‘Super’ qualities explored

December 20, 2016 GMT

A focus group of community stakeholders met Monday to provide feedback on desired qualities and characteristics a new superintendent should possess in order to lead the School District of Fort Atkinson successfully.

A handful of community residents met upstairs at Luther Elementary School with Dr. Brian Busler, superintendent of the Oregon School District in Oregon, Wis., who serves as a consultant with the search firm of McPherson and Jacobson LLC. The latter has been hired to conduct a search for a successor to District Administrator Jeff Zaspel.

Dr. Zaspel will be retiring when his contract expires June 30 after four years of guiding the School District of Fort Atkinson as the superintendent, and 31 years with the district overall.

Four Wisconsin-based active and retired superintendents are partnering on the search team of McPherson and Jacobson, a nationwide executive search firm with more than 100 consultants. Dr. Busler, a Watertown native, is lead consultant for the district.

“The superintendency is such an important job, and — for us as superintendents that are consulting — to be able to help a district make that really important decision is one of my interests and passion,” Busler told the community focus group Monday night. “I want to make a distinction. We (consultants) don’t hire the superintendent — we recruit the superintendent; we help set up the process that the board works through.

“So we are delighted to be working with the district,” he added.

The community group was one of several focus groups that met throughout the day Monday, during which other select stakeholders such as businesspersons, parents, students and staff provided input on the district, qualities desired in the next superintendent and items of priority for the next superintendent.

Members of the group were asked to provide answers to four standard questions, with the goal of gathering their thoughts and ideas to enable the consultants to “paint a picture” for candidates and/or the school board as it goes through the selection process.

The first question asked community focus group members to “Tell us the good things about the Fort Atkinson community.”

The group responded that the city has “excellent schools,” and “the businesses are willing to support new activities, new community involvement and new initiatives in the area.”

Carol Thomann said one positive is the community has “tried to maintain industry, and we’ve got Fort HealthCare facilities — and continuing to get healthcare facilities.”

She also cited as draws the fine arts, such as the band program and concerts in the summer, as well as art shows and farmers markets on Saturdays.

Additionally, one resident said that “traditionally, we’ve had support for our schools” given successful referenda in the local and surrounding communities.

“I think traditionally we support our schools, support our kids, support our students,” the participant said.

City council member and Crossroads program instructor Jude Hartwick said something that makes Fort Atkinson a great community is “the people — our citizens are involved and really positive.”

Along that line, one attendee cited the length of time residents have decided to remain in the community.

“They (people) came here and decided to stay,” she said. “For whatever reason, there’s something that drew people to the community. They’re not leaving, or they went off to college and they came back.”

Thomann also observed how Fort Atkinson denizens have shown civic pride by backing the Hoard Historical Museum and the addition to the Dwight Foster Public Library.

Another attendee said Fort Atkinson is a stand-alone community not situated directly between the corridor of Madison to Milwaukee or close to a (major) highway.

“I think it really stands as its own community,” she said, “and that is seen through the people (and) through the activities in the school system.”

Yet another resident said Fort Atkinson is “small and diverse” and that it flies “under the radar.”

“I feel like we’ve got some great things, but we’re not in really the Madison market, we’re not in really the Milwaukee market,” the man observed. “And geographically, it has a lot of advantages to be able to reach to those places. You can go to Chicago and spend the day, and come home and sleep in your own bed.”

He added that there’s a small-town safety to the community while wonderful opportunities abound in the area.

Hartwick shared with potential superintendent applicants that the city has a “strong spirit of giving, of philanthropy.” He cited the Fort Atkinson Club as a perfect example, where Joan Jones purchased the former, shuttered Masonic Lodge, donated it to the newly created nonprofit Rock River Heritage organization and spearheaded its $2.3 million restoration effort.

The Fort Atkinson Community Foundation, through its numerous grants and scholarships, is another example, he said.

School board President Rodger Thomann said the city’s media presence with a daily newspaper and radio station is a distinct advantage.

One woman said Fort Atkinson experiences volunteerism across all generations — from middle- and high-schoolers putting in extra-long hours helping out at other school activities, to senior citizens stepping up.

“For all ages, there’s really a sense of volunteerism,” she said. “And I think you also see that when you go vote — there are a lot of senior citizens who are helping at the elections.”

Meanwhile, the second question asked panelists to “Tell us the good things about the Fort Atkinson school district.”

“I think there’s a real sense of community between the staff of the schools, the students and the parents, or whoever’s at home,” one woman responded. “Just (offering) lots of activities beyond your typical sporting events are very inclusive of the whole community.”

Carol Thomann said the school district’s facilities are a hallmark. She said it’s “unbelievable” how over-used the high school auditorium is with audiences packing the high school performances and children’s plays.

“There’s always something to do somewhere in the district,” she said. “To be able to have that stage in that auditorium … how many people have orchestras the size of ours, as well as band and choir?”

Jude Hartwick said he and his wife, Sue, moved to Fort Atkinson 25 years ago because of the schools.

“We looked at the surrounding area and we came here,” Hartwick said. “We made choices to move here because of the schools. And that was a real key point for my wife and I.”

Carol Thomann cited the district’s foray into energy efficiencies like geothermal, solar panels and wind turbines has been a real plus.

“I still think it’s a high quality that we’ve paid attention to energy efficiencies in our buildings so we can heat the pools and heat the other things,” she said.

Other attendees cited professional development among teaching staff, and the “cutting-edge” math and Language Arts curriculums that are progressive and used as a model for other districts.

One man cited the commitment to excellence teachers have demonstrated, with many winners throughout the district of the annual Kohl Award for excellence and innovation.

“Those things (awards) aren’t just handed out,” he said. “Obviously they’re recognition-based.”

One woman said it seems there are a lot of teachers who reside within and are “present” in the community.

“I know a lot of teachers that we interact with through even other (non-classroom) activities and other involvement,” she said. “So I think that also fills that sense of commitment to the district.”

Jude Hartwick stated, “There’s a real spirit of service from the students. And it’s not expected, but it’s so much encouraged by both community and school.”

And that is driven all the way down to the elementary schools, a woman concurred, saying “they (students) do mini-grants in the community. It’s just a really great interaction between the school (and) the students at a very young age.”

Carol Thomann said the district’s long-range strategic plan as an ever-evolving document guiding the district’s curriculum is commendable.

“I’ve worked in districts where the strategic plan was something you filed away as soon as you get it done and never saw it again,” Thomann said. “And to be able to keep having the board and the district go back and look at the strategic plan, revise it according to whatever the (curriculum) needs are in the community …

“The fact that we’ve had so many people over the years open-enroll (into the School District of Fort Atkinson),” she added. “That, in itself, is a testimony to the school district and what they are offering.”

Rodger Thomann replied that the school district “lives our mission.”

“We provide opportunities and second chances, and alternative endings including Jude’s Crossroads (alternative) program, and so much more,” he said. “Everything’s not just ‘fits one size.’”

Hartwick said he’s impressed by the reading of the school district’s mission at the start of every regular school board meeting.

“To keep it in the forefront — the mission is there for all,” he said.

The third question asked attendees was, “What priorities should the superintendent be aware of as he or she comes to the district?” This information, Busler said, typically is shared with interview candidates.

One woman responded that creatively maintaining extra-curricular activities like arts and sports is critical for the long-term competitiveness of the district in the face of potential funding cuts.

Hartwick said he is a big proponent of partnering with the local hospital, business community and the city.

“The school should be looking at this collaboration, and I know collaboration is a buzzword right now,” he said. “But collaboration within our community. I’d like to see more of that.”

Carol Thomann cited federal and state influences per funding of public education and curriculum going forward under a new presidential administration as a concern in the near term.

“Whoever comes in (as superintendent) has to be right on top of what’s going to change in the nation,” she stated.

Other responses ranged from promoting school leaders and careers in the educational field (“Grow our own”) to good salesmanship of future referenda, as well as using multiple mediums, or avenues of communication, like Twitter and Facebook in district messaging to engage all stakeholders.

The fourth and final question asked, “What skills, qualities and characteristics should the new superintendent possess to be successful here?”

Carol Thomann insisted the next superintendent must understand “where technology fits in the school—from the classroom down at the very lowest level to where the district is going.”

She said the new superintendent must be a unifying voice in the community.

“That person is the spokes­person for the school district and the community, and can’t just hide in their office,” Thomann said. “That person has to be an open communicator and work with staff, and have a good understanding (of educational issues).”

“If they want to be embraced by the community, they need to embrace the community themselves,” another attendee agreed. “I think of (former superintendent) Dr. (James) Fitzpatrick who was all over the community all the time.”

A woman agreed, saying whomever is hired should be an “active participant in the schools” and be present both at school and community functions — greeting parents and their kids—and not just retreat to his or her office all day.

“I think that (those outgoing attributes) just makes that person so much more real,” she said.

A new superintendent also must be a proven leader in a number of areas, one man said, adding he would like to see how the new school chief has “taken a very dysfunctional situation and created some organization out of it, and made some progress.”

They also need to show a knack for public-private partnerships for creative funding, he added.

Hartwick said he would like to see the successful candidate be someone “who really likes kids and working in education — you still have to have that passion. And make it fun!”

Lastly, one focus group member said the new superintendent should be someone who is “collaborative and cooperative, but willing to make hard decisions. At the end of the day, this is the person who’s running the district — you need to make the hard decisions sometimes — and those hard decisions have to come from the top.”

The search is involving five phases: Planning the search; developing a candidate profile, application and advertising to be used in recruiting; evaluating candidates and preparing for interviews; interviewing, selecting a candidate, negotiating a contract, announcing to the public, and providing services after placement to ensure performance expectations.

This Thursday, Dec. 22, the board of education will meet in special session at 5 p.m. at Luther to discuss next steps in the superintendent search and take the feedback from Monday’s focus groups into consideration.

An online survey with the same four questions and topics — for stakeholders unable to attend Thursday’s focus group sessions — now is available and will extend into January.

All district residents are being encouraged to take the survey to contribute to the profile development to ensure that the best possible district administrator is chosen for Fort Atkinson.

The new superintendent officially will start in the district on July 1, 2017.