'Our schools will carry on in good shape' : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
|'Our schools will carry on in good shape'|
|Departing superintendent looks back on difficult three-year tenure|
|by Lyle R. Rolfe|
Dr. Dan O'Donnell's three-year tenure as superintendent of the Oswego School District and its more than 17,000 students will end this Saturday, June 30.
On Sunday, July 1, Dr. Matthew Wendt of Des Moines, Iowa, will take over O'Donnell's duties as the district's chief administrator.
Wendt, however, will begin his new duties without an administrative cabinet.
Since early this year, administrators have been resigning from the district for much the same reason as O'Donnell left-their educational philosophy was far different than the seven members of the school district board, three of whom were elected in April 2011.
During an interview last week, O'Donnell said that never during his more than 35 years in education, has he witnessed such an exodus of administrators from a school district.
Since the start of this year, at least 10 administrators ranging from assistant principals including himself plus three of his top-level staffers have all left.
Most of the departures are effective this Saturday and to date, only two administrators have been replaced-the superintendent and the assistant superintendent for business and finance.
O'Donnell noted that new positions the departed Oswego administrators have secured in other districts is evidence of their skills and abilities as well as proof of what the district is losing.
During an interview last week, O'Donnell was extremely complimentary about the residents in the community and praised his staff and the students. He said the students are much better than those in many other districts, which have immense discipline problems.
During student recognitions at school board meetings O'Donnell was always quick to note that Oswego's students made him proud. When he would see them away from school they were polite and had positive attitudes towards others.
"They were always ladies and gentlemen," he said.
"Our schools will carry on in good shape. They're getting better all the time and in this economy that's amazing in itself," he said, adding that they have had to cut numerous things over the past couple of years because of state funding cuts.
After retiring from his previous job in St. Louis, O'Donnell had been retired for a few months before he learned Oswego Superintendent Dr. David Behlow had resigned to accept a superintendent position in a north suburban school district. Donnell said he was not happy being retired and said Oswego was the kind of district he was looking for.
When O'Donnell was initially hired it was for three years, but he said he might have stayed for five or even up to seven years when he reached 65 and retirement age. But shortly after the new board was elected in April of last year O'Donnell said he discovered there were huge differences in their style of management and philosophy.
He noted that membership on the board changed rapidly.
"Of the seven (board members) that hired me, three years later, only two of them are still on the board. They wanted to go in a different direction than I wanted to go. We obviously were not on the same page in some major areas, so it's just better for them to get someone who agrees with them and wants to do the same kinds of things they want to do," he said.
O'Donnell said the biggest factor that helped him make his decision was the board's management and leadership style.
"I'm used to the traditional model where the board of education is in the leadership role, setting policy, doing strategic planning for the district, looking long-term, setting goals for me to hit and then leaving it to the professional educators to determine how that would be accomplished," he said.
When the board changed, after last year's election, the members became entrenched in the day-to-day details, he noted, adding that this is not the way he prefers to operate.
"It's not a good situation for me with my leadership style. It creates confusion when individual board members are asking people to do things and giving directives," he said, adding, "This leaves staff members confused, not knowing whether they should listen to me or the board members or whether we're supposed to wait for a board meeting for things to take place. It made for confusion and uncomfortableness.
"They need someone whose style is closer to theirs."
Lack of trust cited
O'Donnell said the new members came on board not trusting him or the other administrators.
"They said it was because of us suggesting there be a third high school. But I did not understand why that would make them not trust us on other things. It was almost like everything we brought up, they were opposed to, as they thought we did not have the best interest of kids in our hearts," he said.
Shortly after being elected, the new board voted to kill the plans for a third high school and hired architects to design 600-student capacity additions at both Oswego East High School and Oswego High School. Work is now underway on the additions.
O'Donnell said he hopes the board will put trust in Dr. Wendt and the other administrators he will be hiring.
"That should make things better for the district," he added.
He said most of the highlights from his three years in the district are associated with the staff members, watching the teachers work with the kids, and keeping the budget in the ballpark.
O'Donnell confirmed that the district was borrowing money annually to make it through the year. He added that this year they issued only $5 million in tax anticipation warrants (TAWs) and that was for only 60 days.
His two goals were to stay within the budget as closely as possible and improve student achievement. He also felt they needed to improve at the high school level.
O'Donnell said he was not satisfied with the ACT scores so he worked to raise them. He still is not satisfied, but the scores are going up and more kids are taking advanced placement courses.
More kids are now going on to college and Oswego now has one of the highest graduation rates in the state, he said. And they've changed the high school schedule to help increase the rigor in the classes.
O'Donnell said he is proud that in one of the toughest economic times in Illinois, they have been able to move forward, helping kids grow and get better.
"The most rewarding part of the job for me has been working with our staff and our parents in the community. We have a parent advisory group and they work their heads off to give us information and get information out to the community for us," he said.
Increasing parent involvement has also been a continuing goal, according to O'Donnell.
"So the people-kids and parents alike-also are highlights during my time here," he said, noting that they also have a great staff in the district.
He commented on one issue Wendt will have to deal with-the state funding being constantly reduced.
"One-third of our income comes from the state and when the state suffers we suffer. This year we're looking at getting only 89 percent of our General State Aid and 42 percent of our transportation aid. That's a slug to us-we're going to lose a little over $4 million of our revenue," he said.
"Money doesn't provide education but it allows you to buy the things you need to educate the kids, including more teachers," he said.
"I'll miss the people. I've met lots of good people here and have made tons of friends. I'll miss them," he said.
What does his future hold?
"I'll probably do some consulting. I'm looking at a number of options. I'll stay in education to some degree but I don't anticipate going back into a superintendency right away, although I might in a couple of years," he said.
There have been rumors that he was going to work for RSP & Associates, a consulting firm that helped with the recent school boundary changes. But O'Donnell said he is talking to several companies and has no promises from any of them.
"My wife wants me to retire completely, but I'm not good at that," he said.
O'Donnell said he has taught some college courses as an adjunct professor and is considering looking into that.
"We'll be moving back to the St. Louis area, so I'll look into teaching there. They're always looking for someone to teach a finance course or a school law course, so that's something I can consider. I enjoy mentoring young administrators," he said.
He said they had the best of two worlds in Oswego.
"On two sides are suburbs of Chicago and on the other two sides, you have cornfields. So, you have the small town feel, while living in a mega-suburb of Chicago."
O'Donnell said residential growth has not stopped in Oswego.
"We had 150 new houses built last year within the district and we still have people moving into the area because we're the next place out from Chicago," he said.
He said he has offered to help Wendt and the new finance director and answer their questions. And he plans to follow the example Behlow set when he left-to let the new man make his own judgments on people in and out of the school system.
"The district is losing a lot of institutional memory and history with so many people leaving. There will be a lot of questions so I'm going to be available to answer them and help however I can.
"But I don't anticipate being asked to help often because they are quality people and they have their own ideas on how to do things," he said.