Wausau Daily Herald
05/01/2017 - Page A01
Superintendent will leave behind legacy after steering district past challenges
NORA G. HERTEL
USA TODAY NETWORK-WISCONSIN
WAUSAU - Kathleen Williams did not keep hobbies over her seven years as the superintendent of Wausau schools, or her full 46 years in education.
Early in her career, Williams split time between her two children and her profession, which evolved from teacher to principal to superintendent. As one of the first women to become a school administrator in northern Illinois in the early 1980s, Williams felt she was under scrutiny.
"I had in my mind that I needed to work harder than my male counterparts, needed to be aware of how I dressed and behaved," Williams said. But she also wanted to be a supermom.
"I really never developed or had the time to develop avocations. If I had free time I was reading about education research," Williams said. She made time to attend community events, but as a school district leader, even that was, in a way, part of her job.
Now at age 67, Williams will retire in June from the Wausau School District and spend time with her family. She said it’s been an honor, but she looks forward to relief from the heavy responsibility of keeping a district of students and staff safe and "preparing them for a future that’s constantly changing."
Williams came to Wausau in 2010 after leaving a job as a superintendent in Des Plaines, Illinois. In an interview last week, she looked back with USA TODAY NETWORK- Wisconsin on her tenure in Wausau and a career she passionately pursued for four decades.
As Wausau superintendent, Williams spurred a $29.6 million building referendum supported by voters that funded updates to six district schools. She helped put tablets or other devices in all student’s hands by updating the district technology plan and implementing it even after a related funding referendum failed. She went to China to support a new exchange
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program that brought four, tuition-paying Chinese students to Wausau West High School this year. And she joined the Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce’s board to help strengthen the tie between business and education in the community.
Williams is tall, with straight posture and a blonde bob. Her speech is serious and measured , and she gestures and smiles to emphasize certain points. When she started as Wausau superintendent, Williams visited every class in the Wausau School District. And in early 2011 she held an education summit with people from throughout the district and community to establish a list of shared key interests, which became the basis of much of her work as superintendent.
"I have a strong belief that before you make a decision, you engage the people in the process who will be most impacted by the decision," Williams said.
Her leadership style relies on collaboration and data. In her seven years in Wausau, the district closed a school, redrew district boundary lines and passed a funding referendum. Those are three of the toughest challenges for any superintendent, she said.
She also served at the helm during the upheaval of Act 10, the state law that ended collective bargaining for teachers. And with input from teachers, she and staff developed and implemented a new pay program that affects all teachers. Williams deftly navigated these and other political challenges, maintaining a good relationship with the school board and staying responsive to her different constituencies — teachers, parents, taxpayers.
Not all teachers support the compensation system, though. And the new payment structure has hurt teacher morale, according to Kevin Kreig, vice president of the Wausau Education Association and a teacher at the Enrich, Excel, Achieve Learning Academy.
Kreig agrees Williams has a collaborative style, but "the outcomes have really been predetermined," he said. "The level of input and the level of listening has been problematic."
Many of Wausau’s experienced teachers have hit a wall in the payment model until they get a second master’s or a doctorate degree, Kreig said.
Williams weathered other controversies in her Wausau tenure. And how she managed them set an example for other superintendents, said Jon Bales, executive director of Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. Williams has been a mentor for other superintendents in the state, including some in that role for the first time, Bales said. She’s professional, well-read and well-spoken, he said.
"I think she’s navigated what I call tense situations or conflict situations very well by being very principled," Bales said.
In 2013 the district erupted in controversy over limits on religious music in school concerts. The limits were revoked by the board the same year, but the incident caused such controversy that the district hired an outside law firm to investigate what happened. In 2016 Williams’ administration tapped the Wausau School Board to debate whether to let transgender students use the bathroom of their choice as instructed by then-President Barack Obama’s administration in now-revoked guidelines.
Parent Julie Kobin appreciates Williams’ sensitivity to student individuality and her ability to consider multiple perspectives, as shown in her management of those debates, Kobin said. She has two daughters at Hawthorn Hills Elementary and one at Horace Mann Middle School. "I appreciated that she was open to having a conversation with a parent," said Kobin, who met with Williams after Kobin joined a panel organized by the state Department of Public Instruction. "She made the time to hear about the Parent Advisory Council and also to hear my opinion on how we could use some of those tools from the DPI in Wausau."
The district looks different since Williams came aboard. The A.C. Kiefer Educational Center closed and the district’s pre-kindergarten classes moved to new spaces at four district elementary schools. The high schools have large additions and renovated space with donated equipment to teach kids about welding, auto repair and other in-demand skills. The projects are a testament to public-private partnership and Williams’ painstaking process of developing shared interests and building consensus.
"Our community said we needed this," Williams said of the high school upgrades. "We definitely delivered."
In the process of upgrading the district school buildings, Williams made sure officials looked at safety measures, even before a shooter at Sandy Hook elementary school killed 20 students and six staff. School Board President Lance Trollop said Williams’ strength is her process. "She has a leadership style where she doesn’t just issue orders," Trollop said. The 2015 building referendum was a big achievement, he said. But it took five years to get there with task forces, research, consultations with experts and a community survey. "Often times the process of how you get to an end result is just as important as the end result," Trollop said. In the midst of controversial decisions you can fall back on the decision- making process if it’s done right, as with the boundary changes, he said. The school board will likely appoint an interim superintendent and hire a search firm to determine candidates to replace Williams, Trollop said. Her contract ends late June.
Williams feels it’s a good time for her and the district to make this transition.
"You don’t stay in education because it’s a career move. For me, it’s been my passion," she said. "And as difficult, as trying and as challenging as the superintendency can be, it is bar none the most inspiring opportunity I could have ever hoped to have in my entire life."
Nora G. Hertel: nora. hertel@gannettwisconsin. com or 715-845-0665; on Twitter @nghertel.