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Superintendent candidates face interviews

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
March 19, 2009

The Janesville School Board and two committees Saturday will interview three finalists for Janesville public schools superintendent. Afterward, the board will meet and possibly choose one of the three.


The candidates are Robert F. Jones, superintendent of the COOR Intermediate School District in Michigan; Karen Z. Schulte, the current interim superintendent in Janesville; and Barbara Williams Thompson, superintendent of the New Glarus School District.


The Janesville Gazette presents here three profiles of the candidates.


Robert F. Jones

Robert F. Jones has spent time in China, learning about that country’s educational system.


That’s according to a longtime colleague, Jon Tomlanovich.


Jones is keen on the idea that American schools need to be world-class and prepare children to compete in a worldwide economy, said Tomlanovich, who is assistant director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators.


Jones is one of three candidates to be the new superintendent of Janesville public schools.


He is superintendent of an intermediate school district, an agency that supplies services such as special education, vocational education and staff training to six local school districts in four counties in the northern part of Michigan’s mitten.


Jones has no authority over the local districts, so he must work cooperatively with local superintendents, and he does that well, Tomlanovich said.


Jones is unusual among his colleagues in that he has a master’s degree in business administration and spent 15 years with General Motors as an organizational development administrator.


Tomlanovich called Jones “top notch” and “a smart guy.”


Jones is well versed in running the business and budget sides of a school district, but he also has people skills, Tomlanovich said.


Jones is particularly adept at mentoring younger administrators, Tomlanovich said. Two principals he assisted are now superintendents.


“He has a good, solid reputation of being someone who mentors and works well with leadership development,” Tomlanovich said.


“I have a lot of respect for his leadership abilities and ability to build capacity to help leaders blossom,” said Joe Powers, superintendent of the Crawford AuSable School District, one of the districts served by Jones’ agency.


Jones would not do an interview with The Janesville Gazette this week, saying it would not be ethical to do so before the Janesville School Board had done so.


Jones was a finalist for superintendent in the Fond du Lac School District in February. At the time, he told the Fond du Lac Reporter he has been coming to Wisconsin all his life and would welcome the opportunity to work here.


“My wife and I love the area, and we have been impressed with the people we've met in the community. Working in Fond du Lac would feel like coming home,” he said.


The only teaching experience on Jones’ resume was from 1972 to 1977 in public schools and 1983-85 at a college.


Jones has been a local school superintendent in districts of 1,200 and 3,200 students. He was renowned for improving student achievement in the Godfrey Lee schools near Grand Rapids, which has a minority population of about 35 percent, Tomlanovich said.


Jones is a board member of the Higgins Lake-Roscommon Chamber of Commerce, where Connie Allen is the sole staff member.


“He is always looking out for the welfare of our communities and how to promote them to the best of our ability,” Allen said.


“He’s always very pleasant, very positive, and if you ask him for constructive criticism, he gives it to you, which I like, but always in a very polite, positive manner,” Allen said.


“I think he’d be a very welcome addition to any area he goes to,” Allen said.


Tomlanovich said Jones has been active in organizing events where local leaders can connect with legislators on educational issues.


Tomlanovich called Jones a key player that he wants to keep around, “But if he came your way, I think you would benefit from that.”


Karen Schulte

Rumors run rife in any organization with 1,400 employees.


Such was the case recently in Janesville public schools.


Rumor had it that the school board was so pleased with interim superintendent Karen Schulte that it was no longer interested in its nationwide search for a new leader for the school district.


Not true, said school board President DuWayne Severson.


“Karen is doing a great job for us at this time, but the board is fully committed to the process,” Severson said March 2.


More recently, school board member Greg Ardrey heard from administrative staff members who thought Schulte’s appointment was virtually assured.


Not true, Ardrey said.


But it does seem the board is pleased with Schulte’s performance since she stepped into the breach after longtime Superintendent Tom Evert stepped down unexpectedly Feb. 10.


There’s a sense that Schulte is bringing fresh approaches. She immediately began meeting with the staffs at all the schools, asking for ideas on how the district might save money.


Board member Lori Stottler, clearly pleased, said this is the first time in a long time that staff members have been asked for their input.


Schulte also began recording weekly video messages to staff, which are posted on the district Web site. She has changed the district’s budget process, presenting a menu of possible budget cuts before making her own recommendations.


Schulte became director of student services in Janesville in 2004. It’s a job she continues to hold while also being superintendent.


Schulte said she hadn’t thought of becoming a superintendent before last October, when Evert announced he would retire in June. But the announcement made her consider the opportunity, and she had decided to apply well before Evert’s unexpected departure, she said.


In an interview several weeks ago, Schulte said she would be content to return to her role as director of student services if someone else is chosen.


That might not happen, however. The student-services director job is one of those on a list of potential budget cuts developed under Schulte’s leadership.


Schulte said she is challenging assumptions about the way things have always been done and is seeking savings in a budget-cutting year. She wonders if the district really needs six new custodians to handle the expanded high schools, for example.


Staff members seem to like working with her.


“Karen, as a supervisor and a boss, has high, high, high expectations, but the key piece about that is she doesn’t micro manage,” said Barb Hilliker, coordinator of special education.


“I find Karen’s always looking for new ways to do things better and more efficiently,” Hilliker said.


Program-support teachers Kelly Stengel and Mike Matteson said they like Schulte’s style.


“She’s a real genuine listener,” Stengel said. “She has an open-door policy. …She makes a point of knowing us on a personal level.”


“Innovative is probably a real good word to describe her,” Matteson said. “She isn’t afraid to think outside the box, and she’s always seeking input from people.”


That’s something Schulte has continued as superintendent.


“It certainly can’t be easy to step into that kind of a role, but as far as I’ve seen, she’s really done it gracefully and is seeking out information from people and really seems have the district’s best interests at heart,” Matteson said.


Barbara Wiliams Thompson

“She’s a very ‘get ’er done’ kind of a person.”


That’s the assessment of Chris Bowie, president of the New Glarus School Board, talking about his superintendent, Barbara Williams Thompson.


Thompson is now one of three finalists for the same job in the Janesville school system.


Bowie was on the board that hired Thompson in 2003.


She took the New Glarus job with a mandate to make changes after many years of status quo, Bowie said, and she handled it well.


“She’s very open and honest. She tells you what she thinks—good or bad,” Bowie said. “If she disagrees with you, she’ll tell you and tell you why, and you can start working things out. There’s not a lot of head games.”


Williams is a specialist in curriculum with extensive experience as an elementary principal and high school teacher in the Madison School District.


Thompson also took education into her home for nine years, when she and her husband were foster parents for teen boys in Dane County, her application indicates.


She indicated on an application with a search firm that she was interested in the Madison superintendent job when it came open last year.


Thompson said she also has applied for a number of jobs in the South, where she is from, but later withdrew her name from consideration.


“I decided I was not seriously interested in the move away from my family and friends that I have in Wisconsin,” Thompson said in an e-mail.


New Glarus has about 1,000 students. Madison has 25,000. Janesville, 10,300.


Thompson declined an interview with The Janesville Gazette this week. She said she would do an interview if she were chosen as the next superintendent.


In a prior application, she listed her accomplishments as overseeing passage of a $500,000 referendum, improving the district’s financial standing, improving curriculum and staff training and upgrading computer technology.


The 2007 referendum was one of two—one in the spring and one in the fall. The first one failed and sparked controversy.


An investigation by The Monroe Times found evidence the district’s referendum planning committee failed to properly inform the public about its meetings. But Thompson defended the committee in a letter to the Times, saying meetings were posted and that the committee reached out to the entire community for input.


Thompson doesn’t shoot from the hip. She’ll mull a sticky problem before taking action, said Laura Eicher, has served as both a teacher and principal under Thompson’s leadership.


Eicher finds that style refreshing and effective.


Eicher said the district budget was in trouble when Thompson arrived, and now it’s on an even keel, even though it took cuts that upset some people.


Thompson also instituted consensus bargaining with the teachers union, which has reduced tensions, Eicher said.


“To her credit, she has shown some good organizational skills and ability to make the tough decisions,” said Mark Romich, a newer school board member.


“She’s very organized, and she has a clear direction of where she wants to go,” Romich said. “With a superintendent, I think those are qualities you definitely want, and I think in her case those are definitely her strong suits.”


Thompson’s resume indicates she plans to finish her doctoral dissertation in educational leadership at UW-Madison this summer. She is certified to be a district administrator.


I’d hate to see her go, Bowie said. “I hate to see her even interviewed.”



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