by NATHANIEL NELSON
Over the past decade, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) has had little stability in its highest position. With superintendent Rich Dahman’s retiring only two years into his contract, the district has been forced to conduct its fourth superintendent search in the past 10 years. Board members, along with administrators, have been vocal about their concern with finding a leader amidst a troubled time for WAPS –– with $2.25 million on the chopping block, two ongoing court cases, and a history of “disfunction” on the School Board that must be communicated to candidates “without scaring them off,” as stated by Dahman and board member Steve Schild. Last week, the board held a number of public listening sessions across town for the public to voice their thoughts on the upcoming hiring, and nearly no one showed up.
Over the last few weeks, the School Board has been working closely with the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) in searching for a new leader, and particularly with communicating directly with citizens, staff, and students on what they want and need for the district’s next chief. During meetings with MSBA on the search, board members were candid about district challenges and how they might impact the recruitment effort. MSBA consultant Sandy Gundlach explained that the firm will work with the district until it finds a new leader, and that even if the current search does not yield a new superintendent, it will help the district find an interim replacement and plan a new recruitment effort. “We really don’t know what to expect, but I think the thing that you should feel at least hopeful about is that we’re here with you until you have that person, however long it takes,” Gundlach said.
Attendance was less than expected at the four public meetings –– two meetings were empty and the largest had only three attendees – but board chair Nancy Denzer explained that many of the talking points were the same.
“It’s hard to say just from the few that came to the sessions,” Denzer said. “The ones that I heard was that they should be a good communicator and a good listener, and I heard that through all of the conversations that I had with people. Also, to be visible in the buildings, and get to know the community and the people that are in it. In general, listening to the community and the staff, too.”
Karin Worthley, a former district teacher herself, discussed some of her concerns about a new superintendent at the Acoustic Cafe session on Wednesday. She explained that the district has a lot of good things going for it, including the music program, strong and knowledgeable teachers, and a School Board that is “knowledgeable about what goes on in school.”
However, she added that the district has also been going through troubled times recently, particularly through the aftermath of the closure of Madison and Rollingstone, as well as recent and upcoming budget cuts, which is something a new superintendent must be prepared to handle.
“This district has been wounded. There are students who feel they have to defend their interests and their desires for learning certain kinds of things. There are teachers who go from year to year wondering how stable their job is. There are families in the community wondering where their child will be going to school next year,” Worthley explained. “I think we have great potential to heal some of the wounds, but that will need to be part of the superintendent’s job.”
She, along with her husband Jim, said a superintendent will need a variety of qualities to bring the district forward. These include having a sense of humor, having a good attitude, lacking an agenda, and being inspirational and relatable for both students and their families.
Jim pointed out being present in the schools on a daily basis should be front and center during the decision-making process.
“Don’t forget that’s why we’re here,” Jim said. “It’s easy to get bogged down with the job, but stay connected to the children.”
While attendance was lacking, the public sessions are not the only way the board is gathering information for its selection. Sessions have also been held with students and staff across the district, and Denzer explained that each of the board members have already come up with two or three people with whom they have spoken and asked questions. Others continue to contact board members on a regular basis.
The district also recently sent out a survey covering the same basic questions –– what are the good things at WAPS and the challenges, desired qualities and characteristics, what candidates should know about the district’s history and politics, and what they would personally say to the next superintendent. According to Denzer, that survey has already had more than 200 responses, with the actual total potentially being even higher.
The responses from the public will be compiled at the board’s April 24 interview training to create a list of questions for candidates, prior to the first set of interviews at the beginning of May. Denzer explained that the public will have more chances to voice their opinions, even throughout the interview process.
“All of our interviews are open, so there will be a time when people can give us some feedback,” Denzer said. “[The process] is kind of fluid. We do have some options to change or alter if we feel like we do need something else.”
One part that will be a focus for the board is accountability, and making sure candidates are truthful in their answers. Once the first round of interviews are done, Denzer explained that she will be going through each candidate’s references to see if they back up what was gleaned from the interview. She also explained that the board is still weighing the possibility of site visits to the finalists’ home districts.
“We have not ruled out visiting a community,” Denzer said. “Accountability is really important. It’s important to us, important to me, and important to the board for us to check and make sure they are going to do what they say they are going to do.”
The superintendent search is expected to be included on the School Board’s agenda next Thursday, with representatives from MSBA providing an update on how the search is going thus far.