SPOONER, Wis. -- Recently I had a chance to catch up with Spooner Area School District's Superintendent Dr. David Aslyn over a cup of coffee at DrydenWire's favorite coffeehouse - The Dock Coffee - to see how his first 100 days have gone, and what the future might bring.
What kind of coffee are you drinking today?
I had a Minnesota Mudd this morning. After a 20 year career as a soldier, strong, black coffee is a staple for me.
Last we met - I think it was your 1st week as the official Superintendent for the Spooner ARea School District (SASD) - we talked about the new school year and what you were looking forward to and what challenges you were facing. We also decided to hold off on a story until you were a hundred days in. Now you are. So, my 1st question is: how does it feel have 100 days under your belt?
The first 100 days on the job have gone by quickly for me. It's been a very busy time with a number of positive things taking place in the District as we work to provide the best possible educational experiences for our students. It's been wonderful to meet so many community members and hear their hopes and concerns for the educational experience in the Spooner schools. I subscribe to the idea that there's no teacher like experience and the experience I've gained carrying out my duties have helped me to get a sense of where to best focus my efforts.
100 days ago, what were the things that concerned you the most about being the superintendent for SASD, and are those still the things that concern you now?
Coming into the district administrator position in Spooner, the District's finances, uncertainty over curriculum as well as community and staff concerns over the climate of the District and its impact on the entire community were concerns for me. Each of these items continues to be a concern. These types of issues can have an impact on the experiences our students have in school if left unchecked. However, by working collaboratively, we've been able to take some steps to address these challenges. I'm optimistic about our ability to work together to address these areas of concern on a wide-spread basis.
Can you share some of the steps that have been taken?
A couple of important steps taken in regards to District finances include addressing District health insurance renewal costs and providing a broad-based wage increase for District employees. We've worked together to implement a health insurance solution that provides high-quality care options in a way that is feasible given the District finances. As a result of the collaborative work taking place in the District, employees are poised to receive their first broad-based wage increase in four years. We've worked with Badger Bus Company to negotiate a contract extension that will support safe and efficient student transportation for the next five years. Great work has taken place that has resulted in the establishment of a framework for a multi-level system of support for academics so that students receive the appropriate level of support they need to grow and achieve in school.
Do you feel the community has welcomed you, and if so, how?
I have felt welcomed by the community. It's been a great experience meeting so many community members who have so generously shared their time and insights about the Spooner Schools. Everyone I've met wants to see the good things for children and to see the District move forward in a positive way. Most people I've had a chance to visit with have been optimistic about the future of the Spooner schools and those who aren't overly optimistic have been cautiously optimistic. With such a positive base, I can't help but believe that by working together, we can help move the District forward in a positive way. I'm confident that good things will come for children and the community as a result.
What are you the proudest of in your 1st 100 days as Super for SASD?
There have been some substantial issues that have come the District's way during the first 100 days of me being on the ground. A much higher than anticipated health insurance premium renewal rate and developing a preliminary budget without a complete State budget to name a few. It's been great to experience the collaborative effort between the School Board and Administrative Team in generating solutions given the challenging conditions. With very little time working together, we've been able to gel as a collaborative group. I'm proud to serve alongside such dedicated leaders.
What has been the biggest challenge that you didn’t anticipate 100 days ago that you are facing today?
Prior to being on the ground here in Spooner, it would not have been possible for me to have a true understanding of how heavily District staff had been impacted during the past handful of years. Things like significant staff turnover, static wages and decreased benefits have made their mark. We certainly have some work to do in this area. If the District is going to provide the best possible educational experiences for its students, it has to be able to recruit and retain the best possible staff. This is no small task given the District's finances. Addressing these challenges will be a priority during the coming year.
What is the state of finances at SASD?
The District's finances continue to be a challenge. The District has been deficit spending for the last handful of years and that is likely to continue into the near-term future. The good news through the diligent work taking place in the District, the deficit has been reduced from the many hundreds of thousand dollars of a few years ago to a projected deficit we expect to be around fifty thousand dollars. This deficit reduction has taken place while providing for the first broad-based wage increase for employees in four years and a sizeable increase in health insurance premiums.
Where do you think SASD will be financially in 3 -5 years?
Shoring up the finances will be an important part of helping the District to stay competitive as we work to provide the best possible educational experiences as well as recruiting and retaining the best staff. I'm optimistic about the District's finances in the next 3-5 years. The recently passed State budget provides some new per-pupil revenue for public schools and that revenue is much welcomed in Spooner. Additionally, a sizeable amount of post-retirement financial liabilities will be paid off within this timeframe. We will be working to attract and retain more students and these efforts will have a positive impact on the District's finances.
I have heard whispers that a referendum is on the horizon. Can you confirm if this is true or not? If it is, when and to what extent would that be?
It's just too early to tell. We know that we have some significant facility needs within the District. An example is a need for something to happen with the small gym at the middle school which was closed due to structural issues. There will also need to be a significant investment into curriculum over the next 3-5 years in order to provide students with the best possible educational experiences. Strategic planning will provide an excellent opportunity to learn more about the community's vision for the educational experiences of its children. We'll have a more clear idea of the financial needs to carry out the vision in the not-too-distant future. There is no immediate plan for a referendum. Such a plan could arise as we continue to work collaboratively to set a course for moving the SASD in a positive direction in the future.
What are some of the initiatives that are likely to come up yet this school year?
The upcoming year is sure to be a busy one. It's important that the District provide curricula that are guaranteed and viable to that our students are having the types of learning experiences that will prepare them to be college and career ready when they graduate. The District needs to be able to articulate to students, parents and the community what students are expected to know and do. We'll continue that curriculum work during the upcoming year. If the Spooner Area School District is going to be competitive with other area districts, we'll need to be able to recruit and retain the best possible staff. Work on developing compensation models for all employee groups will be something we'll be working on in the not-too-distant future. There will always be more good ideas than the District has the time and resources to undertake. The strategic planning process helps to sharpen the District's focus. Engaging the community in the discussion about what they want the educational experience to be in Spooner is a critical part of the strategic planning process. We hope to begin that process early in 2018. It's easy to be excited about the good things in store for the Spooner Area School District with so much work scheduled to take place.
If you were to grade yourself (A,B,C,D, or F) on your 1st 100 days, what grade would receive and why?
That's a difficult question. Without specific criteria, I'd be hard-pressed to give myself a letter grade for my work so far. I'm going to change the dynamic up on you and go with a Pass/Fail grading scale. Under this scale, I'd give myself a grade of Pass. I'm grateful for the opportunity to serve stakeholders of the SASD and look forward to working collaboratively to address challenges as we work together to provide the best possible educational experiences for our students.
Thanks for the Chat, Dr. Aslyn.