Mark Naugle is Custer County Chronicle Citizen of the Year

Ron Burtz

To say 2020 was a tumultuous year is the height of understatement and that tumult was perhaps no more keenly felt than in education. However, Custer County schools have had a steady hand at the helm throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the leadership of their superintendent of schools who, at the same time, has overseen the construction of a new school building and numerous other projects.
That’s why the Custer County Chronicle has named Mark Naugle as Citizen of the Year for 2020.
“Mr. Naugle has been instrumental in making a positive difference for our students, families and the Custer community through his tenure as Custer School District superintendent,” said Custer Elementary principal Barb Paulson.  “However, he has gone above and beyond as he has led the school and community throughout the pandemic.”
Paulson noted that Naugle’s leadership skills were put to the test when the remainder of the school year was canceled by the governor beginning March 13 and Naugle had to guide the staff through a new way of doing school.
“There are no rules on how to deal with something like we have been dealt,” said Paulson, “but having a strong leader like Mr. Naugle who isn’t afraid to ask tough questions and make tough decisions has made the situation manageable.”  
“He’s been able to battle through these issues without becoming frustrated and throwing up his hands,” said board of education member Jeff Prior who has served with Naugle through the six years of his tenure as superintendent.
“Instead of over-reaction to COVID-19, Mark’s leadership has led to implementation of high tech solutions such as the Ionizer systems installed in every district school building,” said Prior. “These devices will provide a healthier indoor environment for years to come, long after the current epidemic fades.”
After the school closure last spring, Naugle worked with teachers to quickly put together a plan for distance learning for the rest of the school year. Then over the summer he worked to streamline the various online programs the district was using to provide better continuity for those students still doing their school work at home in the new school year.
However, Prior said acquiring the hardware for distance learning has been a priority of Naugle’s since he took over as superintendent in 2014.
“Mark is very good at getting funding for things,” said Prior, adding Naugle has worked to provide laptops and tablets for every student, not just high school seniors. “Kids who are out of school because of other illnesses will now have a means of staying current in their studies and if we ever have to go to full-time distance learning, that infrastructure is in place.”
Another immediate response to the pandemic by Naugle was to get funding for school lunches to be provided even though students were not in the classroom.
“He immediately sought out and completed paperwork for meals to be available and delivered to area families starting March 18,” said Paulson.  “He also secured funds through donations to pay for our staff to deliver meals to our families throughout the summer. Our students and families in both Custer and Hermosa were provided 14 meals a week from March 18 to Aug. 20 because of Naugle’s diligence.”
He also provided leadership to a large group of staff members tasked with creating a back-to-school plan for the 2020-21 school year. Throughout the summer Naugle worked with the group to craft a document to guide the district through the new year even as the virus continued to be a factor. Adjustments to the plan are continuing even as the district enters into a second semester.
“Naugle gave the public the opportunity to share their thoughts as the school board made decisions regarding the pandemic plan,” noted Prior.  “Mark has been successful at inviting public opinion into open forum and has listened.”
He also praised Naugle for working to keep extracurricular activities going when other schools were canceling entire sports seasons.
“We still had a football season as well as basketball and wrestling,” said Prior. “Many school districts could not strike the balance between ‘safety’ and normalcy. Mark has successfully taken the lumps and bruises and delivered open schools.”
He also noted that Naugle supported a prom and graduation, which were both held outdoors in June.
“This has been a challenge that no one has faced before,” added Paulson, “but with Naugle’s leadership, the Custer School District has been able to complete a full in-person semester of school, which many schools were not able to do.”
Prior said, even though he and Naugle often disagree on issues, he appreciates the superintendent’s focus on problem-solving and his ability to foster consensus.
“I appreciate his ability to take the emotion out of issues and problem-solve,” said Prior, adding, “He supports the decisions of the board.”
Prior also said he appreciates Naugle’s ability to focus on several important issues at once as evidenced by his continued leadership in regard to the new $13 million school building being constructed in Hermosa.
“Mark has provided solid leadership for that project while at the same time juggling all the demands that COVID has thrown at him,” said Prior. “Mark has been able to focus on both.”
Noting that the structure is being built with enough room to support the current growth rate over the next 10 years, Prior believes the district is on the right track and said Naugle has been a big part of making the project happen.
“I’ve always respected someone who can make a decision, not just for the near future, but for the future future,” said Prior. “The K-8 school building project in Hermosa is an amazing addition for our county.”
Adding another layer of stress to an already stressful year has been a couple of major and abrupt staff changes at Custer High School with the resignations of both the principal and assistant principal/activities director. Following the resignation of Jordan Likness as activities director last spring, Naugle volunteered to take over the scheduling duties for the first semester of the new school year.
Although it has been eclipsed and even temporarily stalled by the COVID crisis, another of Naugle’s accomplishments over the past two years has been implementation of the TeamMates mentoring program in Custer and Hermosa schools.
After helping spearhead the effort to bring the program to Custer, Naugle served on the TeamMates board and oversaw the recruitment and vetting of adult volunteers which grew to several dozen in the county until the program had to be put on hold because of the virus.
As a native of Custer and a graduate of Custer High School, Naugle’s love for the community and his dedication to it seem to come naturally. In addition to his school duties, he is involved in several community organizations. He has served as president of Custer Rotary Club and worked with United Way of the Black Hills.
His influence in South Dakota education spreads beyond Custer County as well. Naugle is currently president of South Dakota School Superintendents’ Association, as well as president of the Region 4 Superintendents and Business Managers Area Group. He has also been involved in the School Administrators of South Dakota organization.
“The Custer community is fortunate to have Naugle leading our school and community through this ever-changing pandemic,” concluded Paulson.

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