Longtime school principal retires

First grandchild provides catalyst for decision

When Tom Mundinger's first grandchild, Mason Thomas Banks, was born just before Christmas, the longtime Baldwin School District principal decided it was time to retire — for good — after 37 years in education. He is the only principal Baldwin Elementary School Intermediate Center has ever known.

? Mason Thomas Banks can’t even talk yet, but he’s one influential 3-month-old.

Mason’s birth in mid-December changed everything for his grandfather, Tom Mundinger, a 26-year principal in Baldwin City.

“My oldest daughter had our first grandchild,” Mundinger said. “His middle name is named after me. They live just about five to 10 minutes away from us. I want to play an active role in being his grandpa.”

So he decided it was time for him to retire as principal at Baldwin Elementary School Intermediate Center.

But this isn’t the first time he’s retired. He first did it 15 months ago with the idea that an arrangement could be worked out with the district so he could be hired back, while still receiving retirement benefits. When that didn’t pan out, he rescinded his resignation.

That won’t happen again.

“There is no turning back now,” he said.

The news hit his staff hard.

“I was surprised it was this year,” said Kathy Dorsey, fifth-grade teacher. “I knew it was coming, but I was sad it was this year. I had hoped he’d be here as long as I was teaching here.”

Mundinger has been eligible to retire for five years.

“Once you become eligible, you think about your options,” he said. “My choice at the time was to stay here because I loved it here.”

Small-town beginnings

Mundinger was hired as the fifth-grade teacher in Dexter after he graduated from Southwestern College in Winfield. A year later, his wife, Brenda, was hired as the school’s kindergarten teacher. They stayed five years in the community southeast of Wichita.

“We loved every minute of it,” Mundinger said. “It was a great opportunity because I got to coach. I drove a bus. I was city clerk and president of the civic club. It was a small town. We could have stayed there forever.”

But they headed about 100 miles east to Altamont, where Mundinger became elementary school principal. Daughters Mandy and Molly were born there. And six years later came the next move — one that would land him in Baldwin City for 26 years. Baldwin Superintendent Bill Neuenswander hired Mundinger in 1983 as Baldwin Elementary School principal.

“(Neuenswander) was wonderful to work for,” Mundinger said. “Mandy was just starting kindergarten in our first year here. We moved here, bought a house and the rest is history, as they say. Before you know it, 26 years went by. My girls grew up and I’m old. It went fast.”

Adapting to changes

In 2003, Mundinger and his staff opened the new intermediate center — which serves third through fifth grades.

“It was difficult to split the building and staff at that time,” Mundinger said. “People forget this, but the reason for doing that was the board and the community said that building was too big. Coming out here was a like a breath of fresh air.”

While the move might be the most notable physical change during his tenure, there were others behind the scenes. While the obvious has been staff members coming and going, another is the state assessments.

“I do think at some point in the future, they will look back on this period in education and shake their heads,” he said. “They will call this the era of testing. I won’t miss that piece, and I have empathy for those that remain and will continue dealing with it.”

In two months, classes will be over. And Mundinger will just have one month until his long tenure ends. While he’s ready to move on, he will miss his teachers and students.

“We’ve loved it here,” Mundinger said. “If you want to be a principal, this is a dream job and I know that.”