Runnels School is changing leaders for the first time in its 49-year history as founder Kelly Runnels and his wife, longtime fellow administrator Gladys Runnels, retire at the end of this school year.
They are handing over the command to Greg Brandao, former principal of Catholic High School and an education consultant for the past decade. Brandao will assume control of the Baton Rouge private school on July 1.
Runnels School made a public announcement Monday morning but informed the students and teachers the day after the school’s board of trustees selected Brandao on Jan. 13.
The couple had been signaling for a while that they would slowly relinquish the family business to a new generation as the school neared its 50th anniversary. Hiring Brandao completes that effort, though the two will remain on the board of trustees.
“It is a major step and not an easy step,” Kelly Runnels said.
“It’s a bit bittersweet for us. We’re going to miss it,” said Gladys Runnels, who serves as assistant head of school, and preschool and elementary principal. “We’re getting old. We’re both going to be 76 this year.”
Brandao had not planned to return to being a school principal. He was hired to help the school find a new principal. He worked with a search committee as it considered whether to hire a headhunter to find a new principal.
A love affair of sorts began. The two sides grew more and more enamored of the other.
Gladys Runnels said as they were enumerating the characteristics of an ideal headmaster, they realized they were describing Brandao.
“At one point, we just said jokingly, ‘We want someone who’s like you,’ ” she recalled.
Soon the joke morphed into a real job offer. After the winter break, Brandao accepted.
“I just got to know more and more about the school and about them, and I became very impressed,” he said.
“I didn’t think I was painting a job description that only I would fit,” he added with laugh.
A native of Baton Rouge, Brandao has served as a teacher and administrator at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans as well as Baton Rouge’s St. Thomas More Elementary and Catholic High, where he was principal from 1993 to 2004. He has also been an executive trainer and educational consultant with Educational, Research and Information Services Inc. of Baton Rouge and a partner in Advancement Solutions LLC.
Until recently, he had not visited Runnels, which has its main campus at 17255 S. Harrell’s Ferry Road, and its preschool at 6455 Jefferson Highway.
“The warmth and the friendliness of everyone is not the only thing I noticed, but that’s the first thing that comes off the top of my head,” he said. “The way I was greeted and appreciated, just very positive reactions from all of the folks.”
That’s no accident.
“We want children to feel good about being in school. They should be happy. They are here most of their waking hours,” Gladys Runnels explained. “We want to focus on the curriculum and the academics, but we want it to be a joy.”
The school, which has more than 700 students from preschool to 12th grade, is independent and not affiliated with a church. Nevertheless, it focuses heavily on values, including the importance of religious tolerance, no small thing in a community with students and faculty from diverse religious backgrounds.
Kelly Runnels, then an LSU chemistry professor, began the school with his first wife in 1965 in the back of his College Town house with three students. The school grew and in 1982 moved to its South Harrell’s Ferry campus.
He credits Gladys, his second wife, with developing the school’s signature focus on music and the arts.
Brandao has many characteristics appealing to the Runnels for a successor.
“He has a wealth of experience, but he is still young enough to have a lot of years ahead of him,” Kelly Runnels said.
“He had the background, had the strength of experience, yet he was humble,” Gladys Runnels said. “That’s a really rare, really unique combination.”