Viola LaFontaine leads Mott-Regent schools, set to retire at the end of the year
Dr. Viola LaFontaine has been involved in education for nearly four decades in North Dakota. She has been part of one of the largest school booms and a tight-knit community over the past couple years.
Before becoming superintendent at Mott-Regent, LaFontaine was superintendent at Williston where she headed the Williston Public School during the biggest boom years of student and district growth in its history.
LaFontaine was top administrator for 3,500 students and 500 staff for seven years, where she says she grew both personally and professionally. But, when her husband fell and broke his leg, she began to realize the long hours she was putting in everyday.
"I would say, 'Oh, I'll be home at 6' and I wouldn't get home until 8," she said. "He just talked about me working too hard so I said, 'Why don't we look for something else for awhile?' Then we found Mott and we moved here."
LaFontaine's husband passed away just five months later, but she said she is so happy they moved to Mott and said the community made her feel very welcome and right at home.
Adam Hill, high school principal at Mott-Regent Public Schools, said even though LaFontaine has only been with the district for a couple years, she has a lot of experience on the job which she brought to the district.
"We've all learned a lot having her in our district," Hill said.
Hill said LaFontaine's Class A mentality has also been helpful to the district. He said while a Class B school like Mott-Regent may not have the resources of a Class A school like Williston or Dickinson, LaFontaine's experience is a plus.
"We get the advantage of her years of her experience and the resources she had on a Class B budget," he said. "Just some of the ideas and the innovations and the ways to get things done, we've all learned a lot from her in the past two years."
LaFontaine has been in education for 39 years, starting off as a teacher. She said her mother always wanted to be a teacher, but it just didn't work out for her. When LaFontaine was in school she said she always loved English classes and went to college to learn to teach them. She even had the opportunity to substitute teach at her old school.
"I found out not everybody loved English as much as I did," she said with a laugh. "I was like 20, I had gotten through school in three and half years, and I went back to my high school and one of the boys was like 'Didn't you used to go to school here?' He was probably a freshman or something when I was in school."
LaFontaine had the chance to go back to school later and get her master's degree. She ultimately decided to go into elementary education, as well as doing some work with middle schoolers over the years.
She got her start at a small Catholic school in North Dakota, but in the middle of the year the principal at the time left to take another job. LaFontaine was directing a bilingual program at the time, but one of nuns at the school asked her if she would be willing to step in as the acting principal for the rest of the year, which she agreed to do.
"I really kind of liked it and people liked me being the leader," she said. "So, I went back to school to get my administrative degree and that's how I got into administration."
LaFontaine, who is originally from Belcourt, N.D., has worked at various schools throughout her tenure, including a Native American school, Williston during the oil boom and then in Mott, which was in the middle of planning for a new elementary school when she arrived two years ago.
"I'm so glad I had the opportunity to come to a Class B," she said. "There's this family piece here. Everybody takes care of everybody. You know all of the kids. There's things that we hear about and know about that we confront kids with that I would have never known in a big school. Not that it's a big deal, but it helps the kids know that people do care and they are watching."
LaFontaine said she plans on retiring at the end of the school year so she can spend more time with her family and grandchildren.
"Life's too short," she said. "After my husband left me, my whole life changed. ... I'll find something part time, but this is a lot of responsibility - to be a school administrator. But I want for my grandchildren to really know me."
She said she's working on plans and procedures for things like curriculum for when she's gone.
Hill said the district will definitely be sad to see LaFontaine retire at the end of the year.
"We'd love to have her for as long as she would stay, but we understand the circumstances too," he said. "She does want to go see her grandkids and family and she's not leaving town. She's still going to stay here in Mott, so we've already started joking with her that she's probably going to be on every committee that we have in this building. We're not going to let her stray too far."
Hill's office is just a few steps from LaFontaine's, and he said both principals have a good working relationship with LaFontaine. He said even when LaFontaine isn't in the building they're still often in contact with each other.
"She's a very hands-on superintendent," he said. "I think that's one of the things that's going be sad to see her go. You never felt like you were on an island with anything. She was always right there with you. It was always a team decision and you felt like you were very much involved with the process of the decision making. Having that experience sitting by you is something that we're going to dearly miss."
Hill said LaFontaine is an "upbeat" person, who is always dedicated to the district and its students.
"She's a very positive person," he said. "She's easy to get along with. She's kind of a story teller so that kind of endears you to her with some of the stories she tells over the years. She's someone who, when she has a vision, does a very good job painting that picture so everyone else can kind of see that vision. You never feel like you're getting pulled anywhere. You kind of feel like you're on a journey with her when she comes up with an idea of something to do."