West Bend School District needs a new superintendent

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Go pick up a copy! Here’s a part to whet your appetite.

The search for a new superintendent comes during a time of turmoil in the school district. After Superintendent Ted Nietzke resigned in 2016, the School Board hired a strong replacement, Erik Olsen. 2016 is also when the School Board began its turn to the left when Tiffany Larson was elected. 2017 completed the turn with the election of Joel Ongert, Nancy Justman, and Tonnie Schmidt. With a solid majority, Superintendent Olson was quickly paid a handsome severance to leave. Interim Superintendent Laura Jackson served well until Kirkegaard was hired by the board in 2018 after an expensive search.

Through these years, the school district has burned through four or five HR directors and business managers, ended innovation like the charter school, abandoned merit pay for teachers, stunted community and stakeholder communication, roiled the electorate with a poorly thought-out referendum that failed, and generally regressed from the gains made a few years ago. The results have been distressing as student performance has been stagnant and much of the community is disengaged and disinterested.

Meanwhile, the school district is facing some serious challenges. Due to a general demographic shift, enrollment is declining in the district and is projected to continue to decline for the foreseeable future. A district that once had 7,000 students will likely have less than 5,000 within this decade. This will mean substantially less money and the need to downsize personnel and facilities. The district is also facing competitive pressure with the expansion of school choice and the maturity of online and home-school learning options. These are structural pressures that are not unique to the West Bend School District. They are systemic and unavoidable.

Taking all of this into account, the next superintendent of the West Bend School District needs to be a strong, transformational, visionary change agent. It is exponentially more difficult to properly manage an organization through a contraction than through an expansion. The leader must be a phenomenal communicator who can motivate employees and build support with all of the stakeholders in the district. The West Bend School District does not need a caretaker or a toady. The district needs a strong leader to guide it through a transformation to improve educational outcomes, infuse modern innovations, and reconnect with the community while also consolidating and economizing personnel and facilities. The folks in the West Bend School District deserve a better, if smaller, school district that reflects the values of the community it serves.

To find a superintendent that matches all of those criteria will not be easy, especially given the recent turnover in the position. To do so, the West Bend School Board should follow the lead of the University of Wisconsin System and consider candidates who do not come from the government education- industrial complex. A school district superintendent must have a vision for education, but must also have skills in budgeting, contract negotiation, public relations, personnel management, finance, facilities management, organizational behavior, recruitment, marketing, legal, and more. These are skills that most seasoned, successful business executives have acquired and are not unique to people who have spent their career in education.