Retired director a ‘community ed star’
With an undergraduate degree in recreation and natural resource management, Tom Umhoefer hoped to find work outdoors — maybe with the Department of Natural Resources — after leaving Mankato, where he was born and attended college.
Instead he wound up in Burnsville in 1987, planning and supervising activities for Project KIDS, the still relatively new elementary-age child care program in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191.
“I started working with Project KIDS and just fell in love with it,” said Umhoefer, who had a sister-in-law who’d worked in the program. “I now knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. Public schools have been a good fit for me.”
Umhoefer retired June 30 as director of District 191 Community Education, which runs Project KIDS and scores of other programs that broaden and extend participation in the schools beyond the regular school day.
He served 14 years as director, ending his career where it began, with stops in other districts along the way.
The Eagan resident described the past 14 years as fruitful for new and expanded Community Education programs, including groundbreakers like voluntary prekindergarten for 4-year-olds.
Umhoefer radiated enthusiasm for his work, said DeeDee Currier, a former District 191 School Board member and administrator who worked in the Shakopee Public Schools’ Community Education department after retiring as principal of Sioux Trail Elementary in Burnsville.
“I call him a community ed star,” said Currier, who finished her School Board career last December.
“He epitomizes community education,” she said. “He not only supports K-12 in an extraordinary way, but that whole notion of community ed, of birth to death, he captures that in just a remarkable way. Our early childhood programs are extraordinary, and our Senior Center — it’s extraordinary.”
Starting as a Project KIDS assistant, Umhoefer was soon promoted to site coordinator at Sioux Trail and later to coordinator of Community Education youth programs.
From 1996 to 2000 he directed youth programs for the Inver Grove Heights and South St. Paul districts. In 2000 Umhoefer was hired as Community Education director in Glencoe, where he also managed a fieldhouse and fitness club with more than 500 members.
Umhoefer returned to Mankato from 2004 to 2007 as Community Education director for the Mankato Area Public Schools, with an office in the same building he’d attended as a kid.
“My office was in Lincoln Middle School when I worked there,” said Umhoefer, whose duties included managing and upgrading the local ice arena and other athletic facilities. “It was kind of fun.”
He was hired back in District 191 after the retirement of Community Relations Director Tom Lisec, also the district’s longtime Community Education director.
Umhoefer said his approach to community programming is to shovel the proceeds back into new and expanded programs.
“I’m not sitting on a huge fund balance by any shape of the imagination,” he said.
Community Education raises about half its funding in government aids, local taxes and grants, but after use fees are added, it’s roughly a $7 million annual enterprise, Umhoefer said.
“You put that money back to work, you get the community in the front door,” he said.
Some programs — including Ready for Kindergarten, Partners Achieving Learning Success at the elementary level and the Burnsville Youth Collaborative for middle-schoolers — are new since Umhoefer returned as director.
One that he’s tried to promote is a community theater program that Umhoefer said was launched three summers ago to take advantage of Burnsville High School’s splendid Mraz Center performing arts facility.
“I was really trying to make it work, and it will work,” he said. “It’s just going to take some time. COVID got in the way.”
Other mainstays predate his directorship, including Project KIDS and chess.
“Our chess program is huge in our community,” Umhoefer said. “Community Education has sponsored chess and worked with the chess programs since I started working there in 1987. We had a Russian chessmaster come in. Every fourth grade student gets a weeklong chess residency, and Community Education pays for that.”
Early education programs, coordinated by Cindy Check, are more robust than ever in District 191, including the voluntary prekindergarten program the state began funding in recent years, Umhoefer said.
“I think states, and I think legislators themselves, are finally starting to realize the importance of early education,” said the married father of two sons. “You can’t have kids in just child care or just at home or just kind of languishing and drop them into a kindergarten experience and expect them to do well.”
One of the accomplishments he’s most proud of is developing an internal giving program for district employees that contributes to Foundation 191 (Umhoefer serves on its board), Ready for Kindergarten and BrainPower in a BackPack, a weekend nutrition program for needy students.
“They got behind that concept,” he said of fellow employees. “Because every single penny, every penny, goes either into a child’s stomach or a child’s brain or a teacher’s classroom.”
Umhoefer is succeeded as director by Jason Sellars, who coordinated Adult Basic Education and targeted learning programs.