PHOENIX — Ben Bergreen will retire as superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent School District this month, capping a 36-year career in education that saw him teaching students in lock-up, heading special education programs, and leading the district through more than a decade of financial challenges.
"Ben was really good. He gave a lot of attention to the school district," said Phoenix-Talent Education Association President Carol Cox. "He cares about teachers and he cares about kids."
Board member Rick Nagel was serving when Bergreen was appointed in 2001.
"We had some interesting issues that opened up. He had to handle those issues and he did an excellent job," said Nagel. "He was a real good chief executive officer."
Bergreen, 65, started as an English teacher at Phoenix High School in 1977. Later he worked for Jackson County and the Jackson Education Service District. During that time he taught juveniles in detention.
"It was a pretty unique program. The students worked half-days on academics and had half-day community job service," said Bergreen.
The program ended for lack of funding.
Bergreen then commuted to Josephine County from his rural Talent farm to serve as special-education director in the Three Rivers School District. In 1999, he returned to the Phoenix-Talent district as special-education leader. At that point he resigned from the district's board, a position to which he was first appointed and then elected.
Bergreen leaves a district that now has 2,700 students, compared with the 3,000 when he became superintendent. During that time the budget has remained in the low $20 million range, he said. This year's budget is $23.5 million, down slightly from last year.
Economic challenges led to layoffs for 31 employees in 2009, two-thirds from teacher ranks. But some of those positions were restored with federal money.
"We brought people back in different capacities," said Bergreen. One of his overriding strategies, he said, was to retain as many staff members as possible.
Negotiations with the education association that began in 201l dragged into 2012 and weren't resolved until an all-night session in February. Despite the difficulties, union leaders praised Bergreen.
"Ben Bergreen was the superintendent who led quietly and led well through some very challenging times in our district because he was always real," said Stacy Lange, association communicator during the negotiations. "He never glossed over reality and that really helped our district weather a lot of the storm we were going through because of the economy and the changing situations."
Cox said Bergreen's openness helped the district.
"He always had an open-door policy and was always willing to listen and help us think things through," said Cox.
Nagel said he always ranked Bergreen highly, but also said the superintendent showed a willingness to learn that showed up in performance reviews.
"If he had any weak area, he would work on it and resolve it," said Nagel.
The journey was not without issues. An unsuccessful 2012 proposal to rename the district was a misstep, said Bergreen. The district includes part of southeast Medford and rural areas.
"We wanted it to be more inclusive. We are more than just Phoenix and Talent," said Bergreen. "But we didn't give enough thought to that. People felt we were giving community away."
Bergreen will continue to live in the district, on property outside of Talent.
"I have a lot of hobbies and a farm with 20 years of deferred work," said Bergreen. "I'm looking forward to getting some of that cleaned up."
Photography, music, art and outdoor activities also will take up more of his time. And family members have asked him to participate in what he says will be "scary challenges." His son is a rock climber and his wife is an equestrian.
Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.