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0704, 19 Apr 16

West Bend needs a super super

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

The West Bend School District is searching for a superintendent. Whoever gets the job has some big shoes to fill and some challenges to tackle. We should be as concerned about why a good superintendent would choose West Bend as we are about the School Board choosing a good superintendent.

The School Board has engaged a search company to recruit a superintendent in the wake of Ted Neitzke’s resignation. The application is already available and online. The plan is to stop collecting applications at the end of April, select candidates May 16, conduct interviews and choose a superintendent June 9 for a start date of July 1. As outlined, it is a fairly aggressive schedule.

The School Board has a lot of work to do to decide what they want to see in a new superintendent. Do they want someone from inside or outside of the district? Do they want someone looking to make radical changes or continue the current policies? Do they want someone who is an “upand- comer” or someone looking to build a legacy before retirement? Increasingly, districts are also hiring superintendents who come from outside of education like nonprofit or business leaders. Should the School Board consider a candidate without a background in education?

It is a lot to consider. It is the most consequential single decision a school board makes and it is a difficult decision to reverse if they make a bad one. Unfortunately, the School Board, through no fault of their own, is beginning its recruitment a little late in the year. The best results for recruiting a superintendent tend to happen when the search begins in January. Many of the truly superior superintendents on the market have already accepted positions. That is not to say that there are not still great candidates available, but the pool is smaller than it was four months ago.

But as the School Board considers the candidates who apply, the candidates will also be considering the West Bend School District. Good people — especially talented executives with the ability to lead an organization the size of the West Bend School District — have options. Why would a super super choose to lead the West Bend School District?

The West Bend School District is the 19th largest district in the state. It resides in a conservative county of mostly middleclass families. The business community is diverse and has a good working partnership with the school district. The students also have access to the University of Wisconsin-Washington County and Moraine Park Technical College, which are located in the district.

Within the district itself, a superintendent has a lot to work with. The School Board and outgoing superintendent built a blossoming charter school, 4K program, online education initiative, performing arts center, popular walk-in clinic for employees and data-driven management tools. The district’s employee-turnover rate is lower than other districts in the area and considerably lower than the national average. The parents and community are, for the most part, active and engaged.

The district is not without problems. There is a vicious and growing problem with heroin and other drugs. Test scores are not where they need to be. And much like many other enterprises in America, there are continuing upward pressures on costs like healthcare with downward pressures on revenue.

But the most pressing problem with the district right now is cultural. There is a small but vocal contingent of teachers, parents and agitators who have chosen to take a very personal and nasty approach to change advocacy. While some of their complaints about things like too many standardized tests are legitimate, their continued spreading of false characterizations about things like teacher turnover, open enrollment and district policies only serve to paint a negative picture of the district that does not exist.

Furthermore, their chosen tactic to personally pillory those with whom they disagree has been reprehensible. The virulent glee with which some members of our community celebrated the departures of Neitzke and School Board President Randy Marquardt on social media and in the newspaper does not speak well for West Bend. Consider how potential applicants for the superintendent’s job would recoil at the venom spat at his or her predecessor.

While it is good to be anxious about the School Board choosing the right candidate, the greater worry might just be whether or not the right candidate will choose West Bend. As we consider both sides of the recruitment equation, I urge the School Board to not be pressured to unnecessarily rush a decision. A review of large districts by Learning Point Associates advises that school districts allow up to a full year from the time of vacancy to properly recruit, hire and transition a high-level district employee. West Bend does not need to wait a full year, but neither does it need to hire someone by July 1. If the absolute right candidate is not found in this first pass at recruitment, the School Board should appoint an acting superintendent while they take the time to conduct a more thorough recruitment process. A bad hire can push an organization off the rails for years to come. It is essential that the School Board take the time necessary to find the right candidate.


0704, 19 April 2016


  1. Mark Maley

    I agree with much of this post by Owen, especially the part about a smaller candidate pool.

    I disagree with the idea that the Benders group is doing anything different from the Common Sense folks did in previous years

    Both groups organized , decided what school board candidates they wanted to support and demonize the ones they didn’t

    So the Benders watched , learned and now they just beat the 6 year incumbent who had the most votes the other times he ran and a Super they despised is leaving .

    I might suggest that they are beating the Common Sense folks at their own game when it comes to the school board

    The new Super will be warned about both groups , their influence in the community and really good candidates will find better fits with far less drama

  2. old baldy

    I don’t have a horse in this race, but feel the need to a few comments:

    Why do the folks in WB feel the need to label SB members as liberal or conservative? Our members are plumbers, farmers, Co-op managers, small businessmen, etc. ? Instead of labeling everyone, why not work for the common good?

    Good administrators aren’t stupid, they do their homework and usually aren’t attracted to divisive districts.

    We just replaced our Super who retired after 25+ years (average tenure is < 5 years) with a highly recomended person that wanted out of a larger and much more politicized situation. Perhaps a lesson there?

    If there is an issue in WB regarding shrinking revenues maybe you should look farther to the north and west in this state to see what pain has been inflicted in the hinterlands. The current administration in Madison has hamstrung rural districts, especially those that were already running a tight ship, by cutting state aid and placing artificial revenue caps on the districts. If it is an issue in WB, look no farther than you governor, senator, and representative.

  3. Anonymous

    Excellent point about taking the time necessary to attract the right candidate, even if it means using an interim superintendent. As you just reported, they are doing that with the high school principal. There must be a good bench of existing talent within the organization that could fill the role of interim administrator.

    Went back to the column you published in the Daily News and noticed that next to it was a nice tribute to Randy Marquardt, by current Board member Rick Parks.

    An appreciation for outgoing School Board President Marquardt

    As Randy Marquardt ends his time on the West Bend School Board, I want to take the opportunity to recognize his service, and to offer my admiration for the work he has done these past six years.

    Marquardt entered public life as an avowed conservative. Over his time on the School Board he always honored these roots, but he also did something that was quite extraordinary. He found a way to stay true to his conservative values but led the board as president in a way that let other Board members advance ideas that he always didn’t agree with, but knew deserved to be heard.

    I was elected to our School Board a year after Marquardt, and frankly ran with some concerns that the Board was shifting from the non-partisan and moderate stance that I like to advance. But then I began to work with Randy, and learned a lot from him. What I began to admire about him was his devotion to doing the right thing and moderating any of us on the Board who might want to take an adversarial posture in the community. Many times I was passionate about something and Randy very calmly advised, “I don’t think I’d do that, Rick.”

    The point where I knew that Randy had evolved to a public servant rather than an agenda-led activist was the last approval of our Human Growth and Development curriculum. In the Board’s discussion he weighed in that while he did not manage his family the way that our curriculum taught students, he had to look at this issue from the perspective of 7,000 students and their needs, and not how he would do things in his family. He supported what was good for the students.

    Thanks, Randy. Rick Parks treasurer West Bend School Board

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