SHEFFIELD — With a $31 million school building project underway, as well as labor negotiations and a high number of bad weather school closings, new Sheffield-Sheffield Lake Superintendent Michael Cook has been forced to hit the ground running.
Cook, 43, promoted from Brookside High School principal to superintendent Jan. 1, is OK with that. He said his career goal was to be a superintendent by 40.
Whether as superintendent or in past jobs as an athletic director, coach and principal, Cook said he enjoys the challenges and responsibilities of leadership and wants to be an advocate, cheerleader and mentor.
“I really like getting along with people, working with people, putting people together, and that’s a lot of what this job’s about,” said Cook who earns $106,000 annually.
Cook, a husband and father of two, grew up in Garrettsville, a village of about 2,200 near Akron. He began his career in Ravenna Schools in 1992 as a teacher, basketball coach and cross country and track coach. He moved to Garfield Schools in 1998 where he was a teacher, middle school athletic director and high school basketball coach.
Cook was hired in 2008 as Sheffield Middle School principal. He had known then-Superintendent Will Folger, also from Garrettsville, and said the Sheffield school district was similar to those in Garfield and Ravenna.
Cook said he turned down a job with a blue-ribbon school — an excellence rating determined by a nonprofit academic group — in favor of Sheffield, where he felt comfortable.
“I thought I could help us to improve,” he said. “It’s a good fit for me.”
Cook inherits the seventh- through 12th-grade building project. Since ground was broken in March, the project has been delayed by heavy rain in the summer, but Cook said he’s hopeful the school — by Brookside, 1812 Harris Road — will open in January.
It originally was scheduled to open in September. Walls are up for both gyms and one of the cafeterias and many steel rafters are in place.
The opening will lead to school realignments for the 1,900-student district.
The Board of Education is considering a plan in which Forestlawn Elementary School would be a pre-kindergarten and kindergarten school. Knollwood Elementary would be a first- and second-grade school.
Sheffield Middle School would be demolished and the current Brookside High would be a third- through sixth-grade school.
Barr and Tennyson elementary schools would be demolished, leased or sold.
The board also is considering building a new pre-kindergarten through third grade school. If the new middle school-high school is built to Ohio School Facilities Commission specifications, Cook is hopeful the state will reimburse the district in 2015 for a few million dollars. That was state taxpayers’ portion of the bond issue money raised to build the new school.
Combined with the remaining local bond money, the money would help pay for the pre-K through third-grade school, substantially reducing the cost.
“Our schools are in rough shape,” Cook said. “We still take good care of them. We’re proud of them, (but) our kids deserve the best. We want to give them the best.”
Besides overseeing infrastructure improvements, Cook will be lobbying for two five-year renewal levies on the ballot in May. The 7.5-mill levy raises $2.3 million annually and costs the owner of a $100,000 home about $279 yearly. The 6.2-mill levy raises nearly $1.9 million annually and costs the owner of a $100,000 home about $230 yearly.
Cook is also involved with negotiations with the Sheffield-Sheffield Lake Teachers Association and the Sheffield-Sheffield Lake Classified Employees Association, which is comprised of bus drivers, custodians, hall monitors and secretaries. Contracts expire in March.
Andrew Smith, teachers association president, said his 140-member union has a “very amicable” relationship with Cook. Smith said Cook’s experience as a middle and high school principal help him relate to teachers’ concerns.
“He’s a great listener, and he has a great future vision for our district,” Smith said. “He brings a fresh perspective and a lot of positive, enthusiastic energy.”
Board President William Emery said Cook’s experience in the district and collaborative style were why he was chosen from several other candidates.
“It’s just a perfect fit,” said Emery, a board member since 1986.
While much of his job involves meetings and paperwork, Cook said he tries to visit classrooms as much as possible to interact and observe children learning.
“I know every superintendent says they have great kids, but we really do have some super, super kids here,” he said.
Cook said he’ll continue to seek community input in how to improve the district and said he appreciates the support he’s received from the board members and staff. He hopes to lead the district long term.
“It is a lot of responsibility, and it’s a lot of worry, but it’s a good worry,” he said. “I like people to know that I’m worrying for them and taking care of things for them.”