Denfeld News

January 29, 2012
Duluth News Tribune

Q & A with Superintendent Bill Gronseth
By Jana Hollingsworth

Bill Gronseth’s path to becoming superintendent of the Duluth school district isn’t what he had imagined it would be, he said Friday, but he added: “I have a strong belief that things in our life that happen, happen for a reason.”

Gronseth was chosen by the School Board to become superintendent Tuesday after acting in an interim role since Dec. 19, when I.V. Foster was put on leave for not having the license required to do the job in Minnesota. Foster resigned Jan. 6, six months after taking the position vacated by Keith Dixon.

Gronseth, 43, is a Duluth native and Denfeld High School graduate who has worked in the district for 15 years as a teacher, principal and most recently assistant superintendent. He was a finalist last spring for the top post. The following are excerpts from a News Tribune interview with Gronseth.

Q. What traits do you have that make you a good leader?

A. An important part of being a good leader is being a good listener and making sure that all of the voices that need to be heard are heard before decisions are made. Having vision and being able to get a group to have a common mission and vision that everyone can feel good about and work toward is one of the most key qualities.

Q. How do you rebuild long-flagging trust in Duluth schools?

A. Transparency is a first step, sharing information and sharing decision-making in a way where people truly feel they are being heard. The long-range facilities plan has been a time of transition and has led to a lot of people being really happy about things, but there are a lot of people who were hurt in the process and didn’t feel they were heard. I can’t change what we’ve already done, but I can change where we go from here. Being willing to do that is a first step.

Q. Why is there still so much unhappiness?

A. For some, it’s the loss of Central. For some it’s the renaming of schools. For others it’s what a park looks like. There are a lot of issues; it’s not just one thing. If it is about not getting a chance to vote (on the Red Plan), that’s not something I can change. I can say I am sorry you felt that way when it happened, but where can I go from here to help the community feel good about Duluth schools and where we are going? That’s why I am reaching out to the community, meeting with leaders, people on the street, in the grocery store, everywhere. They are talking to me, and they are telling me their story. From that, I hope we get to a place where we can as a community move forward and support our schools.

Q. You live in Hermantown, and your kids (ages 14 and 16) go to school there. Now that you’ve been selected as superintendent, would you consider moving and enrolling your children in Duluth schools?

A. I live in Hermantown because that’s where my family is. I live a few doors down from my brother. My mom is on the next road. My sister is just down the road. It has been an opportunity for my kids to grow up with their cousins and go to school with their cousins and be close to family. I grew up in this city and spent the last 15 years of my career in this school district. My wife (Deanna Gronseth, a Hermantown School Board member) works for the school district. We are connected to this community and committed to it and our schools. I would consider moving to Duluth. I have lived in Duluth (Smithville, Lakeside, Morgan Park) before. It was a matter of where the rest of my family lived and finding a house within our budget at the time.

Q. What are your top three priorities as a superintendent?

A. Student achievement is always our first priority, and addressing the achievement gap.

We in Minnesota are struggling with how to fund education. Taking a look at how education is funded, in the short-run for us it means we have to define a budget and live within it and do the best we can to make sure students get the best of what we can offer.

Bringing the community together around the schools and helping our schools be as successful as we can.

Q. How do you describe your leadership style?

A. I consider myself to be a collaborative leader, someone who brings people together and finds common ground.

Q. What has prepared you to be superintendent?

A. I think it is really a culmination of experiences that has prepared me. I have some business experience in my past, as well as experience as an educator and administrator. I constantly strive to better my skills, and I am currently working on a doctoral degree.

Q. Do you think your time as a teacher and principal helps you in your new role?

A. I think having relatively recent classroom or school experience is beneficial, and it’s especially beneficial because my experience was in this district. My hope is to stay involved with schools and classrooms and get out and see what’s going on so I maintain that connection.

Q. Will you try again to pass an operating levy, and what would you do differently?

A. It hasn’t been decided, and it’s not a decision I make myself. That’s really a board and a community decision. If we were to go for a levy in the fall, I would be very active in communicating about the levy, about the deficit — why we need to support an operating levy in this community, and what it offers the students.

Q. What did you learn from the levy failure?

A. Duluthians are very passionate about education and about finance. I think we could have done a better job communicating the message about the details of the levy and what it was going to pay for and what it was not going to pay for.

Q. Were the three tiers confusing?

A. The three-tier approach is prevalent in levy questions. It goes back to communicating before a vote about what that looks like. As a voter going in and seeing a three-question ballot, if I don’t have all of the information, it’s hard for me to make a determination. If the School Board decides to go for a levy and use a leveled question again, communication will be important about why that’s happening and what it means.

Q. What is your timeline for starting some of the transparency measures you talked about in your state-of-the-district address?

A. The budget information (including audits and spending in various categories): We’re currently working on that with our technology and business departments. It should be, within the next week or so, available on our website. Getting committee meetings (notice) further out in advance is important to me. We’ll have a link to budget information on the main page.

Q. There are many classrooms and course sections that are over-sized throughout the district. How can teachers do a proper job with large classes?

A. I know that it’s challenging to have a high class size. We do have the most educated, experienced staff around. I think it’s important we continue to offer staff development that will help them use strategies that are successful with the groups they are working with. … I would rather talk about how we are funding education as a community. I didn’t get into education to watch this happen. It’s important that while we can support our staff in the short-term, I don’t think it’s a long-term answer. It’s really a funding problem. As part of the budget process, we will have conversations about what’s most important, what are our cores that we will protect. Are there grade levels and sections we protect more than others?

Q. How do you feel about your new job?

A. It’s the hardest work I have ever done and the most I have ever enjoyed. The path to getting to this position isn’t exactly what I had imagined or hoped it would be. ... I know that I am here for a reason, and I’ll keep doing the best I can to be a strong leader for schools and the community. I know part of the reason (I wasn’t chosen last year) was because some people saw me as being too connected to Keith Dixon. He had some great leadership skills, and he was a mentor to me. We have similar philosophies but we are very different people. I think there has been enough distance between us now that people can see me for who I am.

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