Schulte steps in
THE SCHULTE FILE
Family: Married to Steve, a former social worker at Janesville Craig High School, now assistant principal at Beloit Turner middle/high school. They have two grown sons.
Education: Attended high school in Cleveland before attending Interlochen Arts Academy. Bachelor’s degree in German, with minor in music, from Drake University. Graduate degree from Drake in special education. Doctorate in educational administration and policy analysis in 2007, from UW-Madison.
Career: Teacher of emotionally disturbed students for 11 years in Des Moines, Iowa. Came to Janesville in 1997 as assistant principal at Janesville’s Marshall Middle School. Principal of Beloit Turner Middle School from 1999 to 2004, when she was named director of student services for the Janesville School District.
JANESVILLE Karen Schulte is rarely is seen in public without her Bluetooth cell phone earpiece.
“I really believe in access. My staff always has access to me,” said Schulte, who took the reins as the Janesville School District’s interim superintendent Feb. 10.
Schulte will text-message her secretary, even during meetings, she said.
“I just feel like we can keep things moving. Otherwise, people are going to wait (for a reply),” she said.
It’s not just school staff who hear from Schulte.
Janesville police Sgt. Brian Donohoue has worked with her on lockdown drills, drug-dog searches and gang issues. He said it’s not uncommon to hear from her at 5:30 a.m., asking about rumors or incidents involving students.
“She is very receptive and wants to get in front of any issue. I really enjoy working with her,” Donohoue said.
Improving the school district’s use of computer technology is one of Schulte’s goals. Improving communications with staff and the public is another.
Schulte is recording video broadcasts, or “vodcasts,” for staff that are posted on the district’s Web site. She said she wants the district’s operations to be more “transparent” to the public.
In an extensive interview with The Janesville Gazette, Schulte called the district’s recent computer-system failures “inexcusable.” She expressed frustration that staff members have been urged to get into the computer age, and then the system let them down.
“We cannot go through what we went through this school year and be able to keep people’s morale up,” she said.
Like many baby boomers, Schulte was drawn into the age of instant communications by her children.
She has two sons, both UW-Whitewater students.
“They don’t answer their phones anymore, but we text all the time,” she said with a laugh. “So I’ve become very efficient with texting, because I want to talk to them.”
Schulte started wearing her Bluetooth constantly after she was named to head up the district’s security efforts in 2007. She wanted to know about any emergency immediately.
Schulte has been one of four central-office directors—second in command to the superintendent—for five years. She is director of the district’s student services department, overseeing a variety of services for students with special needs.
She remains in charge of student services as she grapples with the challenges of the superintendent’s office. Among them are next year’s projected budget shortfall, the challenge of increasing ethnic and racial diversity and a computer system that wreaked havoc among students and staff for many months.
The budget is the first thing she mentions when asked about her priorities. She has ordered a “fresh look” at district spending and is asking staff for their money-saving ideas.
The soft-spoken Schulte is not shy about energetically pushing her agenda. In her first weeks at the helm, she:
-- Started visits to each school site to talk to staff about the budget.
-- Started a series of videos on the district’s Web site to address staff.
-- Pushed for more work on the Studer Group process, something started under former Superintendent Tom Evert.
The Studer process holds promise for improved performance, Schulte said, and it’s already showing success with lower truancy rates, but she believes more could have been—and should be—done.
-- Ordered a review of spending initiatives. She is questioning, for example, a proposal to hire six custodians to handle the increased square footage in the newly expanded high schools.
“We’re looking at everything we spend money on and saying, ‘Do we need that?’ Every position, 'Is it necessary?' And that makes people unsettled. I know that. But I feel I need to do that.”
Schulte said the district should look harder for alternative funding, such as grants and foundations.
She said the district is sure to lose some positions because of lower enrollment, but she’s hoping teachers who are displaced will be able to fill vacated positions, avoiding layoffs.
One passion Schulte shares with her predecessor is working to make minority students feel welcome. The district is seeing more poverty and more faces of color and needs to “push the envelope” in dealing with those changes, she said.
Schulte is proud of the district’s participation in a state-sponsored consortium that involves a group of district staff, including Schulte, in “difficult conversations” about race.
“We’ve had some really good team conversations about race. I feel like we’re really starting to ask deeper questions about: Are those kids comfortable in our schools? Do they feel like they have a place? Are they comfortable about joining organizations? Why don’t we have very many minority kids involved in TAG (talented and gifted programs)? All those things,” she said.
Career twists led Schulte to top school post
Karen Schulte spent much of her career educating children with extreme emotional problems.
Her doctoral thesis in 2007 was about the connection between bullying and student violence.
That’s a far cry from her career goal as a teenager, when she planned a life steeped in music.
Schulte’s career took another sharp turn Feb. 10 when the Janesville School Board announced it was ending its relationship with Tom Evert, the superintendent for the past 13 years. The board simultaneously announced that Schulte would fill in until a permanent superintendent takes over July 1.
Schulte remembers letting her parents believe she was auditioning for a summer camp at Interlochen Arts Academy. Her mother figured it out: She was applying to attend Interlochen for her senior year.
Her father would never let her go unless she got a scholarship, her mother told her.
She got the scholarship.
That was one of the fateful steps in the life of the girl from working-class Cleveland.
She proudly notes she is from Cleveland proper, not a suburb. Her father, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, ran a bar, Zajachuk’s, for many years. He later became a letter sorter for the U.S. Postal Service. Schulte preserves her father’s memory in her own name. Her middle initial is “Z” for Zajachuk.
Her mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, stayed at home but always had a part-time job, often working at home, Schulte said.
“She was my champion,” Schulte said. “She always said I could do anything I wanted, and she would say that to me. And I believed it.”
Her mother became a “wildly successful businesswoman” who ran a health-care placement agency on the East Coast, Schulte said. Her father has passed on. Her mother was able to give Schulte a Cadillac as a gift for the Schulte’s 25th wedding anniversary.
Schulte doesn’t have time to play the clarinet and piano anymore, she said, but she seems content to be the leader—at least temporarily—of a public school district of about 10,400 students in south-central Wisconsin.
Schulte’s eyes light up when talking about her early days as a teacher of students with emotional difficulties.
“I love helping kids change their behavior to become more successful,” she said.
She also recalls fondly the daily contact with students when she was an administrator at Janesville Marshall and Beloit Turner middle schools.
Schulte speaks softly and always seems calm, unless she’s laughing at a joke. Good qualities for someone dealing with emotional outbursts or teenage drama. And probably handy, too, in her new role.
Schulte said she hadn’t planned on becoming a superintendent until Evert announced last year that he would retire in June 2009. By the time the board made its surprise announcement in February, she had decided she would regret it if she didn’t apply for the job.
So Schulte had no problem saying “yes” when the board asked her to fill in.
She said, “it’s an honor and a privilege” when asked how she feels about being the district’s first woman superintendent.
Schulte has held down a central-office job for five years as director of student services. She has taken on additional duties during that time as the district cut positions and shifted responsibilities.
Now, she credits her student-services staff for stepping up as she devotes much of her time to being superintendent.
Schulte said she has called on others for expertise as she does something she’s never done before: run an organization with an annual budget of more than $112 million. Advisers include Doug Bunton, the district’s longtime business director; comptroller Lauri Clifton and Quint Studer, the CEO of Studer Group, the consulting company that is working with the district to improve the quality of education.
Schulte said a key part of her job is to question the status quo.
“I’m going to ask questions, and probably step on toes because I think part of being in this chair is I have to ask the hard questions, and I have to challenge people on their assumptions,” she said.
“We’re not going to do things as they’ve always been done just because that’s how we’ve done them.”