SALT LAKE CITY — On one of Timothy Gadson III's many outings before assuming the superintendency of the Salt Lake City School District, he went for a bite at the downtown restaurant Nacho Daddy.
As he walked toward the entrance, a woman greeted him.
"She was just, 'Hey, how are you?' I said 'I'm fine. How are you?'"
She asked if Gadson was from Salt Lake City and he explained that he had just moved to Utah to accept a job. She persisted, asking what he'd be doing.
"I said 'Well, I'm the new superintendent of the school district.' She reached out and just gave me this huge hug and said 'Thank you for what you do.'"
Gadson said the encounter somewhat surprised him but "it's just a testament to me to how friendly people are here, the type of community that we have, someone being so excited because I told her I'm the superintendent of the district and she thanked me for what I do."
July 1 may have been Timothy Gadson's first contract day as superintendent, but he's been quietly working behind the scenes since his appointment in late February.
Gadson has spent one week of every month in Utah since, learning about its schools, district operations, and meeting with educators, students, state lawmakers, school employees, and PTA members.
He's worked alongside Interim Superintendent Larry Madden, who just retired, to help ensure a smooth transition in leading the minority-majority school district that serves 21,460-students in grades K-12 in Utah's capital city.
At the same time, he tended to his responsibilities in Minnesota, where he was associate superintendent of high schools with Anoka-Hennepin Schools, a suburb of Minneapolis. He also taught a graduate course in education leadership.
And that's on top of a busy home life. He and his wife, who is an elementary school educator, have an 18-month-old son. Gadson also has two adult children and a 15-month old granddaughter.
Gadson said technology made it possible to balance his respective responsibilities. It was important to him to be ready to hit the ground running on day 1 on his new job, already settled into his new home and up to speed on his responsibilities.
It was also important to him to live in Salt Lake City, but it was a profound challenge finding a home given soaring prices for a strictly limited inventory of real estate listings, which means homes sell fast and can be subject to bidding wars.
While still in Minnesota, Gadson found a place he wanted to buy and instructed his real estate agent to submit an offer. "As she's calling from the house we're viewing, they say, 'We just accepted an offer.' It's crazy," Gadson said.
He eventually found a place that's a few minute's drive from the school district office, but the experience gave Gadson a glimpse of the challenges families face buying homes and the dearth of affordable housing that is likely tied to the school district's shrinking enrollment.
That is just one of the challenges Gadson faces as he assumes leadership of Salt Lake schools.
Gadson, who has a two-year contract and was recently sworn into his position, takes over as the school district is helping students overcome learning loss after extended months of remote learning and lingering uncertainty about COVID-19, particularly among elementary school-age students who are not yet eligible for vaccination.
After taking the oath, Gadson said, "I am indeed privileged to be here. It is my pleasure to serve the students of the district."
He continued, "I plan to do my best. I see the possibilities for our district and I just want to thank you all for putting your trust in me and for hiring me as the superintendent of the district."
As his administration gets underway, Gadson said his top three priorities include expanding mental health support for students and staff; studying the district's curriculum "to make sure it is reflective of all of our students and that it allows teachers to meet students where they are and move them forward"; and extending learning opportunities and enrichment for students outside of school hours.
Salt Lake City School District, perhaps because it serves the state's capital city, receives more scrutiny than most.
During the Utah Legislature's general session, the district came under the white-hot spotlight of legislative leaders for its school board's decision to start the school year via remote learning and return to classrooms when COVID-19 case numbers indicated safer conditions in the city and educators and staff had an opportunity to be vaccinated. Salt Lake's board was the only school board statewide to make that choice, with all others opting for hybrid options.
Some Salt Lake parents pushed back against the decision, citing concerns about students' learning loss and mental health. Some transferred their students to neighboring school districts. A small group of parents filed a lawsuit against the school district seeking a court order to force a return to in-person learning.
A district court judge ruled that the Salt Lake City School District's sole reliance on virtual learning did not violate students' constitutional rights and refused to force the schools to reopen.
Early on in the legislative session, lawmakers appropriated funding to give public school educators statewide stipends to acknowledge their hard work during the pandemic but threatened to withhold the bonuses from Salt Lake educators unless the schools resumed in-person learning options amid evidence of widespread failing grades.
By Feb. 8, all Salt Lake schools resumed in-person learning but preserved remote learning options for students who wanted them. While some perceive the school board was pressured by lawmakers to resume in-person learning, some board members said the ability to vaccinate teachers against COVID-19 played a greater role in the decision.
Gadson, who has worked in school systems in other capital cities — Austin and Atlanta — said those districts likewise got more attention than others because they are in communities that are the centers of state government and a large media presence.
"Another part is, Salt Lake City is a place people are interested in. That's what brought me here," he said.
Since his appointment, "all of these people that have connections to Salt Lake City started coming out of the woodworks and just talking to me and telling me how great this place is and how I was going to enjoy it. ... They said it's definitely a city, but it has a small-town feel to it. I'm finding that to be true."
Gadson has met a number of Utah leaders in the past couple months, including the state lawmakers who represent Salt Lake City as well as House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.
Gadson said he and Wilson did not discuss the Utah Legislature's recent special session, when lawmakers called themselves into session to act on a resolution that called on the Utah State Board of Education to ban the teaching of "harmful" concepts of critical race theory, stopping short of more proscriptive legislation passed by other states. Utah lawmakers left it to the State School Board to address, although critical race theory has not been taught in Utah public schools.
They did briefly discuss equity and its importance to students statewide, he said.
As the national dialogue over critical race theory has increased, Gadson said he has observed students researching the concepts on their own. "They want to know why this is such a buzz for adults. Why are adults talking about this? Why are so many people standing up and saying they don't want us to hear or know about it?" he said.
Gadson said working in a school district in the Minneapolis suburbs following the murder of George Floyd, subsequent protests and later, the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, who in April was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder and two lesser charges, was "tricky at times."
Anoka-Hennepin schools strived to "provide that shield and that blanket for our students" while divisions played out in the community and nation, he said.
Schools supported students, guided conversations and reached out to their community with reminders that "What you're doing is impacting children and we need to be mindful of that."
"I think we made some inroads and I'm happy about that. When you focus the conversation on children and the impact that we're having on children, most people, not all, but most people, stand up and pay attention to the fact that what I'm doing and saying impacts those children."
Gadson said he's excited to get started and spend more time in the school district getting to know more students, parents and school community leaders and also spend time at school events such as plays, high school sports events and other activities.
"I'm making those rounds and continuing to get to know civic leaders and community and know some of what their expectations are of me and of our district. I'm just learning as much as I can to get up to speed so when those students are back in our buildings, I'm going to be the leader that they want me to be," Gadson said.