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Retiring Janesville superintendent: ‘I was destined to come here’


Retiring Janesville School District superintendent Steve Pophal has worked as a public school educator for almost four decades—but has been teaching for far longer than that.

Growing up, Pophal had three brothers and—over time—an additional two dozen other “siblings” as his parents fostered children. As Pophal got older, an affinity for being a borrowed big brother turned into a career calling.

“There were always little kids in my house,” Pophal said during an interview in his district administration office last week. “I just always enjoyed hanging out with kids, seeing them develop and grow over time, seeing their skills build, seeing how excited kids are to discover the world. That excitement I always felt was infectious.”

Pophal will retire on June 30 after five years as Janesville’s superintendent and decades of administrative experience. Mark Holzman will succeed him on July 1, coming from the Manitowoc School District.

Pophal said he had never intended on becoming a school superintendent, but was hired in Janesville in January 2017 after having a “chance encounter” with a friend familiar with the search process. Pophal had never even been to Janesville, but upon visiting, said he found a kindred spirit in the area.

Janesville wasn’t all that much different from his home in Wausau three hours north. Both had the distinction of being the largest city in the area surrounded by rural communities, were split by a river and had taken a devastating economic blow when a manufacturing company decided to relocate.

“At the end of the day, both communities are heavily populated with good, hard-working, down to earth people who care about their community, care about their school district, care about their kids,” he said. “So, while I had never been to Janesville before, I immediately felt comfortable here because my values are their values.”

Pophal was eligible for retirement before he came to Janesville, but said he felt there was more he had left to accomplish. He said he’s stepping back now not because he feels his work is finished, but at 61, Janesville deserves a schools leader who can keep up with what a district its size expects of its superintendent.

Pophal said he’ll forever be proud of the opportunity he was given to “take Janesville to the next level,” a reason why he felt this district was his destiny.

“I’ve always felt from the very beginning of the interview process, that I belonged here and that I was destined to come here, and this was the place where ultimately that I would culminate my career,” he said.

A passion for leading

Pophal started his career in 1983 teaching adjudicated delinquents at Lincoln Hills youth prison and the former Ethan Allen School for Boys.

Most of his students were boys who needed help transitioning out of the penal system back into the general public after serious crimes, Pophal said, making for an “intense” first job.

Pophal then moved to Appleton where he was a social studies teacher and a coach. There, the desire he and some fellow teachers shared to establish one of the first “house” systems, to improve students’ transition to middle school, lit a passion within him to see his classroom as a part of the larger school community.

The concept of “houses” allows a cohort of students to attend their core classes such as language arts and math with a set rotation of teachers.

It pushed Pophal to pursue a graduate degree in school administration.

“Ironically, the further I got into the program, the more excited I got about it,” Pophal said of the prospect of being a principal. “Finally, by the end of the program (in 1991), I was actually pretty excited about wanting to be an administrator and pretty immediately did that.”

He spent the next 23 as a middle and high school principal and then ended his tenure with D.C. Everest Area School District in 2017 as its director of secondary education.

Reforming education

As he prepared to take the reins of the Janesville School District five years ago, Pophal knew that the way students were educated had to change.

Student educational needs are different than they were even a decade ago, Pophal said.

A more connected, technology-dependent world requires teachers to prepare students for the future that looks very different from past generations, he said.

Past teaching was factoid-based and focused on obedience and compliance to prepare adults for lives of working in manufacturing, he said. And while those jobs still exist, automation has reduced their prevalence. Education today needs to be interactive and teach students critical thinking skills to meet a service-driven workforce, he said.

The school district can’t do that alone, Pophal said. Knowing that, he’s worked to build relationships with local businesses and organizations to give students opportunities outside of their brick and mortar classrooms.

He sees that as a key accomplishment of his tenure, alongside redefining the district’s mission statement and strategic plan to align with a new mindset that sets grade-level literacy, math and career-ready benchmarks and emphasizes student attendance and co-curricular involvement over standardized test scores, Pophal said.

“We’re not preparing kids to go work at the plant anymore, right? We’re preparing kids for the gig economy. We’re preparing kids to be entrepreneurs,” he said. “We’re preparing kids to be excited about their community. When we do that, we have a better chance of them deciding to come back home, to live, work and raise their families, as opposed to seeing them leave and go away and not come back.”

'Fiber ring' proposed to improve rural Rock County wireless service

Rock County is considering a proposal for a wireless internet fiber ring that would serve rural areas with 17 new cell towers. One benefit, county officials say, would be better communication connectivity for emergency services.

The project calls for a 114.5-mile fiber ring, or middle mile, connecting 151 businesses and 2,871 residential locations. Bug Tussel Wireless, the company building the ring and envisioning the route for it in partnership with AT&T, received a $2.2 million grant from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin for the project, which is projected to cost a total of $13 million.

County officials, including Assistant County Administrator Randy Terronez, have been working on the project since February 2021. Terronez said the idea is for the fiber ring to surround Janesville and Beloit to connect those two urban areas, and from there to tie in more outlying rural areas.

“The concept is, once you make the investment in the middle mile, smaller third-party internet service providers are going to be tapping into those outlying areas,” Terronez said.

The fiber ring is proposed to extend from Milton in the northeastern part of the county through Johnstown and around Clinton, between Janesville and Beloit, up to Evansville and finally up to Edgerton. Terronez said there may be modifications to the route prior to approval. Businesses and homes within 1,200 feet of the ring would be connected and be provided with high speed broadband access.

“There are parts of the county where coverage is really poor,” Terronez said.

Of the 17 new towers, 9 would be off of the fiber ring, including two to the west and east of Milton, two west of Edgerton, two west of Janesville and three west of Beloit. They would supplement 22 existing towers that are mostly in and around Janesville, as well as in Beloit. There are also existing towers in Milton, Clinton, Evansville and the town of Avon.

Part of the project entails installing the county’s public safety equipment onto the towers, which would entail installing antennas.

County buildings will also be connected to the fiber ring.

The county board is set to vote in July on borrowing up to $11 million for the project, up from $9 million previously proposed, to provide additional access to public sector businesses.

In 2021, county officials encouraged area residents to do a speed test of their internet service to gauge what the need was, which showed widespread slow internet speeds throughout rural areas, Terranez said.

Broadband speeds are measured in megabits per second or Mbps. For sending email, 0.5 Mbps is typically the necessary speed. For standard web browsing, it is 1 Mbps. About 5 Mbps is needed for streaming movies or video games.

Those standards are per person, not per household. More internet use overall puts a strain on the internet capabilities in a given area. Terronez said people may even be billed for higher speeds but not necessarily getting that in some areas of the county.

“They could be paying for 60 Mbps (per household), but they are really getting 5 because it’s at night and there’s a lot of traffic,” Terronez said.

The county allocated $6 million of its federal American Rescue Plan Act funds toward the project. If approved, Bug Tussel would pay back the county over a 30-year period.

Obituaries and death notices for June 29, 2022

Linda A. Church

Paul Louis Deily Jr.

James B. Gross

Phyllis Jean (Anderson) Koel

Bernard E. “Bernie” Love

Antoine Lamar McKinley

Katlyn Marie Moe

Barbara J. Pepper

Janesville's Patrick Schork delivers a pitch during their legion game against the Beloit Bandits at Riverside Park on Tuesday.

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City of Janesville looks to 'right-size' Ice Arena project


By early August, Janesville residents could know the cost to build a proposed ice arena and civic center that’s now being called the Woodman’s Sports and Convention Center.

But between now and then, city officials and hired design consultants have to figure out how to shave off nearly 20,000 square feet—and potentially, millions of dollars—from the project plans. Doing so would bring the arena proposed at Uptown Janesville closer in line with an earlier budget for the public-private arena and conference center.

On Tuesday, the city of Janesville’s ad-hoc Woodman’s Sports and Convention Center Committee chose a tentative, 147,000-square-foot design for the center. It would combine a two-sheet ice arena that could convert to up to 50,000 square feet of flexible convention and sporting event space at 2500 N. Milton Ave., on the site of a shuttered former Sears department store.

The committee has asked the firms the city hired earlier this year, 292 Design and Zimmerman Architectural Studios, to trim as much as 18,000 square feet from a proposed arena layout that the committee said Tuesday it favors.

The move comes as the committee continues to work through a months-long design process.

Public Works Director Mike Payne said the suggested cuts are aimed at scaling back the arena plan that has included extra locker rooms for high school athletes and other groups using the arena alongside the major user, the Janesville Jets developmental hockey team.

“You’ll hear me say ‘right-size’ this project. I don’t know if that’s exactly the  right term, but we want to get (the cost and size) more down to our original target target,” Payne said. “It’s to try and get from almost 148,000 square feet to something that’s probably more realistic based on what we think we can afford at this point.”

The city doesn’t have hard cost estimates for the project, in part because the committee had met several times but until Tuesday hadn’t settled on a design proposal.

Now, after the committee’s commitment Tuesday to a preliminary design, 292 Designs architect Tom Betti said his firm would set to work culling parts of the project to reduce its footprint. The goal is to come in close to the 130,000 square feet. That's the size the city earlier calculated could cost $28 million to $30 million, but officials estimate that because of inflationary pressures on construction, it's possible the price tag for a 125,000-square-foot to 130,000-square-foot facility could total as much as $41 million.

That estimate, city officials have said, is tied to raw calculations of per-square-foot construction costs for projects that involve a two-sheet ice arena.   

That projection is more than twice the $17 million that the city has committed to the project if it rolls ahead. 

The city also faces the challenge of designing a multi-use space that would satisfy the desires of three main groups:

  • The Janesville Jets Hockey club and its operators.
  • The Friends of the Indoor Sports Complex, a group that’s a booster of both the Jets and local and regional youth hockey and figure skating and other indoor sports.
  • City tourism and hospitality groups that seek to bolster Janesville’s status as a destination for larger-scale conventions and sports tournaments.

Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Christine Rebout was among the majority of the ad hoc committee who favored the design chosen on Tuesday. It includes a lobby that wraps around the building’s front and funnels users from the front entrances on Uptown Janesville’s west, Milton Avenue-facing side to the arena’s two ice sheets and convention spaces.

That layout would have a complicated lobby setup that committee members said would help keep crowds from getting bottlenecked at times when the center is hosting multiple sports events or conventions.

But the tentative plan, the committee members told designers, needs to be whittled down several thousand square feet—a challenge for a project with arena space that must be a specific size. For instance, designers say seating capacity would have to be spacious enough on the main ice sheet to allow for 1,400 spectators.

Betti described the work architects face now as a “squeeze” to bring the project concept more in line with the city’s original budget.

The project also would require an approximately 16,000-square-foot upper concourse for emergency use and for utilities.

The city has committed up to $2 million for design and $15 million for construction under a plan by private stakeholders who call themselves the Friends of the Indoor Sports Complex.

The friends group has committed to raise up to $9 million for the arena and civic center, although the project continues to have a budget gap that city officials say they’d hope to plug with millions in potential grant funding that the city has applied for.

On Tuesday, Payne said the city hasn’t learned from the friends group how much money it has raised for the public side of the project’s budget.

The city is in the process of buying the former Sears property from Uptown Janesville’s owner, Texas private equity firm RockStep Capital for $1 after the council approved the purchase earlier this year.

The design consultants working to re-craft a scaled back version of the arena and civic center plan aim to bring back new designs to the committee on July 19.

If the committee likes the re-crafted plans, they would go to Kraus-Anderson, a third-party construction management firm the city has hired to do a detailed analysis of the project’s costs.

The city should have preliminary cost estimates based on its preferred project floor plan in hand by early August, Betti said.

Before those estimates come, the city intends to host a public junket at Hedberg Public Library to get feedback from local residents on July 26.

This article has been altered from an earlier version to clarify standing cost estimates for a version of the Woodman's Sports and Convention Center that would total 125,000-square-foot to 130,000-square-foot for a proposed indoor sports complex and convention center.