by LAURA HAYES
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board has narrowed down its list of future superintendents to three people: Bill Gronseth, Richard Dahman, and Lolli Haws. All three candidates currently serve as superintendents, and will return to Winona on Monday for a second round of interviews.
Dahman was born and raised in Lake City. He said that some of his earliest memories of Winona included driving along the Mississippi River, stopping here for donuts. Dahman has two sons — one of whom graduated from Winona State University — and in his free time he enjoys being active and playing basketball, snowshoeing, and biking.
Professionally, Dahman said that his passion is equity. “I’m a very strong advocate for making sure that every student has the opportunity to be successful and that we’re providing support for them to be successful,” he explained.
For the past four years, Dahman has worked as superintendent of Medford Public Public Schools — a school district sandwiched between Owatonna and Faribault with around 900 students. Dahman said that he had experience working with other superintendents in the Big Nine conference. Before becoming superintendent, Dahman worked as a secondary principal in Mankato and before that a mathematics teacher. During his time in Mankato and Medford, Dahman told the WAPS Board that he had experience working with diverse populations participating in the districts’ English Language Learners (ELL) programs. While he was a principal in Mankato, Dahman said that the Somali population grew and he fought for more funding for the ELL program. He said that he worked with staff members to buy into their goal to help every student succeed. Dahman said that he worked hard to be active in the community to assure parents that the schools were safe.
As a leader, Dahman described himself as being data-driven and strategic. When asked how he would build trusting relationships with the School Board, administrators, teachers, staff, and unions, Dahman emphasized being transparent and honest. “They need to know that what you’re saying is going to happen,” he said.
Dahman explained that when decisions are being made, leaders may not explain why they are important. “I think people have a better time moving forward with an initiative if the ‘why’ is at the forefront,” he said.
School Board member Jeanne Nelson asked about his experience running a building bond referendum or an operating referendum. Dahman said that he did not have as much experience running referendums, but he added that he worked under two superintendents who had successful referendums under their leadership. Dahman said that the superintendents taught him about the importance of making sure that the information was clear for the public and including community members and district staff in the conversations.
For over the past 20 years, Gronseth has worked in Duluth Public Schools (DPS), serving as an elementary school teacher before becoming principal and later superintendent. Before he came down to interview for the job as WAPS superintendent, Gronseth said that he traveled to Winona the week prior to meet with community members.
Gronseth said that when he first became DPS superintendent, the district was on the tail-end of a $315 million facility plan and had four projects to complete. “I knew as a community we had to come together and talk about education and kids and move past the building portion of that when it was done,” Gronseth.
Recently, Gronseth said that the district has been focusing on curriculum, including a hands-on aerospace physics class where students learn about physics while trying to build a remote-controlled plane.
When communicating with the community, Gronseth uses several approaches including multiple social media platforms, newsletters, radio shows, and newspaper articles. Gronseth said that he works to have regular meetings with students as well.
How would you deal with a critical community member? Vice Chair Tina Lehnertz asked. Gronseth responded that he would call the community member and ask them to meet for coffee or lunch to talk about the issue. “The first step is listening and letting them tell me what their concerns are,” he explained. After getting past the emotion, Gronseth said that he would share information and ask how they can move forward.
That doesn’t mean he would cave to their decision, he cautioned. Instead, Gronseth said that it would help the community member feel listened to and heard. If the issue was raised again, Gronseth said that he would make sure to check in with the community member.
Gronseth recalled one time when some community members got upset over Title I funding. He said that part of the funds were meant to go to a parent group, and some community members had concerns whether that was happening. When he was meeting with members of the parent group, he heard people picketing outside. “They thought they were left out of this meeting,” he explained. Gronseth invited the picketers inside to join the meeting to discuss the funding.
Gronseth said that as a leader, he saw himself as a collaborator and facilitator.
Ever since she was in first grade, Haws has wanted to be a teacher. She grew up on a dairy farm in Southwest Minnesota and her mother put her in charge of teaching her siblings their numbers and the alphabet. Over her 41 years in education, she has worked throughout the country including in St. Louis, Mo., Virginia, Washington D.C., and her current post as superintendent of Racine Unified School District (RUSD) in Wisconsin.
Haws worked as the principal of Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington, Va., which she said had students from over 60 countries who were the children of diplomats or other foreign leaders. It was so diverse that we couldn’t have an achievement gap, she explained.
She was candid that she was looking at several school districts, explaining that she was looking for a place to end her career. “I want to be in a community where we can feel at home and where we can feel part of the community,” she said. Working in a large district like Racine, she said that she didn’t personally know teachers and students.
“If the board and superintendent don’t trust each other, then everyone’s in trouble,” Haws said when asked how she built trust. She said that that board had to have a good public face. She said that her past boards worked through their struggles on retreats.
When asked if she had experience passing a building bond referendum, Haws said that she did. When she came to RUSD, she said that the parents were vouchering out of the schools and the community didn’t trust the schools — partly, she said, because of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10, a 2011 bill that affected Wisconsin’s unions. She said that their buildings needed approximately $128 million in maintenance needs.
Haws said the district decided to ask voters to fund the maintenance, and some community leaders doubted taxpayers would support the plan on the ballot. She said that she went to any organization that would have her, and when it came time to decide where to build the schools, they picked the locations strategically, targeting some communities that did not support the district.
Superintendent of Royalton School District Jon Ellerbusch came in fourth in the board’s considerations of a new superintendent and won't be asked to return for a second interview. While some School Board members said that he was smart and sophisticated enough to be a political leader, others questioned how prepared he was for the interview.
During his interview, Ellerbusch praised his board, noting that they didn’t micromanage his work and rooted him on.
When asked about Winona’s strengths and challenges, Ellerbusch saw the higher education in the area as a strength. He noted that WAPS has a “bad perception,” saying that the district isn't getting the positive press it should.
Several board members were impressed with Dahman with some noting his work with student equity. Coming from a larger school district, School Board member Steve Schild noted that Gronseth had experience working with all the varied functions of a complex system. He was impressed with Gronseth’s research about WAPS, noting that he didn’t speak poorly about anyone. Board members were impressed with Haws’ experience, but some board members had concerns about Haws’ transition from a large school district to Winona. Nelson said that superintendents have to work with their district differently depending on their size. Schild said that he liked that Haws was “authentic” and “straight talking”