Mott-Regent opens new year with new superintendent

LaFontaine bringing leadership and experience to guide district through building project

It’s been a busy first month for new Mott-Regent Superintendent. Dr. Viola LaFontaine has officially been behind the desk in Mott since July 1, shortly before the referendum bond passed for a new school project. She replaces the departing Elroy Burkle, who worked part-time last year after Myron Schweitzer left the district.

Viola LaFontaine was hired as the new superintendent of Mott-Regent before the end of the 2015-2016 school year. She previously worked in the same capacity with the Williston School District, guiding them through their own building project. (Photo by Cole Benz/The Herald)
Viola LaFontaine was hired as the new superintendent of Mott-Regent before the end of the 2015-2016 school year. She previously worked in the same capacity with the Williston School District, guiding them through their own building project. (Photo by Cole Benz/The Herald)

It’s been a busy first month for new Mott-Regent Superintendent. Dr. Viola LaFontaine has officially been behind the desk in Mott since July 1, shortly before the referendum bond passed for a new school project. She replaces the departing Elroy Burkle, who worked part-time last year after Myron Schweitzer left the district.

LaFontaine was born and raised in the Belcourt, N.D. area and graduated from Mary College, now known as the University of Mary in Bismarck.

She finished her education in three and a half years, graduating with a degree in secondary english. LaFontaine was hoping to get into the Bismarck School District, but in the late 70s it was just as hard to get into the system then as it is now, according to her.

In the meantime, she went to work back home near Belcourt as the Internal Suspension Supervisor. It was during this time that LaFontaine was approached with an opportunity to further her education.

At an in-service, a professor told her about a master’s degree program that would have been paid for by scholarship money through the University of North Dakota. She applied for the program and was selected. The caveat was that she had her undergraduate degree in secondary education, the master’s program would be for elementary education, that meant she would have to do some extra classroom work in elementary ed.

She eventually took an administrator position in Belcourt and worked in the bilingual classes, and she was always put in charge when the principal was out of the building. This is where her path towards full-time administration began.

One day the principal was out for an extended period of time, and lo and behold he had been job hunting and took another position, with two months left in the school year.

When the board went to search for another candidate, they approached her.

After earning her principal credentials, she was hired.

She spent four years as principal before yet another opportunity presented itself to further her own education.

The same professor that encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree told her about a fellowship with UND to earn her PhD. She conversed with her husband about the program and discussed what the workload would do to their daily routine, he encouraged her and she entered the program.

From there she moved on to the larger school in the Turtle Mountain School District where she was hired as an assistant principal of an elementary school that had 900 registered students.

She spent three years as assistant principal before being promoted to superintendent.

After some years at that position she started to see what other opportunities were available, and she found a home in the Williston School District. She was hire in 2009, not knowing the boom was about to explode.

LaFontaine was hired just before the Bakken Oil boom really took hold in the western side of the state, and the challenges this brought help her grow, she said.

“I grew so much professionally, and even personally,” she said, of her time in Williston. “So many great opportunities, I mean challenges that came up.”

During the skyrocketing enrollment, LaFontaine found herself attending Oil and Gas Impact meetings, and even lobbying to the North Dakota Legislation and the Governor, something she never thought she’d have to do when she chose education as her career.

Issues LaFontaine faced during her time in Williston included financing, staffing, and finding the space for the rapid increase in enrollment.

She said it was an adrenaline rush at times trying to work through the issues a population boom can bring, and that it felt great when they solved each problem.

“You feel good when things work out,” she said.

In a busy school district her hours started to add up. And an injury to her husband factored into what she wanted for herself in the near future. So again began to explore opportunities around these state, and she stumbled upon the opening with Mott-Regent.

“I had applied at a couple of different schools and then I applied [with Mott-Regent],” she said. “When I came here [and] I just really fell in love with the people that I met right away.”

On the ride home, after her interview, she and her husband agreed that Mott-Regent was the place they wanted to be, and when the offer came from the school board it was an easy decision for them. She accepted the position.

“It fit,” she said.

NEW BUILDING

One of the issues she faced in Williston was over population, and they solved it by the construction of a new school, something Mott-Regent is about to embark on themselves. Former school board president Kevin Roth previously told the Herald that her experience in guiding a district through a building project was one of the reasons they chose her as the next superintendent.

The experience she had in Williston regarding a building project closely mirrors the issues Mott-Regent has faced.

In similar fashion, the constituents vetoed an initial bond, and after the district went back and cut the cost and gave the public more information, it passed.

“People want to know that their money is being used as responsibly and accountably as ever,” LaFontaine said. “They want the transparency.”

She’s happy with the decision to construct a new building, but she also knows that it’s hard when a vote like that is so close. She previously told the Herald that she recognizes the sensitivity of the issue but believes that a school is very important to communities.

“It’s more than just a building,” LaFontaine said. “Education is the cornerstone of a community.”

WHAT SHE BRINGS

She wants to be able to bring her leadership background and fresh eyes to look at all aspects of the school district. It has been a few years since the district has had a true, full-time superintendent. Even Schweitzer taught some classes during his time as superintendent. But LaFontaine will be in the superintendent role 100 percent of the time, and she’s ready to get her hands dirty.

“I’m a very participatory management kind of person,” she said. “I’m not like just ‘sit in my office and write up all these plans.’”

LaFontaine said that she’s getting in the groove of things, she has felt very welcome from the people she has engaged with so far in her time living in Mott.

“The more people I’ve been meeting, the more I know I’ve made the best choice that I possibly could in my lifetime,” LaFontaine said. “We love the community.”

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