Orono Honors a Transition of Superintendents


Jillian Cook

Outgoing superintendent Dr. Karen Orcutt (left) and incoming superintendent Dr. Kristi Flesher (right).

On Dec. 7, 2020, the Orono Schools Board of Education accepted the retirement of Superintendent Dr. Karen Orcutt as well as approved her successor, Dr. Kristi Flesher. Both of these leaders have fostered impact within the Orono community for over 20 years, pledging their deepest commitment to the school and district.

Orcutt graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in Communication Disorders, received her doctorate in Educational Leadership from Saint Mary’s University, and also has an Educational Specialist degree in Educational Administration and a Masters degree in Speech Pathology and Audiology. To put it lightly, Orcutt has been beyond qualified for the superintendent position she has held for 17 years. Yet, Orcutt never imagined she would land in this role.

“I really had not contemplated being a superintendent at all. It takes a really, really bold and courageous person to do this work and I didn’t know if I had the amount of courage it took. But I wanted to come to this school district and I wanted to do good things. I knew that I wanted to help the community come together and enhance the schools to the best performance we could get to,” Orcutt said.

I didn’t know if I had the amount of courage it took. But I wanted to come to this school district and I wanted to do good things.”

— Dr. Karen Orcutt

She took a leap of faith, and Orono will forever be grateful for that courageous step. As superintendent and a leader in the community, she opened her heart and offered her help in order to benefit kids and students alike.

“I have a view of the playground and I get to see kids everyday, so everyday I know I am at work because kids are number one to me. I will miss that work for children,” Orcutt said.

“She’s always had a child-focused lens…she cares deeply for every single child,” Flesher similarly echoed.

And with her commitment to children, she has fostered a strong focus on character throughout the district. Orono has been recognized on both a national and state level for their character program, and it is an integral piece of Orono’s core values.

“I’m proudest of our work in character…and I think there’s nothing that these communities should be more proud of, than the work that we’ve done to couple the strongest academics around with this character,” Orcutt said.

Orcutt has been able to be successful in her position, from character initiatives to the implementation of an activities center, because she has an ability to place herself in the shoes of others. She commits to understanding any perspective with which she is faced.

“When we have really difficult decisions to make, or we’re trying to talk through some processes, I’ve always appreciated that she is always able to say like, ‘Okay, I’m going to put myself in the position of a parent in the district or student or a teacher,” Dr. Amy Steiner said, Orono High School’s principal who has been deeply impacted by Orcutt’s work and leadership. “She’s served as a role model of how to be a strong leader that also takes into account other people’s voices and thoughts and opinions.”

“It’s really evident that she deeply cares for not only students, staff, and community members, but just people…she considers so many different groups of people in every decision that she makes,” the Executive Assistant in the Office of the Superintendent Abby Schoenberg said.

And while Orono will miss this person-first leadership, it is clear that the impact Orcutt has fostered will last beyond her time in the role. After 17 years as superintendent, she has built dear relationships and committed to this community, and so she is stepping into this next chapter with mixed emotions as she leaves that behind. Yet, she is also excited about what this time in her life will bring.

“I’m looking forward to spontaneity. There is no spontaneity in my life with a 24/7 job, so to have the ability to travel or do something when it just comes up will be a whole new experience for me,” Orcutt said.

Just as Orono says goodbye to Orcutt, however, they are accepting Flesher with open arms and an optimistic outlook. Flesher has an Educational Specialist degree in Educational Psychology from Minnesota State University Moorhead and a Education Doctorate in Leadership from Bethel University, among bachelors and masters degrees. In 2004, she assumed the position of the Director of Special Services, and 17 years later she is transitioning to the role of superintendent.

“She’s obviously incredibly qualified. She’ll do an excellent job, but I think what’s really going to be helpful for her as she moves into this is the fact that she currently works really closely with students and parents in the Special Services role. So I think that’s going to help her as she transitions into a higher-level position,” Schoenberg said.

I look forward to the work ahead, knowing that we build upon the legacy that Dr. Orcutt has created through her heart and soul.”

— Dr. Kristi Flesher

Similar to Orcutt, Flesher never imagined that she would find herself in this role. However, she is looking forward to building upon Orcutt’s work and eventually reaching normalcy within the school system in the next year.

“We’ve been so derailed by the pandemic this year that we haven’t had a chance to really get together and, again, collectively dream for our community and what our students need, as they’re leaving and launching into their adult life. So I really would like to get back together and refocus on continuing to dream about what kids need,” Flesher said.

“She has so many talents and so many capabilities. I feel really strongly that she’ll do a better job than I’ve ever done before. She has such deep, deep values and such a deep commitment and such a hard work ethic, and she’s brilliant. She’ll carry on what we’ve been doing but she’ll do it even better,” Orcutt said. “My advice to her is to keep your eye on the vision. And in the times of the storms and the distractions around us, you’ve got to keep your eye on the vision and kids have to come first.”

And as with many transitions in life, Orcutt and Flesher feel both joy and sadness with their next chapter. Orcutt and Flesher have worked together for over 20 years, and so continuing on will be different for the both of them.

“I’m excited to serve as superintendent but I also feel sad, personally, that I won’t get to see her everyday…I’ve had an office next to Karen for almost half of my life. And that’s a big deal. It’ll be different,” said Flesher. “I really would say that I look forward to the work ahead, knowing that we build upon the legacy that Dr. Orcutt has created through her heart and soul.”

Orcutt’s retirement will be effective June 31 and Flesher will assume the role July 1.