The title “superintendent” carries the hefty connotation of respectability, but it also seems weighed down by stuffy academia and unapproachability. Nothing could be further from the truth for David Garroutte, the now retired, 17-year superintendent of Justus-Tiawah schools.
Garroutte wore many hats during his time as superintendent. He daylighted as principle of the 7th and 8th grade students, transportation director, head of grounds and maintenance, coach and substitute bus driver alongside his state-sanctioned duties to hire and supervise his 65 staff members, direct federal programs and report to the state.
“That’s something I kind of enjoyed, because you’re not doing the same thing every day,” he said.
On June 30, Garroutte retired from a total 33 years in his dream career, molding children into the best adults they can be.
“When our kids leave here we want them to be successful,” Garroutte said. “We don’t just want them to go belong, we want them to go lead.”
For the 500+ pre-K through 8th grade students under his care, Garroutte said the key has been not only educating children to state standards, but providing a special focus on building their character as well.
Garroutte said that if his students can look somebody in the eye, answer a question in a complete sentence and communicate fairly and honestly, then everything else would kind of take care of itself.
Before joining the Justus-Tiawah school district in 2001, Garroutte worked in the Claremore school district for 16 years with his wife Kerri, now the high school principal.
Garroutte and his wife moved to the Claremore area in 1985, before they had kids, so that Garroutte could begin his career in Claremore schools.
He started as a junior high algebra and pre-algebra teacher as well as the eighth grade football coach.
After two years he moved up to the high school staff as an assistant coach for about seven years. He eventually became the head football coach for the high school where he taught honors algebra I and II.
During his three year stint as the head football coach he was also appointed athletic director, but he gave both of those up when their third child was born and his mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1996.
Then, unexpectedly in the middle of the school year, spring of 1997, the assistant principal retired, so the school asked Garroutte to fill the position on an interim basis.
They kept him on in that position for four and a half years, and he picked up coaching his daughters’ little league softball team, which he continued for their whole softball careers.
With his Master’s degree and experience as an assistant principal in hand, Garroutte recalled his nerves while sitting for the nine hour superintendent’s test. The exam was primarily opinion questions with two essays and multiple choice scenarios asking “what would you do if ...?”
“I remember telling my wife when I came home from that test ‘If I didn’t pass then God didn’t want me to be a superintendent.’”
It must have been God’s plan, because Garroutte passed by a narrow margin and was recruited to take over the position at Justus-Tiawah schools from James Barham, who had been with the district for 33 years.
Garroutte enrolled his own children in the school system, his oldest in the sixth grade, not out of obligation, but because he honestly believed it was the best place for them to be.
“I hated leaving the people that I worked with at Claremore because I enjoyed that family, but dealing with discipline all the time kind of gets old,” he said. “When kids look at you very convincingly and tell you lies, I have a bunch of stories there…”
“At the high school as an assistant principal 80 percent of my job was discipline, and I came out here and 10 percent of my job is discipline,” he said.
Garroutte said he instantly hit it off with Barham and with the school board, but that didn’t quite prepare him for the level of difficulty in that first year.
“I came here and really flew by the seat of my pants. I had Mr. Barham on speed dial the first year,” he said, with a chuckle, before moving into a more serious tone. “Mr. Barham said something to me when I first came here, ‘It’ll become a part of you,’ and man that’s been so true. The J-T family just becomes a part of you.”
Over the last 17 years, a lot has changed in the Justus-Tiawah school district.
Failing to acknowledge any credit for the district’s progress Garroutte said, “I couldn’t say enough about our parents, how supportive they are of our school and our staff.”
Garroutte stared at the wall as if studying a map before listing off all the new construction made possible by parent and community support. In the early years it was the administration building and new classroom space at the north campus. Then a new kitchen and cafeteria south. The south campus also had a building wing installed not long ago to house the band room, computer lab, classrooms and a common area for students to enjoy.
Most recently, it was the bright and shiny new gymnasium, with a black metal wild cat affixed to it’s golden side.
“The gym is something that I’m definitely proud of,” Garroutte said. The school board named the new gymnasium after Garroutte despite his protests. “I told them I didn’t want anything named after me until I was dead and gone, but they didn’t listen to me,” he said with a chuckle.
Student enrollment numbers have also grown over Garroutte’s tenure. From 350 students to 521, the number of students has grown steadily, even with a significant dip during the 2008 recession.
A new housing addition and economic growth along Highway 20 mean the potential for even higher enrollment numbers and more tax dollars to support the school in the future.
Garroutte said his biggest accomplishments as superintendent have been maintaining the confidence of the patrons in the community as to get every bond issue passed and improving the school both physically and academically.
However, in his mind the school’s biggest accomplishment is one owed all to the school’s staff:
“Being able to have our kids leave here and be successful at Sequoyah, Claremore and Inola, wherever they go, they lead.”
Every year Justus-Tiawah kids graduate valedictorians at the high schools they attend. Garroutte has seen one of his ‘kids’ get a perfect score on his ACT and has had two Gates Millennium Scholars within the last seven or eight years.
“To me that’s kind of what we’re about. We want them to be successful when they leave here,” Garroutte said, barely containing his pride for his students.
His years have not been without struggle.
Garroutte said he’s been frustrated by constantly changing state testing regulations and ever shrinking budgets.
“The state continued to cut money and cut money and I had to make decisions that were not what’s best for our kids to be able to make it financially,” he said. Among the decisions he's been less than thrilled with were absorbing lost teachers, increasing class sizes and closing foreign language and art programs.
However, he said optimistically that the strong local taxes and a supportive community helped Justus-Tiawah weather the storm of state cuts.
“My favorite part has been being able to build relationships with my junior high kids. Being able to get to know them as people and being able to attempt to make a difference in their life,” Garroutte said. “They are what makes the job fun.”
Garroutte’s old office sits right next door to classrooms and he interacted with students on a daily basis, which is pretty unusual in the grand scheme of superintendents. Every day he would stand at the lunch line and check off each of the kids to get to know them a little bit better.
“Getting to know them and giving them a hard time, that’s enjoyable and I get paid to do it,” Garroutte said. Even more than that, he said he’s appreciated “knowing that I’ve had the opportunity to make a positive impact on a kids life.”
“It’s been a blessing, it’s been an honor and it’s been a privilege to be their superintendent,” Garroutte said.
Garroutte has a lot of optimism for the school districts future, and says he couldn’t be leaving the school in any better hands.
Ed Crum, who was previously 4th, 5th and 6th grade principal, took over Garroutte’s position as superintendent and 7th and 8th grade principal on July 1.
“I’m excited for him,” Garroutte said earnestly. “I know he has a passion for kids like I do. I’m happy that he is getting this opportunity, and I look forward to seeing where he takes us because his heart is in the right spot.”
“I don’t know what God has in store for me,” Garroutte said. For the time being he is going to stick around the school, volunteering part time to help with maintenance, lawn care and bus driving and to be available should Crum need him.
In his spare time he is playing golf, taking care of things around the house and spending time with his wife and three grown children.
The Garroutte power couple will continue to teach a small group bible study at First Baptist Church on Wednesday nights and be invested in both the Justus-Tiawah ad Claremore communities.
“Since moving here in ’85, my wife and I have never talked about living anywhere else. We came here and this feels like home,” he said.
“It truly has been a blessing to me and my kids,” Garroutte said. All three Garroutte children graduated as Valedictorians of Claremore High School. Garroutte’s two daughters followed their parents into the teaching profession and their son was recently employed with Boeing after graduating from OSU. They raised their children in the Claremore area and couldn’t be more proud of the intelligent and successful adults they have become.
“God’s blessed my wife and I in a lot of ways,” Garroutte said.
One of those ways was with a long and storied career.
Garroutte said he would miss the kids and his relationships with them most of all.
“When you get a letter from a kid you taught 20 years ago, Oh man, you can’t read that letter without crying. Sometimes you don’t realize the difference that you make.”
“I’ve always told our staff one of my favorite quotes is ‘Kids who are loved at home come to school to learn and kids who aren’t come to school to be loved,’” he said, emotion welling up in his throat. “To me that’s what it’s all about.”