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May 30, 2020

2/1/2020 7:30:00 AM
In search for next district superintendent, Rhinelander school board seeks new vision

Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

If the questions posed Tuesday by the School District of Rhinelander Board of Education to the three finalists for the position of district superintendent are any indication, the panel is looking for a person with a fresh outlook to succeed Kelli Jacobi as the community's top education official.

Perhaps that person will be Eric Burke, principal at Port Washington High School in Ozaukee County, the only candidate to be asked to return for a second interview following Tuesday's interview sessions with the board, school district staff and interested community members.

Also interviewed were Maggie Peterson, the district's director of learning support, and Pat Devine, superintendent of the Waconia School District, Waconia, Minn.

All three are seeking to replace Jacobi who is set to retire June 30 after seven years as district superintendent.

Each of the three finalists went through a grueling series of 45-minute interviews Tuesday. First they were interviewed by a 10-member group of district administrators and building principals, then they faced another session in front of the general public and district staff where they each answered 20 questions formulated by that group.

Finally, each candidate answered a set of questions from the board.

After the interviews were complete, representatives from the administration team offered feedback on each of the three candidates, listing pros and cons on a series of topics corresponding to their questioning. Then Mike Beighley from Big River Group offered feedback from what he observed during the public/staff portion of the process.

Among other things, the candidates were asked to describe how they would work to improve the district's state test scores and state report cards, how they would get employees at all levels to buy into a major change, how they would improve the district's communication with staff, students, parents and the public, and how they would interact with the board between meetings.

Bruce Miles of Big River Group, the consultant hired to coordinate the superintendent search, moderated the discussion.

"I'm encouraging you to take some notes on the scoresheets, make your own scores," Miles told the board members, adding that the three finalists did not see any of the questions in advance.

Miles also strongly encouraged the board members to ask questions of the people reporting on the other two sessions.

"If you don't have the information clear in your head, it's not good for the district," Miles said.

He also repeatedly stressed that all three candidates be asked the same questions, noting that follow-up questions should be kept to a minimum.

"We, as board members, can ask followups to any of these questions," Miles said. "But if we do, (it would be) at the end, after we get through question number 8."

Later, a ninth question about the candidate's experience in working on budgeting was added.

After the board had interviewed all three candidates, two representatives from the administrative group and Beighley, who moderated the staff/public sessions, offered brief assessments of the sessions.

Michele Cornelius, director of human resources, and Rachel Hoffman, director of teaching, learning and technology, represented the administrative group.

Cornelius said her group gave each candidate pluses and minuses in various categories, but did not rank the three finalists.

In presenting the assessment of Peterson, Cornelius noted she is a current employee who has an insider's knowledge of the district.

"She really spoke in our interview about being present with individuals, voice-to-voice but more so face-to-face communication with others, and genuine in their relationships," Cornelius said of Peterson.

Another pro in Peterson's favor, according to Cornelius, was she knows the history of the district, including how it must go to voters every few years for permission to exceed the levy limit for operating expenses. She also already has relationships with people in the district.

"But when we looked at relationships as a con, it was acknowledged in the feedback from our group (that) she would need to reestablish those relationships in a new guise," Cornelius said. "We questioned, as a group, how easily that would be done. And these were existing relationships, so it was kind of like a double-edged sword."

She also said Peterson stressed the "need to overcommunicate so as not to miss anybody."

"That was recognized as a positive in our group," Cornelius said. "There was no negatives noted around the communication piece."

Under educational knowledge, Peterson got high marks for her understanding of special education needs. Cornelius said the group noted no downsides in this category.

"Again, she spoke about it during the interview process, so that is where we are gathering it from," Cornelius noted.

Peterson's leadership experience and involvement in the last few referendums was also observed. However, it was also noted that she has no prior superintendent experience and little experience in district-wide changes from start to finish.

In presenting the group report on Burke, Hoffman noted that he embraces professional learning communities, which are in use in the Rhinelander district.

"He spoke to a focus on teacher retention strategy, and shared some of those things with our group that he felt was a strength," Hoffman said. "He has tapped into community resources and built student focus partnerships, working with the local law enforcement agencies creating community mentorship programs, which the committee did feel was a strength."

On the con side, Hoffman noted Burke said he allows his staff a fair amount of autonomy.

"And we were potentially concerned about too much autonomy and his relationships with people and kind of letting them do their own thing," Hoffman said.

She noted that Burke had researched the Rhinelander district in advance, including speaking with former business director Marta Kwiatkowski who is now employed by the Shorewood School District in suburban Milwaukee.

"He spoke to the efforts that are ongoing right now, the dome," Hoffman said. "He spoke to Marta, our former business director to get a handle on what the financial situation with the district was. We really thought that was a strength."

Hoffman noted some of Burke's responses were not as in-depth as some of the statements made by the other two finalists.

"Was there any places where he did not go as deep as you would have wanted on areas that you thought were absolutely critical?" Miles asked. To which, both women said no.

On educational knowledge, Hoffman noted Burke has taught and been an administrator at both the elementary and high school level and is knowledgeable about current research on grading practices, focuses on being cultural responsive to both students and staff.

"When you take a look at leadership experience, he emphasized bringing a coaching element to his leadership style. He referenced back to when he was an athletic coach and an AD (athletic director) so he uses some of those things in his leadership style when working with his staff," Hoffman said.

She noted Burke has a "clear vision and he supports that by action," and that he likes to trust his team and not micromanage.

On the con side of the ledger, Hoffman noted that Burke lacks district level or superintendent experience.

Cornelius presented the group's report on Devine.

"He wanted to meet and get to know the staff, he spoke a lot about that in our conversation," Cornelius said.

She noted that Devine was culturally responsive to the needs of the community and the district and talked about some different efforts in that regard.

"He's charismatic in his presentation, but on the con side, that charismatic style also did come up in our conversations about everything he presents, can he deliver on that?" Cornelius said.

"As far as communication, he goes wherever he needs to in order to sell that referendum," she added. "The flip side of communication was the overly talkative perspective piece. People weren't exactly sure how to evaluate that."

As for educational leadership, it was noted Devine has superintendent experience and is familiar with professional and curriculum development. He also has experience managing "systems of change" and coming up with "innovative solutions" to implement those changes, it was noted.

"From a con perspective, there was a lot of reference to the use of consultants to help with the implementation of change, and that raised some concerns," Cornelius said.

Other concerns included the fact that his district currently has a negative fund balance and he isn't familiar with Wisconsin school funding and other aspects of how district management differs between the two states.

Beighley, who is the superintendent of the Whitehall School District, offered feedback from what he observed during the public/staff portion of the interview process.

"We had somewhere between 50 and 56 people in this session, so this session was operated a little differently," Beighley told the board. "They were able to submit questions quickly before the first interview and I was able to collect them and tried to synthesize them to make sure we didn't duplicate."

He noted the questions ranged across many different aspects of what a superintendent should know.

"They were a full gamut," he said. "I was very impressed in terms of the questions that came up."

Beighley also noted that the audience was "extremely involved" in the process and not passive observers.

"I didn't see anybody on phones, didn't see anybody doing homework," Beighley said. "They were truly engaged."

"I will tell you there was overwhelming sentiment that a new face was needed," Beighley continued. "That just came up, it wasn't necessarily negative to Maggie, it was about looking for new ideas and new perspectives. That's the fairest way I can say that."

Cornelius said the administration group was glad "to hear new ideas" in terms of how to run a district from Burke and Devine, but didn't lean as heavily toward the new vision consensus the staff/public group apparently did.

Those in attendance were given the opportunity to use scoresheets on each candidate, which were collected and given to the board to consider during their deliberations in closed session, Beighley said.

"Next to Eric, (the scores) were almost unanimously positive in terms of the responses," he said, adding that the only "less than positive" was that Burke has no superintendent experience.

Beighley said Devine was seen as having the same passion as the other two candidates and has a willingness to be the "face" of the district.

"(He has) a very limited knowledge about Wisconsin, especially in finance," Beighley added. "That came up a couple different times."

He also noted that both Burke and Devine have had proven success in orchestrating change "and creating results inside of schools and that resonated through all of the responses."

"The overall group seemed to be happy with both Eric and Pat," he observed.

After hearing the reports, the board went into closed session just before 8 p.m. and didn't emerge until 10 p.m. Following the closed deliberations, Burke was invited to participate in a second interview scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4 in the Professional Development Center.

The second interview is open to the public, however members of the public will not be able to take part in the questioning.

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