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Lifelong North Branch resident Ekstrom retires after 20 years of service on the school board

As someone who always put “students first,” Kirby Ekstrom will be missed on the North Branch School Board.

Ekstrom’s resignation was accepted during the school board’s Jan. 14 meeting. Ekstrom served on the board for over 20 years, most recently serving as chair. Ekstrom and his wife, Jan, will be moving to Cromwell, but he said he still might be seen around North Branch at a game, concert, play or senior awards night.

“Our saying ‘Students First’ is something I have always held most important. As a board member, some accomplishments we have done for our students: adding girls and boys hockey programs, dance, AFJROTC (Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps), Robotics, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), culinary arts, and Chisago County Life Works Center, our future ‘Fab Lab,’ plus many academic programs that allow students interested in postsecondary schooling options to help attain credits while still in high school, and our new high school redesign is something I will be keeping an eye on,” Ekstrom said.

Ekstrom was born in Rush City and has lived in the North Branch community for 60 years. Ekstrom attended, and graduated from, North Branch Area Public Schools. In 1981 he married Jan, his “junior high sweetheart,” and they raised their two sons in North Branch. Ekstrom was first seated on the school board in 1999.

Superintendent Sara Paul touched on Ekstrom’s leadership.

“Three numbers come to mind that I just briefly want to make sure to highlight that you touched on in your comments. Sixty, 20 and one,” Paul began.

“So 60 years living in a community. When I’ve had the chance to be welcomed into this role, being in Central Park, the deeper meaning that meant to you. Sitting on a special bench. Walking through our fields, walking through our facilities and all the stories you shared with me really carries a legacy for somebody that just loves their community and has chosen to serve his community through that second key number, 20 years.

“Twenty years of dedicated service in so many different capacities and roles that stretched at bringing the needs of this district to those that could make a difference,” Paul said. “And the hidden number in there is forty. Forty years you been married to your beautiful wife, Jan, and the support she’s given you is just phenomenal, because I really don’t know if you sleep. I don’t know how somebody that has to go through all of the deep questions and processes just in your role at the Minnesota State High School League to make sure that our students have the opportunity to engage in extracurricular activities this year.

“Your love of this community is represented in the number 1, which is students are always first for you. And I so respect that. When I was exploring changing my life to come and move to this community, people that have been mentors and role models for me talked about you and your service. What a great human being you are. And even though my time with you has been very short, what this district does with the legacy of the bell and what it symbolizes, in terms of your dedication and service, it’s just an honor to present this bell to you.”

Due to COVID-19 measures, the district has decided not to host a reception for Ekstrom at this time, but one may be held at a later date if restrictions allow. For those who would like to send Ekstrom a note of thanks for his decades of service, a Padlet has been set up. All are invited to add their thoughts at https://bit.ly/38w0MiP.

Ekstrom takes great pride in what the board has been able to accomplish the past 20 years.

“Serving my school district for over 20 years, I have achieved many rewards, being included on MSBA’s (Minnesota School Board Association) 2013 All State School Board, handing the championship trophy to our volleyball captains, Director of District 9 for MSBA, Region 7AA Executive Committee MSHSL (Minnesota State High School League), MSHSL Board of Directors, MSBAIT (Minnesota School Board Association Insurance Trust) Insurance Trust Board of Directors, receiving the SCRED (St. Croix River Education District) Legislative Advocacy Award, testifying at the Capitol and many other awards and committees, but the most proud moment was when I handed my sons their diploma at graduation,” Ekstrom said.

Tim MacMillan, who was elected chair of the board, reminisced about his election to the school board.

“I just want to thank Kirby for his wisdom and his leadership,” MacMillan said. “When I first came on the board, Kirby was the first to welcome me, first to take me under his wing, talk to me about what being a school board member means. I couldn’t have learned from a better role model, mentor, so I’m going to miss Kirby. ... You’re a great friend, you’re a great board member. You’ve done so much for this district. We can’t match that and I don’t think anybody ever will be able to match that.”

Board Member Sarah Grovender agreed with MacMillan, and appreciated Ekstrom’s wisdom when she was first elected to the board.

“You were very welcoming. You were such a wonderful mentor and leader, and I just love how much you love North Branch. It’s so fun to see you out in the community and at all the events and always so positive and so involved with everything,” Grovender said. “I’m so thankful that I got to have so many years with your leadership.”

Ekstrom said he can retire knowing the district and the board are in good hands.

“I leave you with one heck of a great superintendent, ‘Super Paul,’ administration staff above all others, and a staff at the district office, teachers, custodians, support staff, food service staff, and bus drivers (I still consider ours), Community Education staff, ECFE (Early Childhood Family Education) staff, advisers, and coaches that go above and beyond in their abilities to raise and educate our students,” Ekstrom said. “I have the utmost respect for this group of board members, and I know that ‘Inspire Dreams, Build Integrity, Instill Hope’ will be carried into the future.”

Board Member Heather Osagiede appreciated Ekstrom’s leadership when she first was elected to the board.

“I also just really appreciate all of the years you have put in,” Osagiede said. “I appreciate that you’re planning on still kind of keeping your toes in the water a little bit because the wealth of information you have because of being in the community for so many years; it is a tremendous loss and I’m glad we aren’t completely losing it.”

Board Member Tanya Giese thanked Ekstrom for encouraging her to run for the school board.

“Kirby, I’d like to thank you for your service and dedication to our kids and our community. It was a phone call with you earlier this past summer that inspired me and encouraged me to get on the board,” Giese said. “I just admire your passion from being a former North Branch grad, never leaving here. You are inspiriting and I love, love your passion for here. Definitely leaving a legacy.”

Board Member Kevin Bollman appreciates Ekstrom’s commitment to the district.

“I really appreciate the openness you have, the conversations we had and the direction offered as we came on the board,” Bollman said. “A life of public service is really a higher calling. It’s not always easy, you can’t make everyone happy. This community has a real debt to someone that can support these kids and these teachers and these schools for 20 years. We really appreciate your service. We wish you all the best in your retirement, it’s well earned, and we’ll see you around.”

Ekstrom thanked everybody for their support during his time on the board.

“Lastly, I have many people to say thank you to: past board members and staff; Randi Johnson, who taught me school finance 101; past Superintendent Henton, who we shared many hours together at meetings and conferences; past board member Henry ‘Hank’ Brooker, the person that talked me into putting my name in for school board; and my wife, Jan, who allowed me to spend so many hours away at meetings, conferences and events,” Ekstrom said.

What others are saying about Ekstrom

The following quotes about Ekstrom were provided in a press release by North Branch Area Public Schools.

Former North Branch Superintendent Deb Henton: “It was common to meet with School Board Chair Kirby Ekstrom prior to a school board meeting to ensure the agenda was properly prepared. We would meet in the office of the superintendent and as the time of the meeting approached, we would head for the school board room. Once in the boardroom, Board Chair Ekstrom would calmly lead the meeting to its conclusion which generally would take 2-3 hours. Already a long day, one would think that he would be anxious to call it a day and go home, but not Kirby! He would head to a field or gym to cheer on his beloved Vikings. Board Chair Ekstrom is a super fan of the red and white!”

Minnesota School Board Association Executive Director Kirk Schneidawind: “Kirby is indeed a terrific guy. He has been a true team player while serving on the MSBA Board of Directors. He has demonstrated great leadership in representing his MSBA region which has 48 school districts. More importantly, Kirby understood that his duties represented the interests of our 333 public school districts and 850,000 public schools. MSBA is an organization that represents all of our public school districts in the state of Minnesota. He has been the chair of our All-State School Board committee and a strong voice for our school board members while serving as the AA representative on the MSHSL Board of Directors. As I understand, he is known as Mr. North Branch which I have heard from other sources than Kirby himself. I have seen that same love he has for his community of North Branch replicated in the work that he has done for MSBA and our state.”

North Branch Schools General Counsel Peter Martin: “Kirby has selflessly dedicated many years of his life to the growth and success of the North Branch Public Schools. His legacy will endure far beyond the conclusion of his distinguished career as a Board member. He will be greatly missed.”

Close friend Charley Klopp: “Kirby always was very passionate about North Branch Schools. I would see him at all of the school functions from pre-school events to high school activities. His foremost concern was the students we were serving and how better to service them. Whenever he and I would talk the conversation always ended up about the well being of our school. Being a volunteer in the school system for close to 25 years, I have always appreciated the effort that Kirby has maintained in his championing North Branch Public Schools. In the sports writing lingo, the term homer refers to a person who loves and supports the Home team through thick and thin to almost a point of blindness. That is Kirby. We will all miss him, but now his children and grandchildren will be his new passion.”

Former school board chair Kim Salo: “Kirby will be deeply missed. I witnessed first hand the great service he has done for district No. 138. If there was a meeting or a school activity, you could count on seeing Kirby there; he made it a priority to attend most everything! His countless hours of devotion is to be commended. Thank you, Kirby, for the many years of kindness, devotion and passion you gave to our district.”

North Branch School Board vacant seat

The Board of Education for North Branch Area Public Schools is accepting applications to fill the vacancy created by Ekstrom’s resignation. The appointed individual will serve until January 2022. If interested in serving on the school board, call Arle Chambers at 651-674-1011 for more information and an application.

Applications are due back in the district office by Feb. 10. Interviews will be conducted on Feb. 11 with the appointment made at the regular school board meeting on Feb. 11. The selected individual will begin serving at the Feb. 11 regular school board meeting.

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