by NATHANIEL NELSON
With summer well underway and preparation for the upcoming school year going strong, Cochrane-Fountain City School District (C-FC) has a new leader at the helm –– Michele Butler, a former high school principal from Arcadia, has taken the reins of the district from outgoing superintendent Thomas Hiebert, who served as the superintendent for more than a decade.
While this is Butler’s first superintendent job, she has a long history in education –– in the same region, no less. Prior to her hiring, she was a middle school principal in the Arcadia School District and previously the district’s high school principal, and before that, she also worked as a business education teacher in Portage, Wis.
Butler explained that the transition from a teacher to a principal was influential in pushing her to pursue a district leadership role to help students continue to grow.
“Every time you go from teacher to principal, you find you have an opportunity to influence and help more students,” Butler said. “As the leader of a whole district, you get to guide and mentor leaders.”
“Instead of advocating for my building or my classroom, it’s my whole school [district],” she added.
Butler took over the district on July 1, and on Tuesday, she told the Post that the transition was going swimmingly. “I’ve now moved into my office, and I sort of know where I put things in the drawers and filing cabinets,” she joked. In the first two days, she had already met with numerous fellow staff members to discuss what’s next for the budding district.
“I could tell you already that the summer is definitely different. Instead of working on schedules, I’m working on the school budgets and overseeing referendum projects,” she said.
C-FC Board President Karen Knospe explained that Butler was the clear choice for the board, despite the tough competition from other candidates. She explained that Butler is “very concerned” with continually improving the climate of the district’s solitary campus, and repeatedly highlighted Butler’s energy and ideas as a benefit for the district.
“I think Michele is coming in with all these fresh and new ideas to make our school better,” Knospe said.
Butler isn’t coming into the district during an off-year, either –– in 2017, voters passed a $7-million referendum for infrastructure, security, and upgrades to the science and technology rooms in the district’s sole building. The majority of those projects –– including an upgraded HVAC system, a new school-wide sound system, and outfitting the science rooms with new furniture –– will be completed this summer in time for students coming back for the fall.
Despite coming in mid-renovation, Butler explained that the transition hasn’t been nearly as daunting as she expected. The School Board and staff have helped her get acclimated to the district and the current projects, and Butler explained that the board –– and the referendum committee –– has been instrumental in keeping the project moving along and getting her up to speed.
“I don’t feel like I’m walking in blind. We have really great support, but I’m still reading everything I can get my hands on,” she said. “The project is well underway, and you would not believe what is going on here. It’s pretty exciting.”
Her change in role hasn’t shifted her outlook on education, either, she explained. She described seeing people grow as “energizing,” and explained that in leading a single-school district, she will need to continue to reach out and advocate to each of the district’s communities directly.
“What I found as a principal and working with the superintendent is the superintendent can influence the whole environment of the school district. I’m excited to look at where we’re already at and go to a higher level of collaboration, student achievement, and grow closer to the community,” Butler said. “I think we’re ready to take things to another level.”
She is excited to remain in the driftless region, too, she explained. Even before working in Arcadia, she had already fallen in love with the natural beauty of the area –– as well as the hometown feel.
“I had been living in Baraboo before starting in Arcadia, and driving through the area, I noted, ‘Whoa, this is beautiful,’” Butler said. “It’s an absolute gem in the state.”
Butler’s hiring was the result of a year-long search process, following the announcement of Hiebert’s retirement, which was set in the final two-year contract he signed with the district. In December 2017, he was placed on administrative leave after a district employee filed a complaint –– the contents of which were not made public –– and he returned in January 2018 after the investigation was completed.
The search for the next C-FC superintendent began in May that year, leading to the selection of Butler this March.
“I’m so excited to be selected for this position, and I believe we’re going to have a great year this year,” Butler added. “It’s a privilege to serve the communities of Cochrane, Fountain City and Buffalo City.”
Knospe explained that the C-FC School Board is looking forward to working with Butler in the years ahead, and finding new ways to bring the district into the next generation.
“She’s very engaging, and has a lot of really good ideas,” Knospe said. “We’re excited to see what she will bring to the schools.”
“I’m thrilled. It’s a new adventure,” Butler added.