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April 4, 2020

2/8/2020 7:30:00 AM
'I want this to be a destination district'
In second interview, Burke shares his vision for local schools

Jamie Taylor
River News Reporter

When Port Washington High School principal Eric Burke sat down with the Rhinelander school board Tuesday for his second interview for the position of district superintendent he had an opportunity to articulate his vision for the future of the local schools.

In making his pitch, he noted that he is familiar with the Rhinelander area.

"I've been coming up here for weekends and summers for about 25 years" to stay at a family-owned cabin on Lake George, he said.

Burke was the only one of the three finalists interviewed for the superintendent position on Jan. 28 to get a second interview.

The second interview ended with the school board offering Burke the job; contract negotiations are ongoing.

During his introduction, Burke said he taught at Elkhart Lake for a year before returning to Port Washington where he taught for 10 years before becoming first an elementary school principal for three years before moving to Port Washington High School, where he is in his ninth year as principal.

Bruce Miles of Big River Group, the consulting firm that assisted the board with the superintendent search, said the board's questions in the first round of interviews on Jan. 28 were more of the "what have you done" type to give the board a chance to get a feel for how the three finalists perform in their current jobs.

"These are going to be a little more speculative," Miles said, referring to the second interview questions.

In the first question, Burke was asked how he would determine the priorities he would work on in the first 90 and 180 days on the job.

"July 1st is the official start date," Burke replied. "But it's going to start before July 1st by really digging into documents, looking at board policy, guidelines and really getting to know how the school board operates. Every district is a little but different."

He also said he would be paying close attention to budget documents. Prior to the first round of interviews, Burke said he talked with former district finance director Marta Kwiatkowski, and he looks forward to talking with current finance director Robert Thom.

"Interesting things like the newsletters that the district has for elementary or middle school and high school," Burke said. "Looking at the (state) school report cards, looking at just any district data, whether it be behavioral or academic-wise ,to learn more about the picture of the schools."

He said it would be very important in the first 90 to 180 days, and even the first year, to "listen to all of you." He also said that fostering good board/superintendent relations is really important "to the success of the district."

"How we communicate is really important," Burke said. "And where it breaks down between superintendents and school boards is just that. If we're not communicating to all is going to be really important, because if I'm communicating with just one or two or three, you all are not hearing the same thing."

Burke said he would be constantly checking with the board as a whole on how well he is communicating with the group.

"What's working with that communication piece and what's not working," he said.

Board member Duane Frey asked Burke for his thoughts on the greatest issue facing the district.

"I would like to spin that to a positive," Burke said. "I see a lot of potential for growth because of the community support. Going to that interview last week with the staff and public in the lecture hall was so impressive to see the amount of people that were here and supporting."

He said academic growth and potential "is something I feel I can help with."

Burke was asked about what he could bring to the table to help improve the district's rankings on online polls.

He said Port Washington High School has had academic success, but like a lot of schools across the state, it saw a drop when the standardized tests were implemented statewide.

"Our focus, especially over the last 6 years, has been on growth and growth on the test," Burke said. "If you look at the school report card, last year was the first year that growth was a part of it. And we really worked hard to look at where our students are in say middle school, and where they go from freshman year to junior year, it's dramatic as far as their increase."

As a leader, Burke said he has "a mission and a vision for it" but gave a lot of credit to his staff for making those become reality.

The big difference was taking "drop everything and read time" that was already common in the elementary schools and expanding it to the middle and high school levels.

"At the high school level, in all of our English classes, we had 'drop everything and read time'," Burke said. "As you know, with state testing, even a science test and even some math parts of the ACT and Aspire test, it's all about reading."

Another change made at the high school level was to standardize grading so that it was consistent across different sections of the same class.

"Making sure that what we are assessing is based on their (students) learning and not anything else," Burke said.

While he is familiar with what Port Washington-Saukville School District and other nearby districts have done to improve their state rankings, and could bring some of those to Rhinelander, he said the board has to keep in mind that what works in one district might not work here.

One area that both the administrators and board were curious about after the first round of questioning was the subject of giving teachers autonomy in personal development. Burke told the board Tuesday that while personal development of teachers is led at the district level, he believes it's important to not micromanage the teachers in this regard,

"There's oversight and accountability, but also a choice," Burke said.

In response to a question about how he would handle teachers who did not adhere to the standardized instructional methods the district has spent years implementing, he said that this was an area where accountability would be key.

"As a superintendent, these are discussions I would have with our building administrators as far as those evaluations," Burke said. "So when you go into the classrooms and you see that this is not happening, for whatever we decide is the most important parts of a lesson, that is when the improvement plans would happen in the accountability piece. It's unacceptable if a staff member is not following them (standards)."

One difference between Rhinelander and Port Washington is that for the last couple years, the latter has been running budget deficits that have resulted in cuts having to be made. Burke said a list of priorities was established by both district leadership and building leadership.

"We determine that so it's not Eric Burke's idea, it's our group's idea as far as what our priorities are and we know what the community wants and we listen to stakeholders and we've developed this priority list and it helps me make a decision on what needs to be added," Burke said. "For example, if we need more foreign language, and we have a surplus, we have to decide what gets added or, on the flip side, what needs to be cut. So that priority list is very important."

He said the Rhinelander school board and administration over the years have made smart decisions financially that has allowed the district to build a large fund balance that is now being used to add things like the Hodag Sports Complex and dome without having to take a referendum question to voters.

He also said he knows that in a couple years, Rhinelander will have to hold a referendum for operating expenses. Burke said that he would use the same approach that he had to use with Port Washington voters when they asked their voters for the funds to build a new high school.

"I'm very fortunate that I come from a district that is very open, and it has really worked well," he said.

He said being visible in the community would play a big part of communicating why the referendum is necessary. He would use a combination of methods, including community meetings, social media and video communications with taxpayers to get the information out.

He also said that Dr. Michael Weber, the Port Washington-Saukville School District superintendent, has been a great mentor, as have other superintendents he has known throughout his career. He said this would be a network of professionals he would use in his new role.

"He (Weber) has shown me the importance of leading with a servant attitude. You can do that as a principal, you can do that as a superintendent," Burke said. "But setting the mission is really important as a superintendent, as well as for a school board. And the vision piece, the action part, is the role of a building principal. I think that is the biggest difference."

Burke said the most important thing he could do as a new superintendent would be to listen and learn as much as possible. He would also try to lead with a team approach, which is second nature for him as a former wrestling coach and athletic director.

"I am a coach at heart, I want to see us succeed," he said. "I want this to be a destination district."

If the district and Burke can come to terms on a contract, he would replace Kelli Jacobi who will retire on June 30.

School board president Ron Counter said Jacobi has purposely kept out of the search process, going as far as not being present for any of the interviews.

"It was intentional on her part," Counter said. "I, nor the board, asked her to that, she just wanted a hands-off approach."

Counter said Jacobi is receptive to sticking around a while over the summer to help get Burke up to speed if he needs it.

Jamie Taylor may be reached at jamie

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