JOHNSON CREEK — Michael Garvey, Johnson Creek school superintendent since 2006, informed teachers last week that he would be retiring at the end of this school year.
Garvey has had a tremendous impact on the district — now known statewide and beyond as “The Domes” for its distinctive campus — which now includes all of the school levels — elementary, middle and high school — in a series of linked monolithic domes located along County Highway B at the edge of the village.
Garvey said when the 2021-22 year comes to a close, he will have achieved all of the priorities that he set out to accomplish when he took the job 15 years ago.
When he decided to accept the Johnson Creek superintendent and business manager position, Garvey said many of his colleagues and other educational contacts advised him against it, citing the district’s history of administrative turnover.
Even the local staffers had an informal bet going as to whether he’d last more than a year, he said.
Instead, Garvey oversaw a transformation of the district in terms of instructional practices, finances and facilities.
He said he knew from the onset there was a lot to do to turn the Johnson Creek schools around. On his arrival, the district was “broke,” he said, with a fund balance of $300,000.
Uncharacteristically, 26 percent of the school population was classified as “special education,” which Garvey felt was not representational of students’ true abilities and needed to be restructured so as not to drain district resources.
Garvey said relations between the district and its teachers’ union were strained and contentious.
The district was held back by aging, inefficient facilities which were not being properly maintained.
Meanwhile, the district was working with outdated curricula, failing to respond to the needs of the 21st Century learner.
Lastly, the district’s relationships with the Village of Johnson Creek, the Town of Farmington and other municipalities from which students came were “non-existent,” Garvey said.
He persisted, however, addressing all of these issues systematically.
One of the first priorities was straightening out district finances, which Garvey found were in better shape than feared. Instituting new financial practices, training staff in this area, and controlling spending, the district was able to eliminate all debt related to previous borrowing, including the unfunded liability to the state retirement fund.
Now, even after constructing all new district facilities, the district has eliminated all debt save that related to the two recent building projects and the adjacent athletic fields.
Building these new facilities took considerable community involvement. Garvey and other school officials worked with community volunteers to develop the “One Team, One Dream” campaign which has raised more than $1.2 million, representing half of the buildings needed to build the new state-of-the-art athletic facilities. In addition, the district has been able to capitalize on low interest rates and to utilize a variety of financial tools to place the district in a good position moving forward.
When Garvey arrived in the district, the district also was looking at the problem it had with the “overidentification” of special education students. Led by Mike Pisani, the elementary principal at the time, the effort sought to pull back to the real goal of special education services — balancing the instructional playing field for students with disabilities.
The initial study concluded that the district was providing unnecessary services to some, draining the resources available to those who really needed the help. The district trained staff and worked with parents to focus on the needs of each student, and which of those students actually fell into the special education category versus being better served accessing a different kind of intervention.
As would be excepted in a district with high turnover, poor facilities and numerous under-addressed issues, employee culture throughout the district needed a boost. The elementary, however, was additionally hampered by personal issues between specific staff members.
Under Garvey’s helm, district leadership made it a goal to turn that negative culture around, working closely with union leadership. Some staff members left for districts that were a better fit for them, while others formed stronger and more positive cooperative relationships in Johnson Creek.
Garvey said that during this trying period, it was great to be able to work with union leadership to turn things around. A more positive atmosphere led to civil, polite and reasonable negotiations. Then came Act 10, which changed the educational climate statewide, and the local teachers’ union decided to decertify.
Relations with employees remained positive, however, and the district took much of the final language for its new employee handbooks from the expiring union pacts.
For those from outside the district, the most noticeable change has come in the district’s facilities.
When Garvey came on board, the district was working with an inefficient, non-handicap-accessible and poorly maintained middle/high school that covered a hodgepodge of levels and poorly connected additions from a variety of eras.
The elementary school was more normal looking, all on one level, but still was outdated in ways, inefficient and rapidly being outgrown by the burgeoning crossroads community.
As the district looked at various options that would serve the district’s students into the next generation, the new administration took on a new director of buildings and grounds, Dan Fischer, who has been with the district for 14 ½ years, to assure that all district facilities, old and new, were maintained properly.
In conjunction with the school board, Fischer and Garvey worked through two significant, referendum-supported building projects, and also oversaw the construction of state-of-the-art athletic facilities which were not included in the building referendums, but rather were supported through community donations, fundraisers and the selling of naming rights.
Garvey commended the board members who lent their support to the visionary building ideas the district ultimately went with, as well as the unorthodox fundraising process that allowed the athletic facilities to be added at the new school site with no additional expenditure of tax dollars.
Garvey said he is proud to have had a part in turning around community relations, with district residents as a whole, and also with the different municipalities that made up the district.
“I immediately dove in — literally in the dunk tank at our first Fall Festival,” Garvey said.
Since then, Garvey, his wife Samantha and their children have been visible in many aspects of community life — through youth soccer, scouting, the Johnson Creek Lions Club, the Johnson Creek Newcomers and Neighbors club, the Johnson Creek Education Foundation, village committees, Farmington baseball and more.
Garvey and family could be found volunteering at community cookouts and Easter egg hunts as well as taking in all different types of school activities from sports to musicals.
Garvey also worked to build cooperative relationships with the local municipalities.
“The district’s relationship with the village was rocky for the first 10 years,” Garvey said. “But we started working with individual board members and grew our circle of trust.” He said he’s pleased that relations between the school district, the village administrator and the village board now are positive and cooperative.
“These relationships will serve the district well into the future,” Garvey said.
As all of these outward changes were going on, the school district also was undergoing a complete transformation in terms of its curriculum and how students were being taught.
Under Garvey’s leadership, the district developed standards for each grade and eventually updated not only what was being taught but how, instituting the “personalized learning” approach.
“We now focus on teaching at the student’s ability level, ensuring continuous progress,” Garvey said. “We focus on that progress and not on an arbitrary state-selected test given one day a year.”
Johnson Creek’s new teaching methods have brought in visitors from around the state and beyond, and have been used in educational research being done by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Meanwhile, the district adopted new assessments which help teachers measure their own work and hone their own skills as educators.
Highlights and lowlights
Garvey’s career at Johnson Creek has been full of highlights, and the district also has had to weather some crises during his time.
The passage of the first building referendum in five separate tries came under his watch. A few years later, with the high school/middle school domes in operation and drawing attention nationwide, the elementary school referendum passed on its first try — just as the world entered a pandemic, no less.
During Garvey’s tenure, the district has survived a roof collapse in 2007, the elementary fire in 2014, and the ongoing pandemic — with comparatively minimal interruptions to student learning.
“It has been a team effort,” Garvey said in his letter to staffers last week. “The work of not only us, but of community members supporting our schools, made these possible.”
He specially commended the “For Our Kids” campaign for helping to bring about the new facilities, and the Johnson Creek Education Foundation for providing grants and scholarships, as well as the One Team, One Dream effort which found a new way to provide top-quality athletic facilities without spending top dollar.
“After 16 years, I will leave the position knowing that we accomplished what we set out to do,” Garvey said.
He commended the district’s administrative team as incredible leaders and staff members for all bringing something to the table for the collective good.
As he looks forward to retirement at the end of the 2021-22 school year, Garvey says he is eager to enjoy more family time, but he plans to continue to serve the community in new ways in years to come.
A big impact
C. J. O’Neil, a Johnson Creek school staff member starting in 1979, and school board member from 2010-19, commended Garvey for his contributions to the district.
She noted that Garvey, the longest-serving administrator in the history of the Johnson Creek school District, brought “new, consistent, yet evolving curriculum to the district.”
Citing the personalized learning approach now in place in the Johnson Creek schools as one of his big accomplishments, O’Neil said this approach has put the school community “on the map,” bringing representatives from school districts across the state and nation to observe how Johnson Creek teachers are doing things.
Garvey also has had a positive impact on school finances in the area, she noted.
“Financially, he was able to master the math to allow the district to survive and thrive without an operating referendum during his entire tenure,” the erstwhile school board member said.
Meanwhile, she commended Garvey for bringing people into the schools from the surrounding community and beyond.
“Mike believes in the philosophy of the ‘lighted school house,’” O’Neil said, explaining that he encourages the use of school facilities by all members of the community.
The former staffer and school board member said Garvey also has made an indelible mark in terms of district facilities, overseeing the first successful building referendums in a generation and the transition to an entirely different type of campus with the distinctive “Domes” construction for the middle/high school and now the new connected elementary school.
O’Neil said Garvey’s willingness to think outside the box and his consistent efforts over many years’ time led to the new facilities which have made the Johnson Creek schools the “pride of the community.”
Additionally, the former staffer and school board member said she admired Garvey’s community involvement.
“His idea of a vacation is to go to Boy Scout camp and cook for 400 scouts,” she said.