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Back in the Game

Longtime administrator Attila J. Weninger emerges from retirement to turn around an ailing district.
Sitting in a hallway, Weninger listens to students in the McKinley Center Student Council discuss a project to market the school store, which sells basic school supplies, like specialty erasers and magnets, and lightboards for the inside of school lockers.

In 2010, Attila J. Weninger was 61 and ready to retire. But he received a phone call. A recruitment firm hired by the Stevens Point (Wis.) Area Public School District called on Weninger to help the troubled district, which faced budget problems, vacancies in top cabinet positions, and two previously failed referendums.

It was in sore need of new leadership and direction, and the district wanted his experience as a teacher, a principal, and a superintendent, and his history of working with unions. “The district was in a fair amount of turmoil and its superintendent and several key employees had just left,” recalls Weninger. And within a month, he became interim superintendent for one year. And stayed.

Before Weninger started the 2010-2011 school year, he was handed a list of 49 “Do Now” projects. It meant foregoing favorite pastimes like running, cycling, and watching his beloved Chicago Bears on TV. “I don’t back away easily from challenges, particularly when it comes to doing the right thing for kids,” he explains. “This district had a number of things going for it, and I felt that I could provide the necessary leadership to carry it forward, at least on an interim basis.”

Making the Grade

weninger 1Weninger was born in Salzburg, Austria, to a Hungarian father and an Austrian mother. He grew up in Cleveland and attended minor seminaries in Pennsylvania and Missouri, and college seminary in Illinois. He was an English major who earned his bachelor of arts degree (magna cum laude) from Michigan State University, and attained his master’s degree in English and a doctorate degree from Northwestern University.

Weninger was a former superintendent of Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 in Oak Park, Ill. And his earlier experience as director of human resources for Lyons Township High School in LaGrange, Ill., proved valuable in his new role, where just a few months into the job he was negotiating a teacher’s union contract with the Stevens Point Area Education Association (SPAEA) that was facing scrutiny at the state and local levels.

Even though a new contract was in place, a new state law forced districts to renegotiate. Wisconsin’s Act 10, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, impacted the state’s educational system by changing how collective bargaining, compensation, retirement, pension, health insurance and other processes are managed. For example, the bill requires state, school district, and municipal employees to contribute 50 percent of their annual pension payments (previously they paid little or nothing toward their pensions). “When I walked in we were dealing with two failed referendums, a district that wanted to freeze salaries, and diminishing relationships between local taxpayers and the union—then Act 10 hit,” says Weninger. “It was literally a perfect storm.”

Tackling the To-Do List

On his to-do list, he addressed the lack of morale and trust within the district, in part by hosting a back-to-school event to get all employees kicking off the school year as a united team; poor administrative communications; and poor communication with the community. There were also budgetary issues to manage, such as a new cut of $8 million from an already-tight budget, and empty administrative seats to fill.

During the back-to-school event, Weninger acknowledged the district’s challenges while also putting the spotlight on the students and their potential. “If we can focus on the kids and their potential we can overcome these issues,” he told the crowd, “but we all have to be willing to change the focus.”

To create strong ties to the community, Weninger created a “Partner in the Community” program to recognize individuals and companies supporting the district.

Other key changes Weninger has made include holding monthly leadership team meetings with the district’s directors of student services, business services, human resources, secondary and elementary education; and visits with 12 individual school staffs to enhance communication.

The district also developed a single employee manual to replace six collective bargaining agreements and two additional employee group manuals. “We spent an entire year in listening sessions,” says Keith Williams, human resources director, “and talking to 15 to 20 employees at a time about the parts of the previous collective bargaining agreement that were valuable and which parts needed to be changed.”

Making the Tough Decisions

weninger w teacherMeanwhile, back in the superintendent’s office, more changes were taking place. Weninger was assembling a dream team to fill the vacancies in his department, where Greg Nyen, director of student services, was the last member of the previous administrative team. Nyen says most of the district offices were working in a largely siloed, disjointed manner prior to his appointment. Nyen says he was instantly energized by Weninger’s determination to develop as a cohesive team and establish norms, protocols, and processes that could be replicated districtwide.

Thomas R. Owens, the new director of business services, for example, filled a high-turnover position in a department where each new administrator had a different idea of doing things. A recently retired business manager, Owens joined the district on an interim basis in October 2010. And balancing the district budget was one of Owens’ first tasks. Renae Sheibley, former board president and a current board member, adds that Weninger came in at a difficult time.

“We had a strong academic reputation, but the revenue caps implemented in 1993 had taken their toll,” recalls Sheibley, explaining that Wisconsin Act 16 capped the revenue that districts could raise from property taxes and state aid at 1992-1993 levels. Owens scoured the budget and looked at where every dollar was going. “We took those findings to the school board and pointed out areas where we could save without cutting programs or personnel,” Weninger says.

For example, the community relations position, worth about $39,500 a year, was cut and replaced with a parent volunteer in the communication liaison program. Additional cuts included eliminating school technology resource coordinators ($18,489 in annual savings), laying off one bus mechanic ($60,000), reducing buildings and grounds maintenance expenses ($500,000), and tapping an existing district fund balance to pay off long-term debt ($527,000 in annual interest savings).

There were also academic changes, which paid off. Last fall, four schools met the new Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Examination benchmarks and the rest exceeded those requirements.

A Work in Progress

To date, Weninger is working on 47 “completed and continuing” tasks on his initial to-do list and has finished five of them. The district has balanced its budget for two consecutive years (even with $4 million in state aid reductions), for example, but due to state-level issues and lawsuits pending on the constitutionality of Act 10, the district’s negotiations with the teacher’s union have temporarily stalled.

SPAEA President Pat Leahy is hoping for resolution, but points out that “the school board has different goals than our association does.” Despite that obstacle, Leahy says Weninger has been working well with the board to resolve issues.

Weninger, who now works for the district on a two-year “rolling contract” basis, says he’s “laser-focused” on working through union issues and other tasks still on his plate, like developing a Facebook page, finding more grant opportunities, and resolving lingering, employee-related trust issues. To address the latter, Weninger says his team is developing a Human Resources Staff Advisory Council to help rebuild communication among employees, management, and the board.

“We want to work together in ways that the district never has before,” says Weninger, “all with an eye on helping our students grow, achieve, and prosper. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer based in Florida.