by NATHANIEL NELSON
After a three-month process, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board has officially selected the district’s new leader: Annette Freiheit, superintendent of Pine Lake School District in Pine Lake, Minn. After three days of second-round interviews, followed by a short and amicable deliberation session, the board unanimously agreed to offer Freiheit the position, allowing her to take the reins of District 861 from current superintendent Rich Dahman, who will leave his post on July 1.
“I believe she has the skill set, the disposition, and the knowledge to lead us forward to collaborate. I think teachers are going to love her. I think the community is going to love her,” board member Jim Schul said of Freiheit.
On Friday morning, Freiheit told the Winona Post that she will be taking the job, and is excited to return to the home of her alma mater. Freiheit received her Bachelor’s degrees in recreational therapy and elementary education, as well as her Master’s in educational leadership, from Winona State University, and still comes back every year with her husband –– a small business owner in Rochester, Minn. –– to celebrate the university’s homecoming festivities. She explained that the Winona community has always held a place in her heart, and recalls her time as a student taking in the natural beauty of the local bluff country.
“It’s on the river and the lakes, and the nature of it is always so calming for me. I can remember in college walking around the lakes, and it’s a nice, natural place to be at,” Freiheit told the Post. “It’s a down-home kind of community, and it feels natural for me, and a good fit for me.”
Freiheit beat out two other finalists –– Randi Anderson, superintendent of Pelican Rapids Public Schools in Pelican Rapids, Minn.; and James Wagner, superintendent of Johnson County School District in Wyoming –– to clinch the role.
Following the second round of interviews, board members listed the strengths and areas for growth for each candidate and reviewed both references and public comments for the question and answer sessions. Board members cited multiple strengths among all candidates, including experience, collaboration and confidence, and explained that all three candidates were stellar options.
However, when the time came for the board members to announce their choices, the frontrunner quickly became clear –– each of the members listed Freiheit as their number-one choice.
“I think she will be willing to walk with us and learn with us and work with us,” board member Tina Lehnertz said.
Board members cited multiple high points from her two interviews, including her devotion to forming relationships, leadership skills, visibility in the community, and clear expectations for staff and colleagues. Board member Karl Sonneman also noted Freiheit’s thesis on the role of women as superintendents, and explained that it showed she understands gender bias and the role of gender in leadership positions. He also cited her past experience with the community as a plus.
“What is it this district needs the most? I think there is much Freiheit brings to this,” Sonneman said. “She did mention that in addition to attending Winona State University, she also worked at the YMCA. She has some time here in Winona, and I think understanding Winona, and not just the education community but the district community … that is a fairly strong recommendation of her to me.”
In her interviews, Freiheit focused heavily on the importance of building trust and relationships within the district and understanding how it works on the ground level. In her current role as the superintendent of Pine City, she schedules regular times to be in each school and talk with teachers and students. In addition, over the course of a year, she rode on each of the district’s 22 bus routes to understand the transportation system and learn more about where students are from.
In moving to WAPS, she explained that her first order of business will be connecting with the district and getting to know what makes it tick.
“I’m excited to be meeting all of the staff and getting to know the community even more, and working with the board,” Freiheit said. “I’ll be working on getting a schedule to make those visits and get to know the staff and the kids. We’re going to start by hitting the ground running.”
Freiheit also has extensive experience as a classroom teacher, teaching elementary students in Kenyon, Minn., 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.
In moving to a superintendent position, Freiheit explained that she became a collaborative leader and prefers to communicate directly with parents and staff about issues in person. As a principal, she began by making top-down decisions, but she realized being collaborative and trusting employees created better schools and a better district.
“I think of myself as hands-on in a way to help the employees become the best they can be –– making sure they have the resources to do their job well,” Freiheit told the Post. “I work on making sure that I give the employees the space to grow and I trust them to be getting their jobs done.”
Board members also spoke highly of Freiheit’s humility, and her relatable nature that they explained would allow her to fit nicely within the district community.
“Something that really stands out to me is I think she’s humble,” board chair Nancy Denzer said. “I think she will grow with us and be a part of us moving forward. I like how she did not have all the answers.”
They also noted one other major difference between Freiheit and the other candidates –– Freiheit was the only one exiting a district at the end of a term, leaving all loose ends tied up.
“I don’t want to be on someone’s bucket list,” Denzer said. “She is the only one completing a contract with a district. It’s a logical move for her.”
The change to WAPS will be a large shift, Freiheit explained, as WAPS has more than twice the student population of her current district. With two times the students and more schools and employees with whom to meet, figuring out how her role as superintendent fits with District 861 will be her biggest challenge.
“The organizational structure is slightly different, so I will have to figure out how I will work with the administration team and figure out how the organization has been run in the past,” Freiheit explained. “One of my goals is for staff to be as successful as they can be, so how I will be able to meet their needs and support them will be one of the things that I work on.”
The School Board will meet with Freiheit on Monday evening for the first of several rounds of contract negotiations. It’s unclear how much they will offer her, but according to the Minnesota School Board Association, which helped the district conduct the search, the search was based off Dahman’s current salary –– $213,170.71, including benefits. If the contract is signed, she will begin her role at the district on July 1.