Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Salt Lake District's McKell Withers speaks Monday after being named Superintendent of the Year.

SANDY — If you plan to debate Salt Lake School District Superintendent McKell Withers, you had better have your facts in order.

He is Utah's 2009 Superintendent of the Year. And those who have known him as a student, teacher or boss agree that Withers has a vast knowledge of education. He is up on current educational issues — nationally and statewide.

"He always has students on his mind," said Janet Roberts, Salt Lake District business administrator.

Withers, 51, of Sandy, can be found regularly at the Capitol fighting for issues that affect students.

"He doesn't tell people what they want to hear. He tells them what he thinks they should know," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay. She worked as an English teacher at Olympus High School when Withers was principal there.

But the superintendent has his fun side, too, say his co-workers. And his door is always open.

Withers said he was a bit embarrassed by the attention Monday as superintendents of the state's 40 school districts stood to applaud him at the Utah School Superintendents Association meeting in Sandy.

"I like to quietly work real hard. To be recognized by your colleagues is a great thing," he said in an interview with the Deseret News after the event.

Withers will now compete for the national title, which will be announced at a three-day conference for the American Association of School Administrators in San Francisco in February. There, each state winner will receive a plaque and a medallion.

The trip is paid for out of the professional development budget of the winning superintendent's district, according to Steve Peterson, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association.

Withers grew up in Salt Lake City schools and was student body president of South High School. He got a taste for mentoring when he helped put together a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program for struggling junior high students who were housed at the high school.

Withers said he went into the education field "to make a difference."

As a student at the University of Utah, Withers volunteered at an alternative high school in Granite School District through the VISTA Corps volunteers, a domestic version of the Peace Corps. He received his first teaching position there.

A Ute fan all the way, Withers earned his bachelor's degree in secondary education with a major in sociology and a minor in reading. He received a master's degree in educational psychology, which provides a school counseling license. He did additional coursework to get an administrative license. His doctorate is in educational leadership and policy.

One of Withers' former professors, David Sperry, said, "He has the interest of kids at heart." Sperry is a professor of Educational Leadership and Policy and is the former dean of the College of Education at the U.

Withers has worked as director of student services, a school counselor and a classroom teacher. He was principal of Bonneville Junior High School and Olympus High.

As a superintendent, the biggest challenge is to "bring people together to find both the resources and the support to have good schools and good practices and to make sure there is accountability in the system," Withers said.

"You work with lots of different audiences to empower teachers and provide resources for kids," he said.

Withers joined Salt Lake district in January 2003. Before that he was the assistant superintendent for support services in Granite District.

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