NEGAUNEE - As he finishes his 16-year tenure as the superintendent of the Negaunee Public Schools, Jim Derocher said he has a great deal for which he is grateful in a career that's included work in a number of Upper Peninsula school districts.
For example, he fondly remembers the teacher who sparked his interest in becoming an educator.
"I was in elementary school and we had a split class of fifth and sixth grade," said Derocher, who grew up in L'Anse. "Mr. Thompson was the teacher on the math side and he was the one who got my interest piqued."
From right, Steve Peffers, former superintendent of Marquette-Alger Regional Educational Service Agency, congratulates Negaunee Public Schools Superintendent Jim Derocher on being named the 2012 Region I Superintendent of the Year by the Michigan Association of School Administrators. (Journal file photo)
After graduating from L'Anse High School in 1970, Derocher enrolled at Michigan Tech University and finished his bachelor's at Northern Michigan University, later obtaining post-graduate degrees from NMU. He taught and coached in L'Anse, then worked in the NICE Community School District, becoming the Westwood High School assistant principal and athletic director from 1989-1994.
That district is where he met two people who would have a profound effect on him.
"Dennis Bobula and Bill Hyry were my mentors when I was a first-time administrator at Westwood in 1989," Derocher said. "They encouraged me to take the next steps in educational administration, which in turn brought me back to Negaunee as the superintendent in 1998."
Before the Negaunee post, though, he was the Brimley Public Schools superintendent from 1994-98.
But starting in 1998, Negaunee became permanent home base for him and his wife Linda and their daughters, Shannon and Pam, who both graduated from Negaunee High School.
Derocher said the toughest part of being superintendent is the financial side of things.
"Trying to make sure the finances of the district are solid in today's age of declining enrollments," he said. "That's the toughest thing when you have to depend on state financing for producing the programs our kids deserve.
"We had to close Pineview (Elementary School in Palmer) in 2003. The handwriting was on the wall. The state has cut back on the per pupil foundation grant. We as a district had to make decisions to keep things stable. That decision we did early. We didn't wait. The (school) board had the foresight to make that tough decision. And the community stepped forward and passed bonds in 2005."
Those bonds helped with renovation of Lakeview Elementary School and construction of a new gymnasium for the Negaunee Middle School.
"With the gender equity lawsuit in the state, we could see we would need more facilities for girls and boys basketball, which would be played in the same season," Derocher said. "I am grateful the community stepped up."
Another project that was part of the bond passage was the addition of a state-of-the-art auditorium at Negaunee High School.
"That facility has been a gem," he said. "It has allowed the drama program to be renewed and has given students a wonderful experience. The community has enjoyed the productions. The auditorium has gotten a lot of use."
Through 16 years of growth and change is there something that Derocher considers the greatest accomplishment?
"Negaunee has always been known as a school district that provides quality education. I am proud that even in rough times, we have carried on that tradition," he said. "Students who graduate from Negaunee are prepared well whether they pursue a vocation or go off to college.
"We have given them the opportunity to have that success."
Community support has been another item of pride.
"Being able to work with the community to upgrade facilities - I think our buildings are top notch - and to provide technology within those buildings, that's so important," Derocher said.
"I really would like to thank the community for all its support," he said. "And there is a great group of individuals who I work with within the district - the board, the teachers, the staff, the other administrators - who all put the kids first in what they do."
"Definitely, I want to spend more time with my family. I have two grandsons now," Derocher said. His daughter Pam and her husband, Joe Dost, live in downstate Bridgeport with their sons, Cooper, 3, and Wyatt, 4 months. Daughter Shannon lives in Negaunee.
Linda Derocher works for River Valley Bank and while she's not retiring, she will cut back on her hours, he said.
"We want to do some more traveling," Derocher said. "And we want to enjoy the retirement home we built early on the Dead River. It's quiet in the winter and in the summer, it's a beautiful place to sit on the deck and watch the water and the sunset."
Derocher's tenure as Negaunee superintendent ends in June.
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.