The School District of Rhinelander said farewell last Thursday to the person who has managed its finances for the last 13 years as Marta Kwiatkowski left to become director of business services and human resources with the Shorewood School District in the suburbs of Milwaukee.
Kwiatkowski came to the Rhinelander district on a part-time basis in April 2006 and became full-time in July of that year. She arrived with an unusual perspective on school finances from her previous job.
"I worked for the auditing firm Virnig and Associates, LLC out of Brookville, a suburb of Milwaukee," Kwiatkowski said in an interview with the River News. "I was there about seven years auditing school districts. I audited about 55 school districts."
Kwiatkowski said she learned a lot from auditing school district books, information she brought with her to the business manager position in Rhinelander.
"It is a 180-degree difference, because looking from the outside and knowing what is right and wrong doesn't always work," Kwiatkowski said. "There's got to be some flexibility doing this job. It's not very realistic to be able to, for example, cut off all the purchases as of April 1 because as a district, we have to operate. I know (where) the auditors are coming from to be able to close the books (for the fiscal year) sooner. But we have a school (district) to run and summer school."
"Being on the other side and seeing all those things, being the auditor, I had good experience seeing how other schools are doing things, and seeing some of the inefficiencies and things that I would change," she added. "It was a huge benefit to me to be able to come in and knowing what worked and didn't work and trying to concentrate on trying to improve. I think there is always room for improvement."
Kwiatkowski said the job of a school district business manager involves walking a thin line that her work as an auditor brought into clear focus for her.
"Whatever we do, we have to be fiscally responsible with the taxpayers' money," she said. "It cannot be status quo. There has to be a way to do it better and cheaper while still making sure our kids have the best resources possible. At the end of the day, it's about kids, and I think coming from private industry, it's about profit. When you're coming from the educational side, it's about the kids. It's a big difference," she said. "Every decision you make has to be what is best thing for the child; it can't be what is the cheapest, go with the best."
A year after Kwiatkowski joined the Rhinelander district, the district's human resources director left. She took on that person's duties as well as technology director duties in 2011.
When Kwiatkowski started with the district, she worked with then superintendent Roger Erdahl until he was replaced by Kelli Jacobi.
Under both superintendents, she said she saw her job as providing them with well thought out solutions to financial puzzles looking at both the short and long-term consequences.
When asked about Kwiatkowski's departure, Jacobi appeared genuinely moved.
Kwiatkowski, she said, has been her "right hand" for her entire six years as superintendent.
Jacobi liked the analogy that Kwiatkowski approached all decisions involving district money like "financial chess," thinking three or four moves ahead.
"I would agree with that, it's that forward thinking," Jacobi said. "It's visionary, and it's critical for a school district to be looking beyond today and tomorrow. Down the road, how is this decision or recommendation to the board going to impact (the district)."
Jacobi was asked how hard her job as superintendent would be without someone with Kwiatkowski's skills in the director of business services position. Her response was immediate.
"I hate to say impossible, but that's pretty darn close," she said. "I rely on Marta heavily. She is an extremely intelligent person and can think situations through completely. So we have always been able to work together and brainstorm where we see all of the pros and all of the cons in helping us move forward with planning, decisions, recommendations to the board. Because that's crucial, in my opinion, that it's not just one person thinking things through and making recommendations to the board, because having that scope is critical."
Kwiatkowski said both superintendents worked with her as part of a team to find solutions to the district's financial challenges.
"I had a very positive relationship with both superintendents," she said.
When asked what she considered her greatest accomplishments during her tenure, Kwiatkowski immediately said "passing referendums."
"When I first started in 2006, there were two or three failed referendums. My first three referendums failed. And I learned a lot," she said. "I learned that you really need to listen to the community and you have to be transparent and show how the money is spent, and always look for efficiencies."
She pointed out that every year after 2010 when she was able to guide the first successful referendum to approval by district voters, she continued striving to find ways to save money.
"It wasn't 'now we're OK, the books are balanced,' it was what can we do to be more efficient," she explained.
The biggest efficiency she was able to implement was related to the health insurance benefits of district employees.
"The clinic and some of the incentives that we put in place to be able to save so much money that now we can do the dome and the (elementary school) additions with insurance savings," Kwiatkowski said. "There was so much money that we were able to save over the years and not get (cost) increases but decreases. I think that was one of my greatest accomplishments."
She said she feels she is leaving the district in better shape than she found it.
"When I first started, I think the fund balance was $3 million, this year I think it's going to be $24 million," she noted.
As a fitting cap to her tenure in Rhinelander, earlier this year Kwiatkowski received the 2019 School Business Manager of the Year award from the Wisconsin Association of School Business Officials.
As she moves forward, she said she will miss everyone she has worked with over the last 13 years, both in the district and in the Rhinelander community.
"I feel good leaving because I think the district is in good financial shape, stable and there is a lot of support for the schools from the community members and parents," she said. "I feel like I accomplished most of the things that were on my list when I came in. I'm ready for the new challenge."
Jacobi said the district has been looking for a replacement for Kwiatkowski since she announced her resignation May 30.
"We're going to miss her," Jacobi said. "We did do interviews and I hope to be able to make a recommendation to the board at the July 15 meeting for her replacement."
Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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