Starting with a backpack, Lakota superintendent showed he was on different path

The leader of Lakota Schools just started a new contract that has him in charge through 2025. Superintendent Matt Miller recently spoke to the Journal-News about why he wants to finish out his career with Butler County's largest school system.  NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
The leader of Lakota Schools just started a new contract that has him in charge through 2025. Superintendent Matt Miller recently spoke to the Journal-News about why he wants to finish out his career with Butler County's largest school system. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

Late last month, the leader of Butler County’s largest school system received a pay raise, praise and a new contract through 2025.

In response, Lakota Superintendent Matt Miller told board members he’d be pleased to finish out his career as the top official of Ohio’s eighth’s largest public school system.

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The 49-year-old Miller, whose district enrolls 16,800 students in 22 schools throughout West Chester and Liberty townships, talked to the Journal-News recently about his career, his methods and his priorities for his recently extended tenure.

He reflected back on his hiring in 2017 and what may lie ahead for Lakota as it continues to adjust to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Miller grew up in Hamilton County’s Price Hill community, graduated from St. Xavier High School and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Cincinnati.

In many ways, his choosing to leave the superintendent’s job in northern Ohio’s Mentor Schools to take over Lakota was a homecoming he’d like to extend.

“This (Greater Cincinnati) was home before, and it’s certainly home now,” said Miller, who lives in Liberty Twp.

“I love the region, and I love living where I work. And I like what both communities offer to our citizens. There is a lot of growth potential here. You look at our community and changes we are going through and the growth and those are things moving in a positive direction and I want to be a part of that.”

Miller has led a historic transformation of Lakota, especially in modernizing its digital learning capacity, including free laptops for thousands of students.

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Since joining Lakota, he has built on a national reputation established while at Mentor Schools as a high-profile innovator who drew attention for his YouTube video TED talk in 2016, which was described as a “funeral” for textbook-based, old-fashioned learning methods.

“I say this a lot but it’s really true, I’m blessed with a good team here,” said Miller, who often deflects praise during school board meetings.

Last March’s onset of coronavirus shutdowns stopped some major modernization efforts as Lakota scrambled to adjust to providing education remotely.

“We were meeting every single day, including weekends on how … we were going to educate kids in the middle of all this,” he said.

Miller said he rises at 4:10 a.m. for pre-dawn workouts to keep his energy levels up for long workdays. He is active on Twitter, even communicating with other local and statewide superintendents encouraging workouts, health, ideas and accomplishments.

“If I could give Matt anything to help him in his role,” said veteran Lakota school board member Lynda O’Connor, “I’d give him another five hours in the day to accomplish all he’d like to do.

Despite the pandemic, he has continued his habit of popping unannounced into Lakota school buildings to see firsthand how schools are operating.

“I like to see what’s going on in the classrooms and in the buildings,” he said.

Veteran school board member Julie Shaffer was on the board that hired Miller in 2017, who was cited by a national school administer organization as a rising leadership star in America’s public schools.

Other superintendent candidates carried in briefcases to interviews. Miller came in carrying a backpack.

“I don’t recall if he even pulled anything out of it or not. It was just over his shoulder and left an impression on me that this interview was going to be different,” she said.

And Miller’s leadership has followed suit, she said.

“You could tell he brought a different energy. He immediately started to listen to all stakeholders, being very accessible and responsive,” she said. “And he has used what he learned to improve, sharing the great things happening in Lakota with the community through various communication tools and being willing to admit where we needed to improve.”

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Lakota’s current board President Kelley Casper describes Miller as unique among superintendents she has observed in the district for more than two decades.

“His dedication to the students and staff of Lakota is unparalleled,” she said. “His favorite statement is ‘It’s a team effort,’ but we all know leadership starts at the top.”

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