After retiring six years ago, Jeff Olson wasn’t expecting to be the St. Peter Public Schools superintendent for 2019-20.
“I expected I was into retirement and just doing some consulting work,” Olson said. “And that was keeping me busy enough, and life was moving on. And then I started hearing about (Former St. Peter Superintendent Paul Peterson) going to Mankato (starting in 2019-20), and the School Board started wondering about an interim.”
He came back, because he still had an attachment to the school district where he spent so many years before.
“I had a vested interest in the school district in a number of ways; I had spent nearly 40 years in it,” he said. “I was a believer in the St. Peter school system, staff and students. The second vested interest was seven grandchildren in the district. What a unique opportunity to jump in and keep the district moving forward.”
Olson will now step down from the position for the second time, making way for Bill Gronseth, who the St. Peter School Board hired to be the superintendent of the future for the district. Gronseth comes with an ample resume, having helmed Duluth Public Schools for the last eight years. Olson feels the district is in good hands.
“I’m really pleased with the selection of Mr. Gronseth as the incoming superintendent of schools,” Olson said. “The process was carried out with public input, stakeholder engagement; those are very important components. It’s good for the district to get a new perspective and a new set of eyes; we’ve had internal hires for almost the last 50 years.”
Beyond the superintendent hire, Olson, his team and the School Board had some other lofty goals for the 2019-20 school year. They made progress, but the COVID-19 pandemic also caused a lot of interruption. For instance, the district hoped to stabilize funding for programming and services into the future by putting forth a new operating levy to voters.
“Early on, the plan was an operating referendum this fall 2020. What kind of moves needed to be made to ensure the long range outlet was solid,” Olson said. “The decision has been made to hold off for a variety of good reasons. One, with the pandemic, we don’t know what kind of instructional scenario the district will be in this fall. There is also a lot of uncertainty with the economy. It just seemed like it might not be the best time for a new operating referendum.
The current operating levy, which supports school programming with extra dollars from the local community, is authorized through the 2021-22 school year. In order to avoid a gap in funding, the district will need to see a new levy approved by fall 2021.
Another big goal for the district in 2019-20 was successfully implementing two major curriculum changes in elementary reading and K-8 math. It went well, for the most part, Olson said, but the pandemic impaired the ability to analyze the outcomes.
“There was very good feedback, but the drawback to everything is that we didn’t get to collect data, because the whole assessment system shut down,” Olson said. “The early data were trending in the right direction. That implementation will continue into next year.”
A goal that wasn’t impacted so severely by the pandemic was enhanced equity and inclusion.
“We implemented a number of data gathering points, including equity walks across the district. There is an equity dashboard in development in the district. The establishment of a professional development program called Life’s Journey; the administrative team and teachers will participate in that. The creation of equity goals now in their draft stages,” Olson said. “A lot of foundational work.”
Going forward, Olson sees effectively dealing with increased diversity as a major challenge for the district, but also an opportunity. In the more immediate future, he sees the return to school, during or after a pandemic, as the most pressing issue. He noted the district will need to be prepared for a variety of scenarios, both looking at the overall picture and individual families.
But overall, he has a very positive outlook for the district’s future under Gronseth’s leadership. And as he proved in 2019-20, Olson is willing to step in whenever needed: “I’m a phone call away.”