A veteran suburban St. Louis principal who “kicked butt” at her last assignment, in the estimation of one staff member, is the new leader of Hardy Middle Middle School.

Mary Stefanus was the choice of a community-based principal selection panel that screened several candidates. In a letter home to Hardy parents Friday, Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson said she agreed with the recommendation. The panel’s approval gives Stefanus a big leg up over predecessor Dana Nerenberg, who was thrust into the post last year by then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee after she reassigned the popular Patrick Pope.

The move triggered months of turmoil that spilled into the 2010 mayoral campaign. Nerenberg, who had no middle school experience and was also running nearby Hyde-Addison Elementary, never got any traction at Hardy and was replaced on an interim basis in February by central office administrator Daniel Shea.

Stefanus has thirty years of experience as a teacher and administrator, Henderson said. She is credited with turning around Hixson Middle School in Webster Groves, which she headed for eleven years until her retirement in 2009. That was a year after it won Missouri’s “Gold Star” award for sustained high scores on the state standardized test.

Hixson’s long-time school nurse told the Webster-Kirkwood Times in 2008 that Stefanus’ tenure had some bumpy moments.

“She came in and kind of kicked butt,” said Linda Neumann. “She wasn’t always the most popular person early on, but that’s because she had a plan, to raise the professional development of everyone in our building.”

Stefanus’ appointment, first reported by The Georgetown Patch, is effective July 5.