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Administrator Whitsell counts days to retirement

Wisconsin Dells School District Superintendent Chuck Whitsell took his current job eight years ago, and he leaves it after helping the district through a number of changes.

Whitsell, 62, has seen the community embrace referendums for additional education funding and an addition to Spring Hill School. He was there for the implementation of full-day kindergarten and 4-year-old kindergarten. He has seen the most recent budget challenges at the state and credits employees for their willingness to take cuts in benefits to help the district balance its budget.

When asked if he felt he was a referee between the school board, schools and the community, he said that wasn't the right term. In large part the community has really supported the schools well, he said.

"My job, I believe, is first and foremost to make sure every kid has a good educational opportunity here in the school district. We're a people business. And when people don't get along, when people don't work together, it affects what happens in classrooms and it affects student learning," Whitsell said Wednesday during an interview at the district's central office.

Whitsell's last day as superintendent is June 30. He gained applause earlier this month from an audience filled with both teachers and support staff at the staff recognition program, and Dells School Board President Bob McClyman lauded Whitsell then and again in a phone interview.

"I've learned to work with him....I like his willingness to make a decision and defend it. He has done a great job that way for us as a leader. He was a very good leader. He led us out of a troubled time into I feel we're a very good educational institution at the moment," McClyman said.

Whitsell taught world history at Reedsburg High School in 1972. He said in 1980 he almost went into insurance sales when he had a chance meeting with the Reedsburg middle school principal while timing a track meet. The middle school principal encouraged him to take a job as an assistant principal. Whitsell said he already had a master's degree in guidance and counseling and went to Winona State to get qualified as an administrator.

Later he was principal at the middle school in Reedsburg, then assistant superintendent at Reedsburg, and finally a superintendent in 1995 in Waterloo.

Whitsell said he's never stayed at the same job for more than eight years.

"Reedsburg was really a good place for me. I got a chance to do a variety of jobs. I think the board and the different administrators had a lot of faith in me, and my work ethic, and my ability. And they gave me a chance," he said.

Then Waterloo allowed him to start new with a group of people, which everyone needs once in a while, he said.

Eventually there was an opening in Wisconsin Dells for a superintendent, and former Dells School Board President Dave Schulz, who also has ties to Reedsburg through his car dealership there, encouraged him to apply, Whitsell said.

Waterloo was a smaller district but was a community of good people, he said.

"I kind of feel the same way here. I think it was a good change for me. I think if I would have stayed in Waterloo with all the challenges in budget, really those things have surfaced in the last 10 years, so I would have faced the same things there. None of which are a lot of fun. But everybody's dealing with that stuff right now," Whitsell said.

He said he sought different challenges by the time he came to the Dells. Then he gave a vote of confidence to his successor, Terrance Slack, who starts July 1.

"Nobody's irreplaceable, and I certainly don't consider myself that way, in that way at all. From my perspective I think they've got a good person coming in here in Terry Slack, and I expect he's going to do a real good job," Whitsell said.

Whitsell said education is changing, and changes are challenging for schools.

Staff is already putting students' grades and the courses they've taken and from which teacher into a computer database that the state can access in what Whitsell called a "high profile accountability system." On the one hand, it should help schools help teachers improve, he said.

Also, with the state adopting the common core curriculum states will be able to compare achievement across states, he said.

Technology is going to be an ever expanding part of education, with Promethean boards and a move toward using cell phones, which used to be prohibited, in classroom lessons.

Whitsell also predicts school funding will change, and added he likes the state Superintendent Tony Evers' Fair Funding for our Future plan that would account for student poverty in distributing state aid.

He also said more education is moving online and that more charter schools may develop. Although, he said he dislikes public-paid vouchers to private schools since there is no information showing that students are excelling in those schools.

His decision to end his job as superintendent in the Dells wasn't made because of unpleasant aspects of the job, such as sorting out what happened after two students were separated from the rest of a group traveling to Paris. The yearning to play golf and travel to New Mexico for a hot air balloon festival and tour of the Grand Canyon are major factors in his decision, too, he said. Additionally, he wants time to watch his 15-year-old granddaughter compete in volleyball. He'll miss the rewarding parts of the job that he said were receiving e-mails from staff telling him how another student in an alternative education program at risk of not graduating did earn a high school diploma after all. That news makes the job worth it, he said.

Whitsell said he plans to continue living at Christmas Mountain in Dellona for now. He said he may consider taking a temporary superintendent job, but only after he's had six months off. Sometime in the future he and his wife, Kathie, might relocate to the Milwaukee area where they have two adult children, he said.