New Plymouth principal’s journey to Gov. Otter’s office and back

From Alaskan timber country to the inner circles of Gov. Butch Otter’s administration, New Plymouth High School principal Clete Edmunson has pretty much seen it all.

Clete Edmunson2
New Plymouth Principal Clete Edmunson.

Although Edmunson didn’t start his career in education, a longstanding desire to teach and coach kids may have saved his life — or at least his hands and fingers.

After winning a state title and making the jump from eight-man football in his native Council, Edmunson accepted a full scholarship to play middle linebacker for Idaho State University. He earned a business degree, and promptly left the Lower 48, heading north to The Last Frontier to cut logs for Columbia Helicopters.

“It’s one of the most dangerous jobs I’ve ever been a part of,” Edmunson said. “It’s exciting, tough and it can get you killed.”

Before long, Edmunson decided the risks weren’t worth it.

“I kept thinking ‘I’d rather be in a classroom,’ to tell you the truth,” Edmunson said.

He returned to ISU, earned a history degree and connected with a friend who helped point Edmunson to a teaching opportunity in New Plymouth.

It was the perfect fit, and Edmunson began in 1994, teaching government and coaching football, basketball and track.

Longtime coworkers describe Edmunson as a natural in the classroom, someone who related to kids and adults effortlessly because he’s easy to approach and carries himself with a fun-loving demeanor.

“Clete was somebody I never had to worry about,” said former New Plymouth High Principal Arlo Decker, the man who originally hired Edmunson. “He’s not afraid of hard work, and it shows through in everything he did in coaching and teaching. And he absolutely loved the students.”

After about eight years in the classroom, friends and neighbors convinced Edmunson to become active in politics, and he won a seat in the Idaho House after former Rep. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, ran for and won a seat in the Senate.

“The first thing I had to do was buy a second suit — I only had one,” Edmunson said. “It was really cool. I got to teach and coach all fall and took unpaid leave in January and went down there to represent all the people of District 9.”

Edmunson used his experience in the Legislature from 2003-2008 as a living classroom, returning each off-season to impart to his government students invaluable insights into Idaho’s mysterious world of policy and politics.

“I would come back to the classroom, teach government and talk about the process and all the things I learned,” he said. “It was a great dual career I had there.”

In the middle of his third legislative term, Otter’s former chief of staff, Jeff Malmen, asked Edmunson to work for Otter, then in his first term as governor. Edmunson accepted, working first as a southwest regional field representative, then as a special assistant advising Otter on education and transportation issues.

Working in the Otter administration allowed Edmunson to help people throughout the state, not just in his legislative district, but it also meant he had to leave the teaching and coaching jobs he loved.

Clete Edmunson
Clete Edmunson

“I never wanted to be a career politician, and really missed the kids,” Edmunson said. “When you’re in the Legislature, you’re around a bunch of cynical, old politicians. When you come back to the high school kids, the students are the most optimistic people in the world and think they can just go out and conquer the world.”

After a couple years, Edmunson ended his political career to once again return to the classroom. This time he landed in Murtaugh, where he served as athletic administrator, teacher and basketball coach.

This year is his third year back in New Plymouth, but first as principal. Edmunson takes over for immediate past principal Kevin Barker, who was promoted to superintendent this year after past superintendent (and current state representative) Ryan Kerby retired.

“We couldn’t have done any better than Clete — he’s highly qualified,” said Decker, who now serves on New Plymouth’s school board. “I was excited when he came back as a teacher, then things really worked out.”

Since returning and being promoted to principal, Edmunson feels a little like a new coach who is taking over for a winning team.

In 2014, 63 percent of New Plymouth’s graduating seniors went on to college, well above the state average of 50.2 percent. Advanced programs, such as dual credit and concurrent enrollment, were pioneered in New Plymouth before they took off statewide, thanks to partnerships with the local business community. And the school’s average SAT score in 2014 was 1,396, above the state average of 1,363.

“We have one of the top performing schools in the state,” Edmunson said.

The school has been so successful that it has been featured in statewide advertising campaigns and discussed as a potential model for other rural schools by legislators.

But Edmunson is up for the challenge of continuing a legacy of student success, saying his whole career in education has lead him to this point.

“There are a thousand moving parts every day, and you never know what is going to happen in high school,” Edmunson said. “That fits my personality — when I was with the governor, there was stuff going on all the time. Being principal is the ultimate multitasking job in education, and I absolutely love it.”