As officials inside Richland 2 contemplate Stephen Hefner's departure at the end of the school year, they speak of cloning the retiring superintendent.
But underlying the desire to duplicate Hefner's management style and charisma is a more fervent appeal - finding a successor who understands the district's culture.
"It's a family-type culture, which is a great challenge in a large district," said Marty Martin, principal of Ridge View High School.
Cultivating that atmosphere won't be easy for the next chief of the Midlands' largest school district, which continues to grow even in a challenging economy.
Never miss a local story.
Richland 2 school board members say the effort to find a replacement for Hefner will include a national search - though the next chief could come from within the district, as Hefner did when he was named to the post in 1994.
At that time, Richland 2 had 14,700 students and 15 schools. Today, it has more than 24,000 students and 35 schools, many paid for by voter-approved multimillion-dollar bond measures
In 1994, the district's budget hovered under $70 million. While there were occasional fiscal challenges, there was nothing akin to the economic crisis of 2008-09 and the cascading budget cutbacks at state and local levels.
"There are changes in our district that will require a different view and a different perspective than 16 years ago," said Richland 2 board member Calvin "Chip" Jackson. "It will create some different challenges."
For example, the number of children living in poverty in the school district has grown, Jackson said, along with the number of non-English speaking students. Forty-six percent of students now qualify for free/reduced priced lunch, an indicator of poverty, and there are 1,733 students in English for Speakers of Other Languages programs.
But many say Hefner, whose annual base salary is $165,000, has left his successor positioned well.
That Hefner "trimmed the sails" so deftly during the economic downturn - avoiding teacher layoffs - and gave the district plenty of time to search for his successor places Richland 2 at an distinct advantage, said board member Susan Brill.
"We have the luxury of 10 months, and that's a tremendous benefit to us," said Brill.
Jackson, Brill and Dan Neal, the newest board member, said it is premature to speculate on potential candidates.
"I have not had a big push to lobby for any particular candidate," Neal said. "That will start happening later on."
Ridge View's Martin wouldn't dismiss the notion of an out-of-district candidate. But, he added, "They need to have done their homework" on the district and build on the legacy of Hefner and his predecessors.
"My major concern is I'm intent on having someone who can continue the culture that Dr. Hefner laid the foundation for," Martin said.
Hefner empowered administrators to build an intimate, familiar culture, Martin said, not by executive fiat but by encouraging a sense of community and creative collaboration.
He recalled how Hefner came to him several years ago and encouraged him to establish one of the district's signature programs at the high school.
"He said to me, I think it's time for you to create a magnet at Ridge View," Martin said. "He did not tell me how to do it or what to do."
That kind of culture - one in which Hefner knows the names of active and retired personnel in the 3,500-employee district - has been a hallmark of his tenure. But, Hefner said late last week, it's not easy with all the growth and change in Northeast Richland.
"You are constantly trying to create the community even as we keep it fluid enough for change," Hefner said Friday.
"You tell people at Spring Valley, 'This is your school,' and then we built Ridge View and sent some of those Spring Valley kids there.
"Then we built Blythewood and said, 'This is your school,'" siphoning students from the Ridge View area, he added. That change will take place again in 2012 when the district's newest high school, on Turkey Farm Road, is completed.
Even with that reshuffling, "I think, more than anything else, the schools are the only unifying pieces of the community," Hefner said.