West Bend School District needs a new superintendent

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News last week.

West Bend School District Superintendent Don Kirkegaard has resigned after less than two years in the job and plans to return to his newly built house in South Dakota. Although he has not shared any career plans, one might posit that the vacancy for superintendent in his old school district may have factored into his decision. The folks in the West Bend School District thank him for his short time in our community and wish him the best. The School Board now must look for the district’s fifth superintendent in four years.

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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.

Finally, we must remember that this process will be conducted in the midst of an election where three incumbent school board members are on the ballot who have overseen the dysfunction of the district for the previous three years. As a sign of the disengagement of the community from the district, only one challenger stepped up, but she is a true conservative who is eager to set the district back on a path to success. Jody Geenen had three kids graduate from the district and has been an active, involved, conservative member of the community.

Electing Jody Geenen to the School Board will not only put a vocal taxpayer steward on the board, it will signal to the superintendent candidates that the citizens of the West Bend School District are ready to accept progress and change. Furthermore, Geenen would be in a position to invite the public into the process of choosing a new superintendent with a transparency that has been so sorely lacking from the West Bend School Board.

The West Bend School District needs strong leadership that can lead it through the next decade. The voters can begin by electing Jody Geenen to the School Board. Then the School Board will need to recruit and select a transformational leader as the next superintendent.

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