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Willmar School Board is split over contract for superintendent

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news Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR — Three members of the Willmar School Board have voted against a two-year contract renewal for Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard. The contract was approved on a 4-3 vote.

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The board approved the contract Monday, a rare split vote on an administrator’s contract renewal.

After the meeting, the board members who voted against the contract talked about wanting a new direction for the district. Kjergaard said none of the three had talked to him before the contract vote, and he didn’t know why they had voted against him.

The two-year contract would extend from July 1, 2014, through June 30, 2016. The two-year contract is a departure from the board’s previous practice of signing superintendents to three-year contracts.

Board member Mike Carlson said the negotiating committee had decided to move to two-year superintendent contracts so they would be the same length as contracts for the district’s collective bargaining units.

Those voting against the renewal were: Dan Croonquist, Mike Reynolds and Jackie Saulsbury. Those voting for it were Chairman Nathan Streed, Carlson, Linda Mathiasen and Liz VanDerBill.

Streed released a report on Kjergaard’s evaluation on Monday. The board listed a series of accomplishments, including changes in the elementary schools, and adoption of broad iPad use in the district. The report listed several strengths including his knowledge and experience, as well as the strength of his administrative team. The report he released did not list anything labeled a weakness.

The contract contains the same language has Kjergaard’s previous two contracts but with a 1.5 percent salary increase in each of the two years. His salary is scheduled to be $154,203.88 in the first year and $156,516.94 in the second year.

The raise in the contract is preliminary and dependent on other employee contract negotiations, Carlson said. Kjergaard’s raise will be no less than 1.5 percent but could be higher, depending on the final settlements.

A split vote on a contract renewal is not common. Kjergaard has received unanimous votes in the past for his hiring in 2008 and for a three-year contract renewal. He said after the meeting he has never had a split vote on a contract before.

Croonquist and Saulsbury cited employee morale when asked why they voted against the renewal.

Constituents told him they had “a desire to move in a different direction,” Croonquist said and said they were concerned about low morale and lack of appreciation for staffers.

“Of course, that doesn’t all go on the superintendent,” he added.

The “new direction” would involve “how we value our employees and how they’re treated,” he said.

Saulsbury said she also referred to the evaluation forms she filled out before the board’s performance review of Kjergaard in August.

“But we voted yes, so we’re moving on,” she said.

Reynolds said he thought the district had made progress in the last five years, but “things have changed, and it’s time to reset the clock and start over with a new administration.”

Reynolds said he would prefer a candidate with more experience in diverse districts and one who can help the district raise its test scores.

When Reynolds was asked about recent higher test scores reported on state tests and about Kjergaard’s experiences in a diverse district in Sioux City, Iowa, he reiterated, “I want to take it in a different direction.”

Asked how they thought the vote would affect the district, Croonquist said he hoped it would “send a message.” Reynolds said he didn’t know what it would do. “I represent my constituents, and that’s how I vote,” he said.

Like Saulsbury, Reynolds said the board had approved the contract, and “hopefully, we can continue to move forward.”

Kjergaard said he was frustrated and angered by the vote.

“None of the three of them came to me to talk about what their issues were,” he said. The other four board members speak with him regularly, he added.

The state Department of Education has made it clear that Willmar needs to work to improve student achievement and close achievement gaps.

“So, yeah, I brought change agents in,” he said. “We hired people because they were willing to go out and take risks. … The only way we’re going to get better is if we push.”

Everything had to change in the district’s elementary schools because of their state ranking, he said.

The board heard a favorable audit report Monday, and test scores have been going up, he said.

“I don’t see anything that I’ve done that would be deserving of a vote like this, especially since nobody ever talked to me about what their concerns were,” he said. Without hearing specifics, he said, he couldn’t really address their concerns.

For now, he said, “I’m going to go ahead and do the job. … We’re going to keep pushing. That’s my directive from (Education Commissioner) Brenda Cassellius.”

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