Nelson returns to Stillwater schools; Interim superintendent reflects on changes, looks forward to work ahead

Tom Nelson sits at his desk shortly after starting as interim superintendent of Stillwater Area Schools. (Gazette staff photo by Alicia Lebens)
Tom Nelson sits at his desk shortly after starting as interim superintendent of Stillwater Area Schools. (Gazette staff photo by Alicia Lebens)

A new job means a new routine, new coworkers and a new boss. For District 834 Interim Superintendant Tom Nelson, coming back to Stillwater Area Schools was like coming back to see old friends.

“I love the district,” Nelson said. “Coming back was easy because the district is one of the better ones in the state. The people I have worked with have all been positive, with the staff and in the community.”

Nelson has spent time as a teacher, administrator, state senator, superintendant and, briefly, as the Minnesota Commissioner of Education during his long career in education. Even after officially retiring over a decade ago, he has not spent more than a few school years without stepping in as a superintendant in South Washington, Apple Valley, West St. Paul and, for the 2010-2011 school year, Stillwater.

“My friends joke that I have failed at retirement,” Nelson said. “I like to work.”

When Corey Lunn announced that he planned to leave Stillwater Area Schools after serving as superintendant since 2011, School Board Chair Tom Lehmann reached out to Nelson to fill the spot until a permanent appointment could be made.

“When Tom called, I had spent two years in retirement reading books, and spending time with children and grandchildren,” Nelson said. “After talking with my wife first, I decided to come back once more.”

After several different tenures as an interim, Nelson has been able to define the role he plays for a district.

“I see my job as keeping things going while the school looks for a new superintendant,” Nelson said.

Since Nelson was last in Stillwater, the school board has only changed slightly with the addition of Amy Burback. “I have worked with almost everyone before, and they are a good board to work for,” Nelson said. “It’s important to have a good boss, and it’s part of why I wanted to come back. It’s fun for me to work for Stillwater schools.”

Nelson does come to a district that has changed in many ways in the last four years.

“There are many new people in the district office, so it is a new group to work with,” Nelson said. “It will take a little bit of time to get to know their skills and talents.”

Nelson also pointed out that there had not been a successful referendum when he was last here, and that it will bring additional resources to the budget. He also said his role will be to carry out the next year in the strategic plan.

“There were many community members that were a part of the Bridge to Excellence plan, and we are currently working on hiring art teachers for the elementary schools as part of that plan,” Nelson said. “We are making sure to follow through on that commitment.”

Nelson said he will not be introducing any new initiatives during his time because he “won’t be around to see them.”

A part of his role as superintendant will be to provide leadership for the 2015-2016 preliminary budget, which will begin in October 2014.

“There are so many people that are part of the budget process, so I see myself more as a facilitator,” Nelson said. “It is a seven- to eight-month process to do a budget.”

Also in the next year will be the next round of contact negotiations.

“The school budget is made up of 75-80 percent personal costs, so the contract negotiations will be an important part of the budget process,” Nelson said.

The next round of state funding will not be finalized until the end of the legislative session in May or June 2015, so it is unclear how much funding the district’s budget will receive. Nelson said he plans to meet with the contract groups early to avoid another yearlong negotiation.

“Hopefully we will be able to get the next contract done sooner to allow the focus to be on the work and not on negotiations,” Nelson said.

Both community members and staff have been vocal about the issue of class size in the upcoming year, an issues that Nelson is monitoring.

“I have never been in a school district that hasn’t seen projections of some large class sizes,” Nelson said. “We don’t make decisions until we know that the projections are accurate because there is a lot of moving around during the summer.”

The equivalent of two full-time positions and $250,000 has been set aside to address class sizes in the next school year, Nelson said.

“There is no magic number,” Nelson said. “We will know more in August when the projection become more firm.”

Starting another school year in Stillwater is going to be enjoyable, Nelson said, but this year will probably be his last as an interim superintendant.

“If you are healthy and you still like coming to work, it’s going to be fun,” Nelson said. “Ask me again in 11 months, and I’m going to say it was a great experience.”

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]