JEFFERSON — In a series of prerecorded virtual interviews shared with the public Thursday morning, the three finalists for the School District of Jefferson superintendent position laid out their backgrounds, strengths and philosophies.
The finalists were Dr. Charles Urness, Amy Vesperman and Dr. Peter Wilson. The taped interviews will be available through Friday at 3:30 p.m. via the district’s website at: https://www.sdoj.org/district/superintendent-search.cfm. Community stakeholders are invited to weigh in via a survey on the website.
Following final in-person interviews Thursday night, the board of education will meet Friday evening to make a final determination as to which of these candidates will replace retiring superintendent Mark Rollefson.
The interviewer, a consultant from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, asked each candidate the same questions, some of which were submitted by community members, staffers, parents or students.
The questions touched on a variety of issues faced by schools, such as attracting and retaining quality staff, closing achievement gaps and making up pandemic-related “learning loss,” addressing racism, fostering meaningful parent involvement, creating a positive school culture and handling referendums.
UrnessDr. Charles Urness, principal of Franklin Middle School in the Janesville school district, has served in that role since 2010. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 1993, with majors in History and Broadfield Social Studies.
In 2001, he received a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from UW-Madison and in 2012, earned his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, also from UW-Madison.
In addition to serving as a school principal for two decades, Urness has experience as an interim superintendent.
He said he was interested in Jefferson because of the district’s great reputation, and what he has heard from people who live in the district. He said the district’s mission of “Empowering Futures Together” really resonates with him.
Urness enjoys his current district and role, but said Jefferson’s size is more ideal for him than the larger community he currently serves.
Asked about how he would relate to non-teaching staff, he said that everyone in a school district is important, that everyone is an educator in a way — from the principal to the custodian, they have a lot to teach in terms of how they interact with students.
Asked about how to unite a divergent school board, Urness said he sees value in bringing together people with different perspectives and strengths. With an attitude of respect on all sides and a common goal, he said, this diversity can make the district stronger by making sure everyone’s needs are met.
Asked how he as a leader would address systemic racism, Urness noted that his dissertation centered on three goals for educational leaders: academic achievement, critical consciousness (including being aware of one’s own inherited privilege and position of power, and the need to hear different voices who do not share that experience) and inclusive practices.
He called for equity for people of all different backgrounds and needs, from English language learners to at-risk and special education students, to minority groups who traditionally have not been well represented.
“We need equity to have a democratic society,” Urness said.
Addressing academic accountability, he said he recognized that standardized tests have their flaws and are not the only measure of how well students are doing, but that they are a necessary tool for seeing how individuals, classes and schools stack up against standards and where educators need to focus their energies to improve instruction.
Addressing how to educate the public about school district needs when it came to referendums, Urness said that transparency and communication are vital to the process.
The community, staff members and parents need to be involved at all levels of the process, and clear, unbiased information needs to be available in various formats, including the local media, he said.
Answering a student question about addressing students’ social and emotional needs, Urness said he has seen more anxiety and trauma throughout the school population, students and staffers alike, in this last year than he ever has before.
He recognized that in this climate, schools need to step up their efforts to assure that everyone’s social and emotional needs are being met.
In closing, he said he strives for continuous improvement for himself and for those he oversees, and that he seeks out opportunities to learn more.
“We have heard of the ‘new normal,’” (brought about by the pandemic), Urness said.
Beyond the pandemic, he said he’d like to work toward a “better normal” in which schools put to use the lessons they have learned during the this challenging time to make sure all of their practices are meeting student needs in the most effective way possible.
Vesperman currently serves as the superintendent of the Plum City School District.
She started her educational career in 1997 as a high school/middle school language arts teacher in Belmont. She also taught high school and middle school in Fall River and Waterloo.
In 2002, she returned to Fall River to serve as a middle school teacher, athletic coach and curriculum coordinator.
Moving into administration, Vesperman took on the role as Dean of Students in Germantown, then became assistant principal in the Delavan-Darien district, next serving as the director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Wisconsin Heights district.
She became superintendent of the Albany school district in 2016 and two years later moved on to the Plum City School District, serving in the same capacity.
Vesperman’s educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in education from the UW-Platteville and a master’s degree from Edgewood College in educational administration.
Asked why she thought she would be a good fit for the Jefferson district, she cited the broad range of educational roles she has filled.
Vesperman said Jefferson could take her to the “next level,” saying, “It would be nice to work with a little bit bigger of a district where there are more of me” (administrators).
Addressing how to cultivate good relationships within the district, the candidate stressed the importance of attending school events and doing walk-throughs in all of the schools.
“Be seen,” Vesperman stated.
Asked about the superintendent’s role in addressing racism, she said it’s important to educate children to look at things from a non-biased perspective.
“We all have a little different background, but that’s OK,” Vesperman said. “We all need to work together.”
Asked about building relationships with the school board, she said it’s important to get to know board members as individuals.
Getting students to take ownership of their own learning will lead to better outcomes, Vesperman said, adding, “There’s no better feeling than that in kids.”
She cited an educator’s role as a “cheerleader” for student successes, and said schools must provide opportunities for students to grow and advance.
Addressing how to make up learning loss from the pandemic, Vesperman said summer school could be a good tool to address this, and that moving into the next school year, the district could look at whether it needs to hire interventionists to work with students.
She also advocated “constant progress monitoring” and differentiation of instruction.
As to parental involvement, Vesperman said it’s important that families come to parent-teacher conferences. She said the availability of online platforms, such as Zoom, actually has opened more ways for parents to communicate with teachers.
She said it’s important for schools to communicate the positives, so district residents are not just hearing negative things.
Asked about hiring and retention, Vesperman said she won’t just hire “a body” to fill a position, but looks hard at applicants’ resumes and experiences.
As to referendums, Vesperman said it’s important any building or operational referendum follow what already has been laid out as a priority or need in the district’s strategic plan.
She advised getting the community involved in the process so that when it comes time to vote “there are no surprises.”
Addressing students’ social-emotional needs, Vesperman said her current district added guidance counselors and a mental health professional to get students help while they are younger, “before it becomes a habit and gets out of control.”
Likewise, in terms of the achievement gap, her current district recently hired reading and math interventionists, developed a Read 180 program at the middle school level, and did continuous progress monitoring to keep track of what students were learning and where they needed help.
They also went from two weeks of summer school to eight.
As to celebrating successes, Vesperman said she personally likes to send notes to educators for a job well done, to stop into classrooms frequently, and to do “staff shadowing” to find out about the good things teachers are doing that otherwise nobody might know about.
Wilson currently serves as director of administrative services for the DeForest Area School District. He began his teaching career in 2002, overseeing a fifth-grade classroom in the Waunakee Community School District.
He moved into administration in 2008, becoming an assistant principal in the Stoughton Area School District. He also spent one year, 2011-12, as an elementary school principal before that district named him its Director of Student Services.
In 2016, he joined the DeForest Area School District as the director of Administrative Services, the position in which he currently serves.
In terms of his educational background, Wilson earned his bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., and his master’s and doctoral degrees in educational leadership from UW-Madison.
He said he tries to be a leader in equity and that he works continuously to close the achievement gap, which he likes to call the “opportunity gap.”
He said he feels he’s a good fit for Jefferson, which is a small town like the U.P. of Michigan community he grew up in. He said he likes that Jefferson is a diverse but close-knit community.
Asked about what he’d bring to the job, Wilson stressed his background in school finance, having recently finished school business manager certification on top of his doctoral degree.
“I have no desire to be a school business manager, but it’s very important that a superintendent know the ins and outs,” he said. “Ultimately, the superintendent is accountable for the way district money is spent.”
Wilson said he has significant experience from his roles in Stoughton and DeForest in working with disadvantaged students, English Language Learners and special education students.
He said he has a passion to reach every child, and to educate the whole child, not just in terms of academics but also social-emotional learning.
Asked about the district’s relationship with the business community, Wilson said that businesses, like other community stakeholders, play an important role, and that superintendents should be visible and transparent.
A proud Rotarian, he has been active not just in the schools, but also in community events like Syttende Mai or DeForest’s Riverfest.
As to addressing racism in the schools, Wilson said it’s important for him first to acknowledge his position of privilege and power, and then to seek out diverse voices to make sure all perspectives and experiences are represented.
As to bringing together the school board, he said he already has developed a framework to help guide how the superintendent can work with other administrators and the board.
Conflict actually really can be valuable, Wilson said, in terms of bringing different perspectives to the table.
He cited President Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals,” which came together and moved forward toward common goals.
As to addressing learning loss, Wilson said he has looked at all of the publicly available assessment information for Jefferson and would be going through additional information if chosen as superintendent, to identify priority areas and beef up instructional practices as needed.
Depending on what the data shows, that might mean strengthening student support services or leveraging grant money to develop targeted programs, all the while using a trauma-informed approach to address students’ emotional needs and to make sure they’re invested in the process.
As to family involvement, Wilson said engaging parents in the schools is essential to student success. He sees lots of ways to do that, through conferences, events throughout the year, and volunteering opportunities which could open up lots of ways to make families feel welcome in the schools.
As to attracting and retaining quality educators, Wilson said the district needs to have a healthy, strong school culture and a compelling mission and vision.
“Staff members want to be where they are making a difference,” he said, vowing to check in regularly with staff, to recognize colleagues for their efforts and to seek out their input.
As to referendums, he said, it’s important to have a structured, well-communicated process which draws in community involvement and input at every level.
Community-supported outcomes go to the board, which decides what format to present a referendum in, and then the superintendent takes the lead in communicating what the referendum entails with community leaders and the public.
As an educational leader, he said he welcomes feedback on the things he’s doing right and also the things he needs to work on.