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School chief marks first 100 days on job : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
School chief marks first 100 days on job
Wendt learns budget, quality education are continuing concerns

by Lyle R. Rolfe


Oswego School District Superintendent Dr. Matthew Wendt took time recently to reflect on his first 100 days on the job.

Although Wendt officially started work for the district on July 1, he was in the office getting a head start days before that.

He was hired to replace Superintendent Dr. Dan O'Donnell who resigned effective June 30.

Wendt came from Ankeny, Iowa where he had been superintendent for four and one-half years.

He said he did his homework to learn about the school district and was aware of "...some unrest about (attendance) boundary lines and the third high school issue."

The previous school board had purchased property for a third high school in the Plainfield area of the district in the Grande Park Subdivision and architects were working on plans for the building.

The new board, elected in April of 2010, campaigned on a platform to kill the third high school project and subsequently did so. They then approved construction of 600-student additions to both existing high schools, which are now under construction. The additions will increase student capacity at both schools to 3,000.

"I also knew that there was unrest and concern about the property tax rate. And along with that I knew there was concern about the loss of revenue," he said, referring to cuts in income from the state and federal governments.

At the same time, the district was experiencing increased debt and other expenses. The board adopted a $187 million budget for the current school year that initially projected $7 million deficit.

Wendt said this surprised him but noted that that he was bombarded with phone calls and emails about the budget and school bus transportation issues during his first 40 to 45 days on the job.

"I quickly discovered people knew my phone number and email address" he said.

The deficit was later trimmed to about $3 million before the board adopted the budget. In addition, the board set next June 30 as the deadline for the elimination of the deficit.

Wendt was also faced, during his initial days on the job, with vacancies in most of the district's top administrative positions. The vacancies meant he was faced with interviewing and hiring new people who would have even less background on the district than he did.

Wendt noted that the average tenure for a superintendent in a district is three years. During his nearly five years in Ankeny he had worked for 14 different board members. As a result, he said, he felt it was time to look for a new challenge.

In his short time in Oswego, Wendt said he has already learned the question is not whether there will be a third high school, but rather when it will be needed.

"These things must be coupled with one thing I've learned in these first 100 days, and that is that I think the affordability of education nationally is an issue-and should be an issue for all of us," he said.

Wendt said he believes a quality school district is an asset to a community and said tax rates should be a concern of everyone.

"The status quo of education is not sustainable," he said, noting that he made this same comment to school board members before he was hired.

He has overcome these various obstacles and worked with his new assistants to hire principals and other administrators.

He now manages a district that ranks ninth out of 868 public school districts in Illinois and spans 69 square miles in portions of Oswego, Aurora, Montgomery, Plainfield, Joliet and Yorkville. It also has more than 17,800 students from early childhood through high school with more than 1,660 employees--most of whom are represented by unions.

Setting, keeping goals

Wendt said he set goals for himself and has been keeping them.

One goal was to meet with the movers and shakers in the community, something he has done. His visits have ranged from Oswego Village President Brian LcClercq to Jim Mayer, owner of Art's Barber Shop in downtown Oswego, in addition to parents, students and the average person on the street.

His goal was to talk to one new person every day during the first 100 days and he exceeded this number in a short time.

"And I've learned a lot from them. Some discussions were in person and some by phone, some in my office, some in their office, and some on the street," he said.

He said the diversity he has seen is not only in the student population but also in the adult population and even on the school board.

"When you consider where our boundaries are, it should be no surprise that the voice and input can be different," he said.

Wendt said he asks people what they believe the district is doing well and has learned they all expect the district to provide a quality education.

Wendt also wants to know what they think should be improved.

"The number one thing is to find a way to keep quality and reduce costs. Number two is to bring some harmony and calm to the system," he said, noting that he has seen more negativity than positive attitudes from some people.

Wendt added that he has witnessed "... unrest, uneasiness, and anxiety on how the district will address growth. Moms and dads are asking how we plan to educate and care for their children at a time of historical economical issues-not only here, but nationally and world-wide," he said.

Wendt said people are inundated with negativity from the economy to politics and all in between. He added that this often impacts how they view their local governments.

He has learned people want plans and they want a voice in those plans.

Recently, Wendt has begun choosing people to serve as volunteers on four advisory committees to work with the district on various issues. Residents who are not among those chosen for one of the groups are encouraged to still submit their thoughts and suggestions to the groups, he added.

"My experience is that this is very favorable, and if we come to the table with a goal to improve our system and we're wiling to give as much as we take, I think at the end of the day we will have served the district well," he said.

From these discussions he has sensed a common opinion that people want to work together and move in the same direction.

He also has learned everyone wants education to be the same across the district. Every first grader should learn the same things in every school, and the same should apply to students at all grade levels. The quality of education and opportunities should be the same in every school. And there also is a great interest in students performing well in athletics, the arts and other areas, according to Wendt.

He made a commitment this year to visit every school and talk to teachers as well as students in each school. Wendt also attends numerous sports and other activities and events in the schools.

"I've even been riding the school buses to talk to drivers and students," he noted.

Wendt's looking forward to the next 100 days but doesn't see them being as rewarding as this first 100.

"I've just been blessed with meeting a lot of great people ranging from high school students to senior citizens. I certainly know a lot more about the district today that's profound than I did in July and I'm very pleased with what I've learned," he said.

Wendt said he hopes he has changed the opinion some people had of him and that he convinced them what they heard about him was not correct.

He said the district was great before he came and will be great long after he leaves-which he hopes will be longer than the three year average superintendent's stay he mentioned earlier.

His goal is to have every resident say they would recommend the Oswego School District to anyone who would ask about it.

And, if one should ask whether Wendt is interested in the future, they need look no further than the white board in his office.

Notes from one of his recent staff meetings state that the fifth grade students of today will march across the stage in 2020 to receive their diplomas that will say they have earned--in Wendt's words--"a world-class education."

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