Whether it’s been challenges associated with an ever-growing, yet underfunded district or navigating an unprecedented academic landscape through the COVID-19 pandemic, for the past eight years Mark Raiff has been at the head of the Olentangy Local School District (OLSD)’s push to remain one of the premier school districts in the state.
Next month, that run will come to an end as Raiff is set to retire from his superintendent role on June 1, closing out a 20-year career overall with the district. Todd Meyer has been hired to succeed Raiff, although Raiff is expected to remain in an advisory role until July 31 as Meyer finds his footing.
Raiff began his tenure with OLSD as an assistant principal at Olentangy High School in 2003, a position he held until 2006 when he was named principal at Olentangy Liberty High School. Being a high school principal was about the extent of Raiff’s ambitions as a school administrator at the time, primarily because he enjoyed being directly involved with the students day after day.
“My first goal is always to do the best job possible for whatever job I’m doing,” Raiff told The Gazette. “I did have the aspiration to be a high school principal someday, so I was very appreciative of Dr. Scott Davis when he gave me the opportunity to go to Liberty High School in 2006 and be the principal. That’s all I really ever wanted to do once I started as an administrator because I didn’t want to move away from the kids.”
However, Raiff admitted his tendency is to always look for new challenges, and when then-Superintendent Dr. Wade Lucas presented him with the opportunity to be a chief academic officer in 2011, he took it in order to learn the bigger picture of working with and for the entire district. Transitioning to a role that had districtwide implications offered valuable experiences that laid the foundation for Raiff’s eventual rise to superintendent in 2015.
“When you’re in a (school) building, you’re worried about your own little ‘kingdom,’ and there are decisions that get made from a whole district perspective that sometimes you don’t always understand,” he said. “So it gave me an opportunity to learn about how to make decisions that affect the greater good of the entire district. And watching how Dr. Lucas operated was certainly instrumental in my development because he was an outstanding superintendent. … There are just so many decisions we make that we don’t always know what the impact is because there are so many different people it affects. It probably gave me more perspective on the fact that whatever decision I make, I can’t make everybody happy.”
Raiff also enjoyed being able to expand his reach of impact to more students, which he said was the essence of why he ultimately transitioned to a districtwide role.
“I tell a lot of young administrators when they’re getting into it that all we’re trying to do is help people be successful,” he said. “So, whether it’s students, staff, community members, whatever, my job is just to help people be successful. Whether you’re a classroom teacher or a head coach, you have your smaller circle of impact and influence on the number of people you’re helping and then it does amplify (as you transition to larger roles). As a principal, if I help one teacher get better, that one teacher is impacting upwards of over 100 kids. Now (as superintendent), it’s 1,500-2,000 students.”
Raiff added his most heightened sense of accomplishment as a superintendent has always been directly tied to what those around him have been able to achieve.
“My success comes from everybody else’s success,” he noted. “When the people who work here with me are successful, that’s when I feel my greatest success.”
Although he’s enjoyed a lengthy and distinguished career in education, Raiff’s initial plans didn’t involve anything related to school buildings or districts. Whether it was his single week spent as a pre-med student or earning a degree in accounting, Raiff was once headed toward anything but education. But having grown up the son of two teachers, his innate calling to assist young people in their own personal journeys ultimately took hold, and with it, a career took shape.
“I saw the types of relationships my dad had with his students when he was teaching and coaching and as an athletic director, and then obviously my mom as a principal,” he said. “If you’re going to enjoy your work life, you have to find your passion and your ‘why.’ I just kept coming back to working with young people and helping them find their passion.”
While he came to the district without any understanding of the community, or even how to locate the administrative office, it didn’t take long for Raiff to understand the special dynamic he felt was being developed throughout the district he’d ultimately go on to call home for the next two decades.
“(Former Superintendent) Dr. (Bill) Reimer explained the meaning behind our mission to facilitate maximum learning for every student, and it really hooked me on the district and what a special place it was because the people who were here, at that time, they were creating the high-performing suburban district that we’ve become,” he said. “The thing we’ve tried to maintain, and I think we have to a good degree, is the feeling that we’re still a small, connected community. When you look for Olentangy on a map, a city or a town is not going to come up; the school district is the community. It’s the one thing that seven townships and five municipalities have in common, which is very unique.”
Asked about his favorite accomplishments during his tenure, Raiff described his primary responsibility as a superintendent as helping to create “calm confidence in the community so that we can be successful.” He added that so much of the district’s success comes from the trust the community puts in them to do well with their children and property values.
With those goals in mind, Raiff pointed to the two levies that were successfully passed in recent years as perhaps the most meaningful accomplishments during his time, although he was quick to point out those efforts far exceeded any one person’s doing.
“Those two levies really stabilized us financially and allowed us to address significant overcrowding at the high school and middle school level, and now trickling down into our elementary schools,” he said. “For me, personally, that was an affirmation of the work all of our staff was doing. Nobody sits in this (superintendent) chair wearing a cape; I’m just one person. Our success comes from the success of all our staff and communities.”
As for why he feels the timing is right to end his career at Olentangy, Raiff referenced one specific objective he was given by his predecessor years ago and one he feels strongly has been met.
“Dr. Lucas told me my responsibility when I started eight years ago was to put the district in a better position than it was the day I started, and I think we’re there,” Raiff said. “We’re in a really good position financially, and we have a really good plan in place to address growth. We continue to get outstanding academic results. We have a great strategic plan and a great group of people. … I really do feel proud that I’m passing over the reigns to (Meyer), and he’ll be in a position to succeed.”
Raiff jokingly added, “Everybody has a shelf life, and nobody wants to overstay their welcome.”
Although he’s still busy preparing to send off one final class of seniors with OLSD’s graduation ceremonies planned for next weekend, Raiff said the reality of him nearing the finish line of his career continues to set in more and more with each passing day. That reality isn’t solely his to contemplate, either, as his wife, Katie, is also set to retire from the district after 18 years of teaching in the district.
“People ask me all the time what I’m going to miss the most, and the very easy answer for that is I’m going to miss the people,” he said. “But my wife and I, we’ve talked about it quite a bit and we’re both ready to try something new and see what life brings us. I think we both have a very positive outlook, and if we don’t like where we end up, we’ll try something else.”
Together in retirement, the two plan to relocate to North Carolina and let life come to them after years of service to others.
“We’re very blessed,” Raiff went on to say. “It’s just strange how life brings you to a place or brings people into your life. Mindy Farry was the principal at Olentangy who gave me my first job here, and I’m just so fortunate she gave me that opportunity because it sent us down this special path. Our kids did 37 years of public education here and they’re doing well, so I’m just very thankful for this district.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.