WAUPUN — It’s hard to determine who will miss each other more, residents of the Waupun School District or departing Superintendent Tonya Olson.
Olson led a $36 million expansion and remodeling referendum while consistently being a friend to students, staff and community members. She is leaving for a job as an elementary school principal in Belleville.
Olson, formerly Tonya Gubin, graduated from Mayville High School and began her career in education teaching several grade levels at St. Stephen’s School in Horicon. She then took a job as a reading and fourth-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School in Beaver Dam. She eventually became the language arts coordinator for the Beaver Dam School District and the principal at Lincoln School. She began her job as superintendent of the Waupun School District six years ago.
“I made my way around Dodge County,” she said.
Shortly after she was hired as superintendent, she obtained her doctorate in educational leadership.
“The staff and the kids just call me Tonya,” she said. “It’s different when you’re not the principal or not their teacher. You’re one step removed from being addressed formally, which has made our interactions more personal and more fun. I see the kids in sports and interacting on Twitter. I also see the seniors as part of their Senior Democratic Survey when I’m driving them to Madison to make a donation or something like that. Not too many people call me Dr. Olson.”
Olson said there is a fine line between being a friend and being the hard-nosed business leader.
“I can’t say that being close with my staff and students hasn’t impacted some of my decisions, but many hard choices are made with the budget in mind,” Olson said. “People understand that. I care about making hard decisions. It affects me greatly because I know it impacts people’s families. I don’t always like it, but I still have to do my job.”
Being a mentor to students was, and still remains, one of her top priorities.
“I taught in the classroom for 15 of my 25 years in education,” she said. “What’s near and dear to my soul is the importance of adult mentorship in children’s lives. We see again and again how much one adult can have an impact on students’ lives. I like keeping in contact with the students and talking one-on-one with them, and checking up on them and being involved.”
Her job rarely was limited to a typical 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. school day. Olson was often called in early and held late attending student activities, going to school board and committee meetings, attending Rotary and Kiwanis meetings and events, and being involved in the community.
People saw her dedication and responded to it, especially during the years before the $36 million referendum passed, leading to work that was completed this summer.
“By being involved and out in the community, you get to know a lot of people,” Olson said. “A lot of people talked to me before the referendum and let me know what they’re passionate about. The most important thing is that you have to listen to them. There’s a danger that when you’re involved in something, you think you know everything about it.”
Olson considers the referendum approval a high point in her career, while the saddest moment was the funeral in the school commons and gymnasium for physical education teacher Kevin DeBoer. As Waupun’s varsity baseball coach, DeBoer led the Warriors to a WIAA Division 2 state championship in 2007 (a feat repeated this year by his former player and assistant, Derrick Standke).
“There was such an outpouring of support for the family and it was especially hard for the high school teachers,” Olson said. “That has really come full circle with the boys team winning another Division 2 state championship on Thursday. The boys wore his number on the side of their hats this year as a tribute.”
Olson married Dan Olson, superintendent of the Monona Grove School District, last year. Her new job in Belleville will allow her to see her husband more, without either of them having to make a long commute.
“Leaving is bittersweet for me,” Olson said. “I’m certainly going to miss everybody here and wish I could be here for the school openings in the fall. I’ll certainly come back for the open houses. I’m also grateful to be leaving on a high note.”