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Longtime Murray superintendent to retire in June

The joke around the Murray School District offices is, when Superintendent Ron Stephens starts a discussion with "I'll be brief about this . . .," he rarely is.

It isn't Stephens' manner to rush through a job or responsibility.He has been superintendent of the 6,800-student Murray schools for 12 years and has one of the longest tenures in a single district among school superintendents statewide. He has more years under his belt in Murray than the superintendents of Jordan, Granite, Salt Lake and Davis districts combined.

Before that, he served four terms as a state representative in the Utah Legislature."I'm kind of proud of the fact as a Democrat, I ran unopposed my last term in what has traditionally been a strong Republican area." Prior to his lawmaking days, Stephens served eight years on the Washington Terrace City Council, four as the community's mayor.

On June 30, Stephens will retire after 40 years in public education.

Stephens started his career as a classroom teacher in 1958, returning to his alma mater Weber High School to teach English and coach debate. His pay was about $3,400 a year.

"My superintendent was T.H. Bell. I still remember when he called me to his office to give me $500 merit pay. With a young family, that was quite the thing," Stephens recalled.

In four decades of teaching, developing school foundations and working in school public relations and district administration, state and federal school regulation has mounted, Stephens said.

Parents and students have become more sophisticated in resolving conflict - some enlisting the help of lawyers rather than attempting to solve problems through school processes.

"In Murray, those parents have been a very small percentage" of the whole, he said.

In a job so stressful that some superintendents work until their earliest opportunity to retire, Stephens will step down at age 64.

"As I look back, I don't think of it as a hard job. There were many factors I was fortunate to inherit: the size of the school district, a cooperative school board and a good partnership with Murray city," Stephens said.

The school district's relationship with Murray is "much more than just talk."

The city library was built on school district property. The district's new Creekside High School, an alternative school, was built "on a postage stamp."

Through agreements with the city, Creekside students may park their cars on a city-owned lot. An access was built to the city park to enable students to use it during breaks from school.

School board president Sherry Madsen attributes Stephens' long tenure in the Murray District to his hands-on approach to issues and strong public relations skills

"He doesn't visit a school because they (staff and students) think there's something important he should see. He goes to see what the situation is because he really wants to be there. He cares what the teachers and students are doing, and they know it," Madsen said.

Stephens isn't one to make snap judgments. Issues that in other school districts have resulted in lawsuits, such as drug testing for student athletes and dress codes, have been handled slowly and deliberately.

In many respects, Stephens is the Murray District, Madsen said.

She recalled riding in the Murray Fourth of July Parade with Stephens and their respective spouses to represent the school district. Stephens provided his horse-drawn surrey for the occasion and bought candy to throw to children along the parade route.

"He asked me, "What are we going to put on it (the sign on the carriage)?' That's when we came up with `The Murray District. The little district with the big heart.' That's what we really are. That's what Murray is all about. When we cease to be that, we cease to be Murray."

Outside of work, Stephens serves in an LDS bishopric at the Utah State Prison. He has volunteered at the prison for 10 years and plans to continue his work upon retirement.

Asked why he chose to volunteer among inmates, Stephen said, "I basically feel, as an educator, people can change. People who don't know can know."

Stephens' other retirement plans include building a new home on a small horse ranch he and his wife, Luann, own in Davis County. Stephens, laughing, said he'll play tennis "as long as I'm able."

With just over five months until he retires, Madsen said the school board faces two challenges: finding a new superintendent and working out the logistics of Stephens' retirement party.

"He's really made a mark on a lot of people. We're having trouble deciding in what facility to hold his retirement party. Most places in Murray just aren't big enough," Madsen said.