. Since he needed five years of teaching prior that, the school got the state’s permission to keep him on while teaching.

This meant that Messinger taught pre-calculus one period per day and was the assistant principal/AD for the remainder of the day. He maintained the high school administrative position for about two years before becoming the principal for five years. Altogether, he spent 11 years at Eddyville-Blakesburg.

Messinger then became principal at Burlington High School, spending another 11 years at the district. It was the farthest away from home he had ever been. The four-hour drive was a big change. Messinger went back to school to get his specialist degree through Drake, taking classes Fridays and Saturdays.

Eventually, he interviewed for the superintendent position at Red Oak Community School District, where he would stay for the next five years.

“Then the job came open here, I applied for it and interviewed — and here I am,” Messinger said.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com