Lodi area residents, students and faculty members had the chance to talk with the three district administrator candidates at a forum on Feb. 25 at Lodi High School.

Each candidate had an hour to speak and answer questions from the public, as well as an hour with the School Board and a team of staff and parents. Those interviewing for the position include Lodi High School principal Vince Breunig, Baraboo School District director of teaching and learning Nicholas Karls and Sun Prairie High School principal Keith Nerby.

Below is a summary of the candidate interviews with answers to some of the questions asked that evening.

Vince Breunig

Breunig graduated from Sauk Prairie High School and went to UW-Stevens Point for his bachelor’s degree, then got his master’s at UW-La Crosse to become a school psychologist.

He spent four years as a school psychologist in Wisconsin Heights and spent another seven as their principal. He came to Lodi in 2008 as director of student services and has been the Lodi High School principal for the last 10 years.

Breunig described himself as a collaborator who works with staff to talk about the district’s successes and barriers. He said the key to effective leadership is effective communication.

“Those who know me know I’m focused on learning and student outcomes,” Breunig said. “Not only just academic outcomes but also social and emotional behavioral outcomes.”

He also said when he started his career, his goal was never to be a student administrator. However, Breunig said he’s been in education long enough to know what happens when a district doesn’t have a great leader. Breunig believes he can be the dedicated leader for Lodi.

Having been in the district for a number of years, what changes would you like to work on and what changes would you like to see?

Breunig said he would like to see the board go through a visioning process to see where the community wants this district to go, something he said hasn’t been done in awhile. He mentioned the community showing pushback on recent initiatives and it would be good for the School Board to go through this process.

What do you feel sets you apart from the other candidates?

Breunig said his experience in school administration for 19 years sets him apart from Karls and Nerby. He also believes living in the Lodi community is a strength and helps contribute to continuity in a district.

Why do you feel you are the best candidate for this position?

Speaking honestly, he said he didn’t know if he was the best candidate. Breunig said if you would have asked him four years ago, he would have said he had no interest in being superintendent.

“I just feel so committed to this school district and committed to this community that I really want to make sure that whatever happens here is the best for our district,” he said.

Breunig said he has contributed to work on curriculum district wide. He has also been a part of changing the high school schedule, safety training with ALICE, safety protocols for students as well as working closely with the other administrators in the high school.

We have many students with diverse mental health issues. Do you feel the superintendent role has a direct role in supporting social and emotional learning in the district?

Breunig said the superintendent has to be the instructional leader in the district. He said he’s working closely with the student services director to support those efforts.

“It’s directly supporting the people that do that and I think that’s definitely the role the superintendent needs to play,” he said. “That’s going to continue to grow. I think our staff has more social and emotional needs.”

Under your leadership as a high school principal, you have wildly overfocused on testing, test scores, prescriptive curriculum and AP courses. As superintendent will your focus on and reliance on testing remain a fundamental part of your education vision, value and world view?

Breunig said, for several years, Lodi’s test scores were consistently below the state average. After having discussions and by primarily looking at testing, he said Lodi’s ACT scores have significantly improved.

He said now he talks with students and staff to make sure Lodi is adequately preparing them for life after high school. Breunig said the district needs to make sure there are standards in place and that the district is meeting all the important learning targets that a student should know.

“Will my focus be on test scores? No. It’s not now, he said. “I look at how they’re doing academically, how they’re doing socially, how they’re doing behaviorally.”

Teachers are this district’s most valuable asset. What will you do to retain and attract teachers?

While he hasn’t been directly involved in the hiring process in Lodi, Breunig said he’s making sure the district is doing everything to hire the best teachers. He said he will work to reduce barriers that are in the way for teachers by meeting with them district wide, working with them and getting feedback.

Breunig said he plans to look at onboarding and the curriculum in place the district has for teachers, as well as having support in place throughout the year.

Regarding the old primary school, would you have done anything different? (i.e., the sale of the building)

Breunig said he knows there were some hard feelings after the sale of the old primary school and believes it is worth going back to revisit this process to see how it was done.

“I think there needs to be mending offenses, not only with that part of the community but with the city,” he said.

He said he would visit the city and other municipalities to learn more about other issues that are going on. Breunig personally invited the mayoral candidates to the district’s vaping and e-cigarette presentation recently to have them learn more about current issues in the school district.

Nicholas Karls

Nicholas Karls attended UW-Whitewater and began his teaching career working as a third-grade teacher in the Baraboo School District. He went on to receive his master’s degree and principal license and became an elementary principal in Baraboo. He is currently serving as the director of teaching and learning.

Karls said he hopes the public sees him as an investment the community made many years ago when he was a young man growing up in Lodi. He reflected on the teachers and staff that shaped him into the leader he is today.

“I was able to utilize the skills I learned here in the Lodi School District to develop strong relationships, to develop strong expectations,” Karls said.

Karls spoke about the “incredible opportunities” he has working in education and to serve students in need. He said to serve individuals in the Lodi community and the Lodi School District would be the ultimate job for him and this is where he wants to be.

What sets you apart from the other two candidates?

Karls said he recognizes the Lodi school system is more than Lodi High School. He said he comes from a position who works on a daily basis with educators of all levels and understands the K-12 systems “to ensure there’s vertical alignment.”

He said he’s building for the future at every level, and can bring those skills to Lodi. From a budget standpoint as a director, Karls said he handles a greater responsibility by overseeing a curriculum budget.

“I oversee that through a lot of teacher, leader feedback,” he said. “How do we go through a whole system to ensure we’re getting feedback from teachers about where those budget dollars go.”

What experiences have you been through that you’ll bring to Lodi? Include one positive and one negative you learned from it.

Speaking positively, Karls talked about his work in creating strategic plans for the district. He said his process is to hear from a variety of stakeholder groups and ask questions about this district’s strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats. Afterwards, he looks to identify themes and “attack” them.

For example, he said he has worked with the Ho-Chunk nation to include more of their culture and heritage into the district by adding a Ho-Chunk language course (and soon-to-be second course) and hanging Ho-Chunk flags outside the high school.

On the other end, Karls talked about his experience handling a Baraboo School District incident last year involving a photo of a group of students doing a Nazi salute, which he said turned Baraboo into a “lightning rod for that rage” on a global scale.

“Nonetheless, you have an administrator in front of you who’s been through that and knows what it takes to lead through that,” he said. “It starts with caring for your people. Your community is going to need your support when something happens.”

What can you do to improve the salaries for teachers and non-teacher staff?

Karls said it starts with recognizing where the district is at and how the district’s school funding model works. He said he would start by identifying what Lodi values as a system, such as incentivizing certifications or valuing longevity.

He said there is a competitive marketplace for teacher salary structures, which is helping to increase salaries. He said he would look into how Lodi will keep itself competitive while also honoring those who have been in the system.

Why do you want to become district administrator?

Karls said this position would allow him to help the community that gave to him as a kid and believe his experience would make him a good fit for this position.

“There’s also this piece, this nagging part in the back of my brain, ‘gosh this would be amazing to do this for Lodi,’’’ he said. “It would be amazing to do this for the place I learned so much. I learned a lot about values and hard work and how to treat people. To give back to that, would be the ultimate highlight in my life.”

Teachers are this district’s most valuable asset. What will you do to retain and attract teachers?

He said it starts with honoring the people in the school system every day. He tries to go to each of Baraboo’s four schools in the morning and talk with teachers about anything they may need from him.

“It’s in those moments when we’re one on one that we can have some deep conversations,” Karls said. “I learn things I would have otherwise not known. Those are some habits I’ve developed I would bring in this role to help honor teachers, to support teachers, to retain teachers.”

He said he would also look to build leadership opportunities for educators. In Baraboo, they created instructional coaching positions for educators. Karls said teachers who take on these positions rarely leave the district and fulfill their need to take on a leadership role.

A lot of leaders make decisions without stepping foot in a classroom. How important is it for you to be visible in the schools and classrooms?

Karls said the Baraboo School District created a schedule that allows teachers to request him or his assistant to come do a lesson. In Baraboo, he said he fills in for a variety of classes as needed—from tech education to English language arts to social studies.

“For an administrator to step in and try to teach with those resources gives you a completely different perspective,” Karls said.

He said he would also attend a Ho-Chunk student support group after school and help tutor and provide academic support to the group. He said this is another added opportunity for him to connect with students in the classroom.

Keith Nerby

Keith Nerby received his bachelor’s degree in business and marketing education from UW-Whitewater and began as a career and technical education teacher in Kenosha. He went on to receive his master’s from National Louis University in education leadership.

Afterwards, Nerby started working in administration and spent four years as an associate principal at Hamilton Sussex High School before working for another two years as the middle school principal in Burlington. He has been in Sun Prairie for the last five years as their high school principal. He is currently working on completing his doctorate at Cardinal Stritch University.

What do you feel sets you apart from the other two candidates?

After working in Kenosha, Waukesha County and being a leader in a variety of grades, Nerby said he has varying experiences from around Wisconsin and can use it to lead staff and students. He has been a part of Sun Prairie, the fastest growing school district in Wisconsin, as well as Burlington, which he said was losing enrollment while he was there.

“I have experiences seeing what that means and how to accomplish those goals,” Nerby said. “I have to keep the focus on students. I feel like I bring a lot of opportunities and experiences.”

Why do you want to become district administrator?

Along with being able to make a greater impact, he said Lodi is in a prime spot as far as the opportunities that are afforded the students in the community. Nerby believes his administrative experience would fit in well in Lodi and he can “help lead an entire district into the vision of what a community is looking for.”

“I think when you look at the school system, I think the opportunities are amazing for our students so I would love to be part of that and I’d love for my own children to be part of that as well,” he said.

What are your greatest professional strengths?

Nerby said communication and building community is his strong suit. In his current role, he’s most proud of his student, parent and staff engagement scores consistently going up each year.

“As a leader, I’m able to create a positive culture, a positive climate for all three stakeholders, which is pretty hard to do,” he said.

He said staff spent a number of hours on behalf of the community and the students and has strived to make sure they have an enjoyable experience in the district and to become immersed in the culture. By working on this, he said Sun Prairie has seen an increase in academic success based on the engagement of the students, staff and parents.

Teachers are this district’s most valuable asset. What will you do to retain and attract teachers?

First thing he said he will do is listen. He plans on holding listening sessions to learn more about the positive changes and successes going on in Lodi and how he can continue and expand those opportunities. Nerby also plans to listen to concerns and what areas he will need to focus on coming in as district administrator and how he can work with staff and administration to achieve new goals.

“I know as a superintendent there are decisions I’m going to have to make, whether it’s policy or law,” Nerby said. “Whenever possible, I try to bring the people in who are going to be impacted by the decisions. If we’re going to do something, I want to bring teacher voice, staff voice, into those decisions as much as possible.”

When it comes to the Lodi community, Nerby is planning the same approach and will be looking at ways to better partnerships with businesses in the community and the other resources of the district.

A lot of leaders make decisions without stepping foot in a classroom. How important is it for you to be visible in the schools and classrooms?

Nerby calls the classroom his “happy place” and believes the focus for the district administrator is the students in the classroom. He said he tries to be as present as possible and connect with students in the school. He said he looks to go act on a “by name, by face” basis.

“When I have a rough day, I know what I want to do more than anything is get inside a classroom and see our students learning, see our staff doing great learning. When I talk about by name, by face, when I’m district administrator, I’m going to be the same way,” he said. “I need to know someone and be able to ask them about the basketball game or the baseball game, the FFA event they had. I think that really resonates with people. I can’t do that by sitting in an office and not being out and about.”

What do you feel the district’s responsibility is with transparency in respect to the press?

Nerby said being genuine, open and honest is always critical and believes it’s important to have a strong partnership with the press and the community.

“We benefit each other,” he said. “I think that only works when there’s a trust factor and there’s an authenticity with each other. Not just press but families.”

The Lodi School Board held a closed session meeting on Wednesday, March 4 to review the proposed contract for the district administrator candidate. Board President Sue Miller told The Lodi Enterprise they will likely make an announcement at the end of week about the chosen candidate.

Editor’s note: Keith Nerby’s answers are from a direct interview with The Lodi Enterprise and not from the candidate forum.

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