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Willmar superintendent says it's back to business, one day after board split on his contract

Superintendent of the Willmar School District Jerry Kjergaard, pictured in this undated photo, on Tuesday said he was still disappointed in the vote over his contract but was going about his job as usual. “It’s just a normal day,” he said. “We’re taking care of business and taking care of kids.” Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR — The Willmar School Board will move forward despite a narrow vote to approve the superintendent’s new contract, according to its chairman.

Chairman Nathan Streed said he did not know Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard’s contract renewal would result in a 4-3 vote for renewal Monday evening.

The board members who voted against Kjergaard’s contract renewal said they were concerned about staff morale and with employees feeling they were not valued. Another questioned Kjergaard’s record, but they did not offer specific complaints.

Mike Carlson, Linda Mathiasen, Streed and Liz VanDerBill voted in favor of renewing the contract. Dan Croonquist, Mike Reynolds and Jackie Saulsbury voted against.

Kjergaard said after the meeting Monday that none of the board members who voted against him had talked to him directly about their concerns.

On Tuesday, Kjergaard said he was still disappointed in the vote but was going about his job as usual.

“It’s just a normal day,” he said. “We’re taking care of business and taking care of kids.”

Streed said one of the three board members had expressed concerns to him, but the others had not. He declined to identify the member who had spoken to him.

“I think it’s our duty and responsibility as a board that we collectively move forward,” Streed said. “If we can’t do that, then we shouldn’t be serving in our capacity. … We have to move forward, regardless of what someone’s personal opinion might be.”

Croonquist, Reynolds and Saulsbury all expressed similar sentiments Monday evening.

“I still would like to go forward now; that was the vote,” Croonquist said Tuesday. “The decision was made, even though I didn’t agree with it.”

Streed said he had heard rumors about staff dissatisfaction, but he has no plans to have the board address rumors.

“I like factual things,” he said. “If someone has a factual complaint, the board will deal with it, but we can’t deal with rumors.”

Morale issues may stem from massive changes in teaching practices and curriculum made in recent years, Streed said, acknowledging that many people don’t like change.

The district has been under orders from the Minnesota Department of Education to make changes after its elementary schools received low rankings in state measurements.

Willmar is at the forefront of state efforts to improve student achievement and close achievement gaps, Streed said, and the results have been remarkable.

“Why do other schools come here to see what we’re doing,” he asked. “I think there’s a reason for that.”

Streed called morale a “moving target” and said a business owner he knows estimated that about a third of his employees were affected by morale problems on any given day. If that held true for the school district, it would translate into more than 200 employees in a bad mood each day, he said.

“Some things, we have to take power in ourselves,” he said. People who are having bad days could ask, “What can we do, even independently, to make it better.”

Croonquist said that he had voiced his concerns in forms he filled out for Kjergaard’s performance reviews and has relayed complaints he’s received to Streed. “My understanding is that it has been relayed (to Kjergaard),” he said. When asked, he didn’t offer specific examples of employees being treated badly.

Reynolds and Saulsbury did not respond to messages left on Tuesday.

Tammy Knapper, president of Education Minnesota in Willmar and a teacher at Willmar Senior High, said, “We want to continue to work with Jerry over the next two years,” she said. “There are probably some areas we can improve on, on both sides.”

Morale is lower in some district buildings than it has been in the past, but that could be partly due to changes in staff and curriculum, she said.

Gary Amoroso, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said split votes on contracts do occur. “It happens around the state from time to time,” he said and is part of the nature of elected officials.

“The important thing is the will of the board to move forward,” he said, and it’s important to remember that the superintendent works for the board as a whole and not for individual board members.

When a district is under state orders to make improvements, sweeping changes are to be expected, he said. “Sometimes those are difficult times.”

Willmar’s recent successes, like improved scores at Kennedy Elementary School, should give the district “a time to celebrate and keep the momentum going in a positive direction,” Amoroso said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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