By Justin Strawser

RINGTOWN - To hear Paul Caputo and his family discuss Southern Columbia Area School District, one might think they're talking about "the one who got away."

Caputo, current superintendent at Upper Dauphin Area School District, was SCA high school principal from 2003 to 2006. While he moved on to new jobs in new places, he never discarded the memories from his time at Southern.

There are folders of photographs saved on his computer desktop, school apparel in his closet and mementos in his "man cave," including a giant framed photograph of a Tiger.

He may be an Upper Dauphin Trojan right now, but he's full of Tiger pride inside.

And now Caputo will be reunited with his past love.

Caputo was hired Dec. 10 to replace retiring SCA Superintendent Charlie Reh. He'll start at Southern Feb. 4 at a salary of $103,000.

"He's always had Southern in his heart. I knew he'd go back," said his wife, Michele.

Caputo's 19-year-old son, Paul Michael, said despite graduating from North Schuylkill, he has always felt a certain dual-enrollment with Southern because the family would go to sports events or choral concerts there.

"It's always been a part of my upbringing. He would go to everything, and wherever he goes, we go," he said. "There's a soft spot in our hearts. It's been such a big part of our lives for so long."

In an interview with The News-Item Jan. 2 at his home at in Ringtown, Caputo said Southern has a "wholesome attitude" and he admires the "great staff, the supportive community members and the hard-working students."

"Parents should be very secure and happy their children attend that district. There's a lot of camaraderie," he said. "Everyone works together well, and they're there for the right reason: the benefit of the students."

Michele describes Southern as a unique place that has residents who "really own" their schools.

"Everybody we've ever met, they seem to take ownership. The school is the glue for that whole entire area," she said.

Southern is a winner in both athletics and academics, but Michele said it's their pride that drives the district to success.

"From the students to the teachers to the faculty to the entire community, they love being there," she said.

New York native

Caputo, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., graduated from Shenandoah Valley High School in 1979. It was his sophomore year when he realized he wanted to be an educator.

He earned a bachelor's of science in secondary education and social studies/history from Kutztown State College in 1983, his master's in history from East Stroudsburg University in 1998 and his secondary principal certification from the University of Scranton in 2000.

His career started as a substitute teacher for social studies and science at Shenandoah Valley School District in 1984, and he landed his first permanent position in August 1984 as social studies teacher at Nativity BVM High School, Pottsville, where he remained until 1992. During his time there, he also served concurrently as director of development.

He spent most of his educational career at Carbon County Area Vocational-Technical School in Jim Thorpe. He was hired as a social studies teacher in May 1992, was the high school vice principal for two weeks in 2000 and served the rest of his time there as high school principal until 2003.

After three years at Southern, he was hired as the supervisor of curriculum, technology and federal programs at North Schuylkill School District until July 2010, at which time he took the superintendent post at Upper Dauphin.

Sports, history buff

Caputo is also a big sports enthusiast - his favorite pastime is watching New York Mets and New York Ranger games - and has coached baseball and football at various school districts and local leagues. His sons played for some of those teams.

"Baseball was always on," Paul Michael said. "I had a natural interest in it from day one. I started playing soccer when I was little, and I stuck with it. I had a love for that as well."

He said his younger brother Joel, 14, was quick to follow in his father's footsteps into sports, and his 9-year-old brother was next.

"Having both of us in sports, Luke didn't really have much of a choice," he said.

When Caputo retires, he said he would like to get back into high school coaching.

The Caputos started dating when they were sophomores in high school in 1977. Their first date was on Valentine's Day to a high school wrestling match. They were married in 1986 and built their current house in Ringtown in 1994.

Michele, a third-grade teacher at Shenandoah Valley for 30 years, said it's not always easy being the only female in a house full of men who live and breathe sports.

"I have to seek female companionship. Sometimes I want to talk about soup, and there's no one to talk to," she joked. "They're good to me, but I am most definitely in their world."

Caputo, a history buff, has a deep interest in anthracite, labor and Civil War histories, and has taken his family to different sites around the coal region. He is currently reading "With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln" by Stephen B. Oates, a Christmas gift.

But between the educational responsibilities of mom and dad and the sports commitments of the sons, there is not much time for other things, which is why Michele is happy Caputo will be taking the Southern job.

The commute to Southern will only be 20 minutes compared to 50 minutes it takes to Upper Dauphin in Loyalton, Caputo said.

"He immerses himself into whatever he gets into. If there's a basketball game, he's going to want to show his face at the basketball game. He wants to be there, no matter where it is," Michele said. "If he can run home, have a little supper and get back in 20 minutes, that's a big help."

Caputo and his family will be staying in Ringtown rather than moving closer to Southern, because Michele has roots in Ringtown and Joel and Luke are settled at North Schuylkill.

Education and underdogs

Caputo's family describes him as gentle, caring and committed in everything he sets his mind to.

"He loves the underdog in anything," Michele said.

Education opens doors and provides opportunities for others, Caputo said.

"That's the main reason why I became interested in education. I like rooting for the underdog. It's a good opportunity to help those individuals," he said. "That is something that motivates me."

Before he arrived as superintendent at Upper Dauphin, he said school officials were borrowing money from their fund balance to close the deficit. In his first year, they faced a $2 million deficit in the budget.

He helped the district identify overstaffing, and they were able to reduce staff without affecting programs, he said.

He also helped renegotiate photocopying contracts and switched Internet providers, which were moves that saved tens of thousands of dollars.

It was also determined that the transportation provider for Upper Dauphin was overcharging the district, and the transportation line item was reduced from $1.5 million to $813,000, he said.

"Before you know it, it's a million dollars in savings," he said.

Other highlights at Upper Dauphin including expanding the kindergarten program from a half-day to a full-time program, the introduction of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) principles to our Middle School Technology Education program and its expansion to grade six (it had been a grade 7-8 program); and the conversion of their Title I program from a targeted assistance to schoolwide program.

"Overall my tenure there was marked by a great deal of collaboration and team work," he said.

When the SCA school board was attempting to balance the $17 million 2012-13 budget in the first half of 2012, there were at least 16 employees being considered for furloughs. In February, nearly 180 students, alumni, teachers, parents, booster representatives and concerned citizens piled into the high school library where public meetings are held to rally in favor of the music department. Most of the positions, the music department's included, were eventually saved, but taxes for property owners did increase.

The budget concerns are part of the reason Caputo decided to pursue the superintendent position.

"I feel I can help," he said. "You evaluate, you assess and you make cuts where you have to. They have to be thoughtful and deliberate."

Caputo is entering the district in the middle of the 2013-14 budget season, and the first report of the general operating budget puts the district more than $643,000 in the hole.

His goal is to work through the budget, but also to keep the focus on education and to maintain quality programs while expanding existing programs.

Handling tragedy

At Upper Dauphin last month, in the wake of the massive school shooting in Connecticut, Caputo said he spoke with the staff about how to handle the tragedy.

"They were free to discuss it in their classrooms. They were encouraged to stay calm, and not show anger or fear. We wanted the students' day to be as normal and routine as possible," he said.

Each teacher was allowed to acknowledge the events in whatever way they saw fit. The middle and high schools started the day with a moment of silence, and the elementary principal decided to not bring it up.

Concerned parents who called about safety issues were reassured there were plans in place for emergencies, he said.

The best defense is to be prepared and have drills to ensure they are trained in what to do in the event of such an emergency, he said.

"If we're not training, if we're not vigilant, if we're not keeping the schools secure, then we're at fault," he said.

Guiding, not dictating

School Board Directors Timothy Vought and John Yocum made and seconded the motion to hire Caputo, and it passed 6-1 with Vice President Charlie Porter voting against it.

Board President Mike Yeager said Thursday there's "no doubt" Caputo loves Southern Columbia and the district is lucky to have him.

"He's very straightforward and he's a very honest person," Yeager aid.

A co-worker of Caputo described him to Yeager as a person who goes exactly by the book, and if the rules say something, that's what it is.

"He also quiet and mild mannered, but he's able to do a good job at directing," Yeager said. "He's a person who guides rather than dictates."

Name: Paul Caputo

Age: 51 (until Jan. 14)

Residence: Ringtown

Wife: Michele, 51

Children: Paul Michael, 19 (freshman at Indiana University of Pennsylvania); Joel, 14 (freshman at North Schuylkill Jr.-Sr. High School); Luke, 11 (fifth-grader at North Schuylkill Elementary School).

Employment: Superintendent at Upper Dauphin School District. Takes same job at Southern Columbia Area School District Feb. 4.

Hobbies: Sports, history, technology, working outdoors, exercise.