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Bismarck Public Schools superintendent Jason Hornbacher started his first day leading the district on Friday with a series of meetings with staff, a legislative update and a budget forecast. Hornbacher is a product of Bismarck schools, graduating in 1984. He is also a military veteran and said: "It's a part of who you are." Hornbacher follows Jim Haussler, who was interim superintendent for the past year.

Jason Hornbacher is proud of where he's from.

He grew up in south Bismarck, about a block away from Dorothy Moses Elementary School — the school where he was principal up until recently. His parents still live in his childhood home near Dorothy Moses and Wachter Middle School.

On Friday, Hornbacher officially assumed the role as superintendent of Bismarck Public Schools, a position he applied for as a way to give back to a community he says gave considerably to him.

"I'm proud of the community and proud of Bismarck schools. I think it's a dynamic time in education, where we're meeting the needs of kids and having to think differently of what schools look like and what opportunities we provide kids," he said.

Hornbacher spent his first day doing what he believes is vital to operating a large organization: talking to employees. He said his plan was to get acclimated to the district's administrative building, the Hughes Education Center, and stopping by different departments to talk with staff and other administrators.

Also on his schedule was to hear an update on bills making their way through the state Legislature that might have an impact on BPS, as well as talking with BPS business and operations manager Darin Scherr about the the district's budget.

Hornbacher, 52, is the superintendent of the largest school district in North Dakota with just over 13,000 students. The Bismarck School Board selected Hornbacher last month after a monthslong search. He succeeded Jim Haussler, who served as the interim superintendent this school year following the retirement of Tamara Uselman.

Hornbacher was one of three internal candidates on the school board's short list. A graduate of Bismarck High School in 1984, he started working for the district in 1990 as a teacher and principal at several different schools. For the past six years, he served as the principal of Dorothy Moses.

Before selecting Hornbacher, some school board members criticized his lack of administrative experience. Hornbacher conceded he's not a "career superintendent," but has varied experiences working within a school system, which he believes is an advantage.

"I don't look at not having administrative experience as a detriment. There are things I'm going to learn, absolutely. There's a lot to learn, but I have a lot of people to lean on," he said.

Hornbacher faces several challenges as superintendent, including addressing overcrowding at some of the district's elementary schools, some of which have had to utilize portable classrooms. Hornbacher applauded the school board's approach to the situation, including hiring a consultant to do an "environmental scan" of the district.

"(The environmental scan is) a very comprehensive view of where Bismarck's at," he said, adding that BPS officials will review results from that survey this spring.

Once the environmental scan is complete, district officials will use the results to complete a strategic plan, which will address population growth north of Bismarck, including the Silver Ranch project by local developer Chad Wachter that would add 2,800 homes over the next 20 to 30 years.

In addition to planning for growth, Hornbacher said he also hopes to continue to push mental health awareness in the district. At Dorothy Moses, he began several school-based mental health initiatives. He says mental health "is for everybody" and refers to mental health as "wellness."

"We all have wellness issues," Hornbacher said.

Last school year, the Bismarck School Board set aside $1.4 million that went, in part, to school-based mental health initiatives. BPS also started mental health pilot projects this year, including at Dorothy Moses and Bismarck High School.

BPS formed a task force that will assess the pilot projects' data at the end of the school year, which will be instrumental in determining how the district will continue, Hornbacher said.

"It is a topic that we're going to move forward," he said, adding that this will involve budgeting and staffing. He also said he hopes the district can continue to seek out partnerships with organizations to move forward.

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(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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Education and Health Reporter