by NATHANIEL NELSON
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) is one step closer to finding its new leader: on Saturday evening, the WAPS Board narrowed down its list of superintendent candidates to three finalists –– Randi Anderson, superintendent of Pelican Rapids Public Schools in Pelican Rapids, Minn.; Annette Freiheit, superintendent of Pine City Public Schools in Pine City, Minn.; and James Wagner, superintendent of Johnson County School District in Wyoming. The three finalists will go on to a second round of interviews set for this week, when the School Board and community members will have a chance to question the candidates on how they may lead District 861.
The choices were made following two days of interviews, when the School Board met with each candidate in succession for an hour-long interview, asking 15 questions covering everything from diversity to financial experience to strategies for resolving conflict within the community. After each candidate had been interviewed, the board discussed the merits of the each candidate and narrowed down the list of six to three finalists to move forward into the next round.
Wagner, who received the most votes from the board, received his Bachelor’s degree in biology from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and later received a Master’s in education at St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn. During his time as the superintendent of Kimball Area Schools (KAS) in Kimball, Minn., from 2014 through 2018, the district reversed a trend of declining enrollment to four consecutive years of increased student population and moved from statutory operating debt to having a fund balance of 12-percent of annual expenses. Much of his work history is from Minnesota, having served as a teacher or principal in several districts in the state, as well as at fellow Big Nine school district Albert Lea. Last month, Wagner was a candidate for the job of superintendent of Mankato Public Schools but was not offered the position, and in 2017, he was offered the job of superintendent in Stewartville, Minn., but turned the position down.
Board members spoke highly of his financial background and experience working in tough conditions. WAPS has been experiencing a downturn in both student enrollment and funding in recent years, and Wagner’s plan for working to raise enrollment and awareness are a plus, board members noted. Board members also appreciated his research into the district’s current and recent history, as well as his awareness of diversity issues.
“I thought he was very engaging. He was interesting to listen to, and that would go into him being a good communicator,” board member Tina Lehnertz said. “Anybody can write a good application, and I think that many can talk the talk, but when you get here, you’ve got to walk the walk.”
During the interview, Wagner highlighted active recruiting from local and regional universities to increase diversity, building trust by “Showing you are interested, not interesting,” and stated that the superintendent position is more than just a desk job.
“I’m not a top-down kind of person, but if I have to lead, I have to lead by example. I need to get my arms as dirty as anyone else,” Wagner said.
Another big focal point for Wagner was focusing on community needs instead of just district needs, and being visible both in the classroom and out in public. He also said the district should be involved within the Winona business community, finding partnerships wherever it can, and listening to input from residents for how the district can meet its needs.
“If you’re not capable of thinking outside of the box, just make the box bigger,” Wagner said. “You have to show relevance, and show what the schools can provide for the community.”
Anderson, who also received high marks from the board, has been superintendent of Pelican Rapids Schools since 2017, and previously served as the director of personalized learning and instruction at Eden Prairie Schools –– the same district where former WAPS Superintendent Stephen West worked as executive director of educational services.
As superintendent, Anderson created a strategic plan titled “Portrait of Graduate 2036” to ensure students are college and career ready, which was a high point for board members. Anderson received both her Bachelor’s degrees in elementary education and mathematics and her Master’s degree in education administration from the University of North Dakota. She was previously one of two finalists for a superintendent position in West Fargo, N.D., in 2018, but was not offered the job.
Anderson focused on things such as having a fluid curriculum to help students who are struggling catch up and for those excelling to go further, and providing multiple pathways through the system so educators can have the freedom to modify for each individual student. She also explained that in her home district, she provides weekly and monthly summaries of board meetings and district happenings to both board members and staff, which she said she would also provide at WAPS. She also highlighted the importance of hiring diverse candidates, and making sure students have teachers who they can talk and relate to.
“Our staff should look like our student population and our community population,” Anderson said. “Your bias is your lens.”
Like Wagner, Anderson also spoke about the importance of being a part of the community. At Pelican Rapids, Anderson is part of multiple local organizations, and said WAPS should follow suit to be at the table to hear the concerns of the community. For her, that role is more than just a superintendent thing, but a district-wide initiative to be connected.
“Gaining and maintaining community support has to be from being out in the school district and being the face of the school district,” Anderson said. “I am always representing Pelican Rapids schools –– being accessible, being open to have those conversations, and helping them move those questions or concerns to the right level.”
In their deliberation, board members spoke highly of some of her ideas, including training in teachers before a new program or initiative is installed, instead of after. Board member Jim Schul called her “a futurist” and lauded her career’s focus on teaching, learning, and curriculum, while board member Allison Quam highlighted her history as a teacher and focus on community and collaboration.
Freiheit, the third and final finalist to move forward, has direct ties to Winona’s educational industry –– she received her Bachelor’s degrees in recreational therapy and elementary education, as well as her Master’s in educational leadership, from Winona State University. For her Doctorate in education, Freiheit attended Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. She went on to teach in Kenyon, Minn., as an elementary teacher for nine years before taking on other positions in various Minnesota school districts, including as a graduation standards director, curriculum and testing director, and an elementary principal. Freiheit was previously a superintendent finalist in Cannon Falls, Minn.
Freiheit explained that she has a leadership style steeped in collaboration, and that when a decision made creates an impact within the district, it’s important to talk with the affected individuals and find ways to support them. She also stated that when communicating with parents or staff about conflict, sitting down and having a conversation is the best option.
“Email is my last resort for solving anything,” Freiheit said.
Professional development and professional learning communities (PLCs) are also important, she explained, and training teachers to become “very good data analysts” would help strengthen the classrooms and, in turn, bring more people back into the district.
“You have to have strong academics and strong student support so parents want their kids there,” Freiheit said.
Freiheit was also concerned with visibility in her position, and discussed some of the ways she stays active in Pine City. For one, she sets dates to be at each school so staff know when she will be there, and over the course of a year, rode every one of the district’s 22 bus routes to see where students live and how the transportation system works. She also said she has asked board members to invite seven guests to sit down for coffee, going through the board on a rotational basis, to get a more ground-level idea of how to improve visibility and cooperation between the district and the community.
Her devotion to visibility and relationships was a key point for board members in choosing her as a finalist. “One of the first things she said is that she learned the value of relationships,” Quam said, adding that her idea to schedule time each week to be in individual schools would be a boon for establishing a superintendent-student relationship.
The WAPS Board explained that she is a competent budget-maker, is a positive advocate for her district and, as a data-driven leader, could help turn the tide for WAPS’ problems with its achievement gap.
While spoken highly of, the other three candidates –– Michelle Mortensen, superintendent of Renville County West in Renville., Minn.; Greg Nyen, superintendent of the School District of Waupaca, Wis.; and Robert Smudde, superintendent of Prairie Du Chien Area School District in Prairie Du Chien, Wis. –– will not be moving forward into the next phase.
The WAPS Board will conduct its next set of interviews from May 14 through May 16 at the Winona Senior High School Learning Commons, interviewing one candidate a day immediately following a community question and answer session at 5 p.m. each day. On Thursday, the board is expected to make a decision about who will become the district’s next superintendent following superintendent Rich Dahman’s departure next month, with contract negotiations taking place next week.