by NATHANIEL NELSON
It’s official –– Annette Freiheit will be the next superintendent of Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS). On Tuesday, district officials announced that Freiheit has signed a three-year contract as superintendent of District 861, starting on July 1. Freiheit, who was selected unanimously to be the district’s next leader, was offered a salary of $149,000 plus benefits for her first year, with $4,000 raises in years two and three –– a salary lower than current superintendent Rich Dahman, but higher than the district’s previous superintendents.
“I’m absolutely excited, and I think they offered me a great contract. I’m excited to get moving ahead,” Freiheit told the Post on Tuesday. “I’m getting ready to get started.”
Board members Nancy Denzer, Karl Sonneman, Tina Lehnertz and WAPS Director of Human Resources Emily Solheid met on Monday afternoon to discuss the tentative superintendent contract for Freiheit. The group compared superintendent salaries across the Big Nine conference, WAPS’ superintendent salary history, and superintendent salaries at other similar-sized districts across the state to make their decision.
Sonneman noted that he wanted to give Freiheit an offer that was respectful of her experience and her workload, but added that he believed the district was overpaying Dahman for the role. In Dahman’s first year, he was paid $159,500 lis benefits, followed by 1.5-percent raises over the next two years to $161,892 and $164,320.
Including benefits, Dahman’s salary was $217,174.39 for the 2018-2019 school year.
“I think it’s fair not to do the same number we have with Rich,” Denzer said.
The group agreed on a starting salary of $149,000 for Freiheit’s first year, with a 2.6-percent raise to $153,000 for year two and a 2.5-percent raise to $157,000 in year three. Solheid mentioned that the raises are higher than other recent raises for other contracted employees, and that they would likely be used as a comparison in later contract negotiations with other district employees.
“We want to be fair, so I do think $150,000 is a good place to start,” Denzer said.
The $149,000 starting salary lies near the low end of the districts studied. In Red Wing, the Big Nine district closest in size to WAPS, the superintendent is currently paid $149,981 per year plus benefits. The average base salary across the Big Nine is roughly $173,000, according to a document provided by the district, while the highest salary comes from Rochester –– $217,300, or $273,036 including benefits.
When compared to past WAPS superintendents, the salary shows a notable increase over most contracts in the past decade. Former superintendent Stephen West was paid $138,000 his first year, and was contracted to go up to $152,914 in his fifth year if he had remained with the district. Scott Hannon, who served as superintendent before West, was paid $141,500 in his second year at the district.
Denzer added that Freiheit also has multiple accolades that add to her value as a superintendent –– in addition to holding a Master’s degree in educational leadership, she also received a Doctorate in education from Hamline University in 2017.
“She does have her doctorate. That’s impressive. The superintendent in Rochester doesn’t have his doctorate,” Denzer explained. “I think the doctorate is a value-added piece for us, and we’re getting the benefit of all the teaching and other experience she has in her background, and she successfully completed three years of her [current] contract.”
The exact cost of the contract’s benefits were not yet calculated on Monday night, but they will likely be similar to Dahman’s $51,000 benefit package.
Throughout the meeting, the group went through the contract section by section, debating what would need to be adjusted. The first decision to be made was how long a contract to offer –– according to Solheid, a three-year contract is typical for a superintendent, but the board could choose instead to move for a one-year contract as a probationary period. That said, even if the board decided on a three-year contract, there would still be a safeguard if things went south.
“If something’s not working out at the end of the first year, you can work on a separation agreement,” Solheid said.
While the idea of a one-year contract was floated shortly, Denzer explained that most superintendents expect a three-year contract, which, in her experience at Rochester Public Schools, is roughly half of a superintendent’s usual time at a district.
“Five or six years is the typical amount of time that a superintendent stays in a district,” Denzer said, adding that WAPS has been atypical in recent years.
Dahman announced his retirement less than two years into his contract, while former superintendent West resigned from the district after it was alleged in a Winona Post investigation that he had plagiarizing large portions of his doctoral thesis. Saint Mary’s University announced that he did not hold a Doctorate.
Sonneman and Lehnertz noted that while some superintendents choose to continue moving up the ladder to larger districts, Freiheit may not follow in the same vein.
“She makes a good impression, but she is coming from a much, much smaller system. I could see her staying until the end of her career here,” Sonneman said. “And I don’t think she wants all the headaches of Rochester.”
The biggest sticking point for the group was the section on duties for the superintendent. Sonneman argued that as written, the section did not highlight the accountability and supervision of the School Board enough and, as a result, could give a superintendent too much freedom to do as they please.
“I don’t think the duties are at all adequate,” Sonneman said. “The key provision of any contract is the key duties that a contracted person is going to provide, and I think this is more general than what we need for a superintendent contract.”
Denzer disagreed, stating that the contract should be left more general. The description as written, she added, still gives the School Board jurisdiction over the superintendent’s choices, but focuses more on what the superintendent is actually doing instead of how the board will oversee it.
“We do not want to be in the business of running the school,” Denzer said.
Sonneman pressed that the School Board should be in the business of running schools, and that board members need to “micromanage” the superintendent to keep the employee accountable and make sure the district is running smoothly, but Denzer and Lehnertz disagreed and stated that cooperation and supervision would be better than any “micromanagement.”
“This superintendent is going to come in and something is going to be done that someone isn’t going to like, and we’re going to run her out of town like we ran out the last two,” Lehnertz warned.
In the end, the group compromised and added additional wording to the contract emphasizing supervision and performance evaluation.
Solheid explained that the contract should be written not as a starting point for negotiation and instead as something “comfortable and easy to sign,” and the committee members agreed, finalizing the offer and sending it over to Freiheit to review.
“She’s really eager and willing to come here, and I think that speaks very well of her and her future,” Denzer said.
“If she comes in and does everything right, she’d be worth more than any of this,” Sonneman added.
The contract was signed on Tuesday without any changes, and a meeting of the negotiations committee scheduled for Wednesday evening was cancelled. If the board approves the final contract at Thursday’s meeting, Freiheit will take over the district from Dahman on July 1.