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School district leaders look back, ahead : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
School district leaders look back, ahead
Teaching, learning dept. restructuring cited among biggest '13 accomplishments

by Lyle R. Rolfe


Oswego School District Board President Bill Walsh and School Superintendent Dr. Matthew Went looked back on the events in the school district over the past year and looked ahead to the new year during a recent interview.

Walsh noted that the present school board members-himself, Brent Lightfoot and Ali Swanson, had a challenge after last April's election when the four new board members joined the board: Danielle Paul, Matthew Bauman, Michael McDowell and Gregory O'Neil.

The newcomers each had only two years of prior board experience.

Despite the board's lack of collective experience, Walsh said he believes the seven members have done a good job of coming together as one board since the April election.

Wendt, who began work as the district's chief administrator in July 2012, said his biggest challenge this past year was restructuring the district's administrative staff, most of whom were also new on the job.

Wendt noted that after being hired he soon became aware that too many students have been graduating without being proficient in math and reading. After realizing this, Wendt said his first step was to restructure the district's teaching and learning department.

"I believe it was the right decision, but right decisions are not always easy. We had to make sure we were helping those already in the department with the transition while balancing that with explaining to our board, our staff and our public why we were making this change. We brought in highly-qualified leaders and spent less money on personnel than we had in the past. And we have two less positions in the department," he said.

Walsh commended the new board members and the past board for allowing Wendt to restructure the department.

He noted that Dr. Judith Minor was hired on May 1 as assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. Much has been accomplished in that short time, he said. Had the board become too involved, it could have hindered the work done, Walsh added.

Wendt was also faced with a mass exodus of administrators before and shortly after his arrival but believes the changes were handled well as they went along.

He praised previous administrations for their past work, noting that they also were working under some demanding conditions and challenges over the years.

"They were dealt financial and growth problems and dealt with them with the knowledge they had at the time," he said.

Wendt believes the district has some of the finest facilities in the nation and it is not lacking in the number of schools. But, he said, the system has had to change. In 2003 they were educating 8,000 students and today it's almost 18,000.

"It's too late for us to develop a system for 18,000 students-we'll be there by August. We're working on a system for 20,000 students, so it can be in place by 2020," he said.

Among his continuing goals, Wendt noted, is to see that he and board members are working on the same things at the same time rather than each going off on their own.

Being a board member is not easy today, Wendt noted, adding that he would much rather be a superintendent than a board member.

"I'm one of the blessed people in the district. I get to go to school every day. I've never really seen this as a job or the office," he said.

Wendt said everyone in the district-superintendent, other administrators, teachers and board members, all spend long days at their jobs.

"We need to focus on the good and work on our weaknesses," he added.

If you want to get on Wendt's bad side, toss out the old adage "Those who can, do. And those who can't, teach."

"I think that's one of the most disgusting comments I've ever heard in my lifetime," he said, offering to place believers of this adage in any classroom to find out just how difficult teach can be.

"More kids come to us with more needs and challenges today than in the history of public education. We say no to no person. We are committed to saying 'Yes we can' no matter what your ailment, your disability, your talent, your strength, your weaknesses ... we don't have the privilege like other countries, of separating students from the pack. We have the responsibility of educating children and we don't say no to anyone.

"For teachers to get up and with the love and care do what they do each day, is an honor. It is motivating to walk into any classroom and see what is happening," Wendt said.

Walsh said the board's biggest accomplishment this past year was to meet on a Saturday and rank their priorities for the next three years.

"Without that (meeting) the administration has no way of knowing what the board is looking for. They laid out their priorities and we did the same for 2013, 14 and 15," he said.

Walsh added that the process also allowed board members to see which items they should not be involved but leave to the administration.

Walsh said the district became one of few in the state to develop an incentive-based compensation package.

"Tying compensation to successes is a good way to manage," he noted.

Wendt repeated that the restructuring of the teaching and learning department was one of his top accomplishments for the year.

But he said successes they have had in the classrooms would have to be ranked as the top accomplishment for the district.

He took a moment to note that he made the Christmas wreath on his office door with help and instructions from a student in the Oswego East High School floral design class.

"That's 45 minutes of why I'm here. It's great to be in a classroom with students. During the time while she was showing me, I was able to ask the students about their experiences at Oswego East, and ask them about final exams.

"I was able to have a conversation with a teacher and teaching assistant. So within that 45 minutes, I not only learned how to make a holiday wreath, but was able to engage in conversation with students and staff members," he said.

He enjoys walking through the schools to watch, learn and observe. He doesn't like being introduced as the superintendent but prefers to drop the title when he takes these walks.

"I wish more people could see and hear what I see and hear when I'm in schools. There are no acts. People are not producing something just for me. For the most part, what I see is the real deal that occurs every day in our schools," Wendt said.

He added the district's administrative team is there to support the teaching and learning.

"We are not the Ivory Tower," Wendt said.

Walsh talked about his position as board president and said his position is no more difficult than being just a board member.

"All members face difficult challenges and decisions, ones that affect about 20,000 people, which includes students, teachers, administrators and all district employees as well as the residents and taxpayers.

"I would say the most difficult part of being a board member is making good decisions that affect 18,000 students, 1,100 teachers, and 800 staff members. That's a good-sized company," Walsh said.

He added that he is confident that board members he has served with have made decisions they felt benefited a majority of the people.

Wendt said not having enough time each day to accomplish all he wants to do is the toughest part of being superintendent. This goes with having a government-type job he said, while adding, "plus, I think the older I get, the less hours I have each day."

"And I think that superintendent positions across the country have morphed into one of the most demanding positions in the public or private sectors," he said.

A fairly recent issue facing Wendt and others in his position is information about the district put out via social media.

"There's no requirement that information has to be accurate and the district has to react to it, trying to put out the fires while addressing the issue," he said.

Wendt plans to address the problem with the board when they return to school after the winter break. Any solution will definitely have to become part of a future communication plan, he noted.

"Other than that, I feel supported and taken care of and there isn't any other place I'd rather be," he said.

Wendt is the first to admit having made mistakes, saying he makes them every day. He's not one to second guess others but often discusses decisions made by senior staff members and the board to see if their decisions can be improved.

Although it was his idea several months ago to establish citizens advisory committees to address multiple issues confronting the district, he said there are times when they don't need more committees or discussion because the answer is in the room.

"Let's do it. After time, we'll know if it was the right decision and we can improve on it. If it was wrong, let's change it," Wendt said.

He noted that "the beauty of being in this position is that we have the right to make mistakes and to change minds."

Walsh noted that the number of complaints coming to the board is almost nil today compared to when he was first elected. They may get one a week now and oftentimes it's a question rather than a complaint. He attributed this to the central administration doing more to deal with complaints.

"Last year I got quite a few complaints," Wendt said.

The primary complaints he now receives are questions: What more can we do to provide opportunities for kids? When are you going to do this or that? When will all kindergarteners be allowed to attend their home schools?

Wendt has spent a lot of time during his 18 months here visiting stores, business, and other places, talking to people throughout the district so he's becoming quite easily recognized.

But there are still those who don't know him. And when he meets these people he asks them questions about the district and their thoughts about it. He does not identify himself until they ask why he is questioning them.

Wendt prides himself on his openness to anyone who wants to meet with him.

"My calendar is filled with meeting dates for citizens, parents, staff members and students who come to talk to me," he said.

Both officials said 2014 is looking to be a good year.

Walsh said they are working on a strategic plan, which will lay out the path they hope the district will follow for the future.

They also are looking forward to a minor curriculum review next year for math and english arts, he said.

One concern is balancing this work so they don't burn out the staff members, Walsh noted.

Revenue remains a big concern for both officials in light of the state reducing its state aid payments to the district.

Walsh said they have a good relationship with area state legislators but need to continue to make them aware of the district's needs for full funding, which has been promised in the past.

Wendt said the board has outlined 10 to 12 of its priorities and goals for him in his contract. He has specific goals that must be met by specific dates and his compensation is tied to them.

"I'm happy to have them in my contract, but there are some outside forces that may influence the pace at which we accomplish those goals," he said.

On another subject Wendt said, "I'm not prepared to cancel school to have professional development (sessions) for teachers. We have to find a different way. I'm no fan of institute days.

"When I was a teacher I sat through professional development sessions and afterward, it didn't change my methods of teaching," he said.

So teachers should look for changes in these areas that will make these sessions much more beneficial to them, he added.

Wendt also mentioned that he believes the district is heading in the right direction.

"I believe we have the right people in place. The last six months has been a learning curve for everyone.

"There's an adequate supply of negativity and doubt in our society. I would like to see us spend our time celebrating our accomplishments having adult conversations about kid issues and conducting business in the most professional way possible.

"This will mean give and take and negotiation, knowing they can't accomplish everything at one time," Wendt added.

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