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Retiring River Falls superintendent ready for a less-definable future

Tom Westerhaus will retire at month’s end. Known for his on-the-job drive and passion, Westerhaus jokes that some predict he’ll “go stir crazy in retirement.” Phil Pfuehler photo

Soon Tom Westerhaus can kick back and reflect on more than four decades in education as a teacher and administrator.

His last day on the job as River Falls school superintendent before taking vacation and then retiring is Friday, June 21.

And then?               

“Well, I have to work on guilt reduction – guilt of not working, not accomplishing,” Westerhaus says. “But I know one thing: I won’t be superintendent making decisions anymore.”

That’s true. Those decisions in River Falls will be made by his successor Jamie Benson, now wrapping up as school superintendent in Spring Green.

Westerhaus made clear during the June 8 high school commencement speech that his retirement is about age and making way for the next generation of administrators.

He said the next generation -- led by Benson -- will need to oversee a new set of standardized student assessment tests in 2014-15, plus upcoming mandates like “educator effectiveness” and “performance compensation” that measure teacher’s abilities and pay them accordingly. 

A recent newspaper story about Westerhaus’s retirement  in the Twin Cities emphasized his fatigue over handling student and staff tragedies, and the political fallout from Wisconsin’s new collective bargaining restrictions.

Westerhaus won’t deny feeling the pressure from a rash of sudden tragedies, including deaths, murders and suicides. He even points out that the 2012-13 school year began with the trauma of a bus running over and injuring a student.

“So, yes, we’ve had our share of recent tragedies and sad occurrences, but working through those is part of my job, and I accept that responsibility,” Westerhaus said. “I am of retirement age. Having been the go-to-guy for the last 34 years -- as a superintendent and administrator – is exciting but also draining. You have all the night meetings, being on call 24/7, and that wears you down.”

Westerhaus gave some impressions of being River Falls superintendent.

“I was surprised after I got here to see the importance people attached to the position of superintendent. It was almost like being put on a pedestal,” he said. “When a superintendent attends an event here, it seems to raise the level of importance for that event.

“I hadn’t expected such a reaction, and I think part of that is due to how important education is viewed by members of this community.”

Westerhaus added that to earn people’s respect as a superintendent, “I still had to earn my stripes.”

Westerhaus said he was “blown away” by the steady feedback to his twice-monthly column in the Journal, “Your Public Schools: Everybody’s Business.” Westerhaus said he’s written newspaper school columns before, but never gotten the volume of response – both pro and con -- as in River Falls.

“I can tell you I never felt ignored,” he says. “That kept me going, wanting to share more about what was happening in our schools and the educational world.”

Westerhaus also was surprised by the range of views in River Falls.

“It encompasses a very wide spectrum, with extremes on both ends,” he said.

For instance, he said older students in the district are allowed to observe the  Day of Silence in solidarity with gays and lesbians to protest bullying and harassment. However that annual observance also triggers “hostile calls” from citizens and parents.

Westerhaus believes a growing sense of trust has been built the last five years in the district between staff, administrators and school board, and extending to citizens in the community.

He said “building trust” was needed because many perceived it was lacking when he started as superintendent.

Westerhaus said the school district’s overall attitude has changed, going from a sense of being “settlers” satisfied with the status quo and being just good, to becoming “pioneers” striving to be the very best and embracing innovations and new technologies.

He said acting on innovations and new technologies is expected because the Strategic Plan – one that he helped set up – puts a framework in place to encourage such actions.

For the complete story on Tom Westerhaus, please see the June 20 print edition of the River Falls Journal.