On Wednesday, June 17, the Sun sat down for a telephone interview with El Dorado Springs R-II Superintendent Mark Koca about his 35 years of teaching experience, the last nine as superintendent of the El Dorado Springs school system.

The previous evening, the El Dorado Springs Chamber of Commerce named Mark to their Hall of Fame. Then he took his place in the Sunderwirth Band Stand as 1st chair trumpet player in the 135-year-old municipal band, a position he has held since 1995 in his 34 years of playing in the band. (First year was 1975)

Editor’s note: Although I was not around Mark when he was growing up in El Dorado Springs, his mother, Ruth Eberle, was my music teacher when I was in grade school before she got married.

Q. Are you glad you took the job in El Dorado Springs?

I’m so lucky to be able to land this job. There are very few people who A. Get to come back to their hometown as superintendent and B. Survive the job. There are good things about being a local person and there are bad things about being a local person. There were people kind of nudging me for some special favors before I worked the first day here. But, you know the people and that makes it a little easier in that regard. To be able to retire here, that’s amazing.

Something else that I think has been good for me. I’m not throwing shade at any other superintendent we’ve ever had, but when you’re going to stay in a community that you’re working in after you retire, you’ve kind of got a different mindset, because you’re still going to be around all these people.  And those decisions you’ve made, they are still going to be around and they are going to be enforced. It’s not like you will just up and turn your back on the community and walk away. That does change your mindset a little bit sometimes. I think it makes you more thoughtful and more honest.

Q. How did you get into teaching?

I knew I wanted to teach when I was in High School, so I just kind of headed that way.

Q. What did you teach first and where?

My first year I taught Industrial Arts in Lone Jack, MO (and coached basketball).

Q. Is that your first love – Industrial Arts?

Yeah, that’s what I went to college and trained to teach. It was either that or music at the time. This was a better fit for me so that’s the direction I went.

Q. And you still have a penchant for construction?

Oh, yeah. I’m not happy if I’m not building something. You can ask my wife that and she would confirm.

Q. You’ve been building things here at El Dorado. What all have you added?

It’s a pretty long list. The major things, obviously the renovations at the football field, the track surface, the parking lot, the practice field, the new driveway at the Elementary School, the parking across the street from the High School, the Early Childhood Center, and recently the addition to the High School with the new Middle School gym. That’s the big stuff. There are hundreds of smaller things we have worked on in the last nine years.

Q. Is there anything that you wanted to do that you haven’t got done?

Well, there are a few projects out there we didn’t get around to that I would like to have been a part of, but I’m confident the board will be able to do them when the time is right. It depends on funding. They will get there.

Q. You seem to also have a pretty good handle on financing?

I don’t pretend to be a guru or anything like that. I just try to keep tabs on things and do the best we can. We have done pretty well financially. This year is going to be a nightmare because of the funding cuts from the state. Most years we did OK. We spent reserves down a little bit during my time here, but they were mostly one-time expenditures that added much needed improvements to the school. That’s never a bad thing.

Q. I think you said once some kids from somewhere else, when they got off the bus, said, “Wow, this looks like a college campus.”

They did. I don’t remember where they were from, but they got off the bus at the new east entrance. It was neat to hear the kids appreciate that.

Q. It might be a good time to make the change. You’ve lost your long-time board president.

Yeah. This next year is going to be a year of changes. You know we have several new administrators in the district and a complete change over in the board leadership. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing, but all things change. So, this is the year for it.

Q. It seems like Heath (Oates, incoming superintendent) is going to hit the ground running.

I’ve been very impressed with him thus far.  We are kind of similar in background and kind of similar in the way we think things should run. So, I don’t think he will be a big shock to anybody’s system here. He’s a lot younger than me. He probably has more energy than I’ve got left these days.

Q. What’s been the hardest thing about your job?

I think the hardest thing about any administrative position like this is trying to find that common ground whether it’s a patron with a problem with the school or a student problem with a teacher. Those things are hard to resolve bringing people together and trying to move forward from that point.  It doesn’t matter how much talking you do or how much you give or how little you give, it’s never going to line up. Sometimes people walk away unhappy and that’s unfortunate. I always try to do the reasonable thing. I’m sure people would question my judgment at times, but that’s part of it. And there’s always a lot more to what’s going on than the average person would know. A lot of the stuff we can’t share or talk about. That’s what really makes the job difficult at times.

I’ll give you a classic example. A lot of times we have a student who thinks they haven’t been treated right and they want to know what happened to this other student. I can’t talk about that because it’s not your child. It’s somebody else’s child. That makes them unhappy because they want to know and I don’t blame them for wanting to know. I understand that but my hands are tied in that regard.

Q. I think you said one of the hardest calls you had to make was snow days.

Yes, snow days are brutal. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’re wrong. You’ve got so many things that hinge on that decision.  If you go ahead and have school, how many people will that require to be out on the road? It’s not just students and the buses, it’s my staff and teenagers who drive to school. Conversely, if I call school off, parents have to find daycare for their kids or stay home with their kids. Either way you call it, it’s a bad deal.

Q. You said you have no plans to run for school board?

When I went to Humansville, a former superintendent was on the school board. That’s just not a good situation.

Q. You have been here nine years. Is that a record?

Bill Kelsay was here 10 years. I think he was the longest serving superintendent we’ve had since I’ve got records back into the 40s.

Q. I don’t remember a standing  ovation when he retired.

I was very surprised by that… and very moved. In my position, it’s rare that somebody ever comes up to you and says, “Hey, good job.” Seeing appreciation like that expressed by the staff was moving.

Q. I think you all did a good job picking Heath.

I don’t envy him his challenges coming in with all this Covid stuff and trying to put together a response plan. Covid 19 has totally made a mess of our planning and our operations. It’s going to be a real challenge for schools next year.

Q. That elevator has been great for the kids who need it.

And it’s been great for our maintenance crew moving equipment between floors. It should have been done 35 or 40 years ago, but elevators are really expensive.

Q. What are you going to do in retirement?

I’ve got the family farm out there where I’ll probably spend most of my time. I’ve got a house to oversee construction of for my daughter some time in the next year.

She lives in Mt. Vernon so that will involve lots of driving there. But the things we do for family, right?

Q. Anything else we should talk about?

I’d just like to thank the board and the community for allowing me to serve nine years. That’s a long time in superintendent years. A lot of superintendents serve four or five years and move on. The fact that I got nine in here speaks well of the relationship.