Site visit was excellent, but will district have to show him the money?

    At a special meeting Tuesday, the Crookston School Board enthusiastically threw its support behind hiring Jeremy Olson as the school district’s new superintendent, and the goal is to wrap up negotiations on a contract with Olson before a scheduled negotiations meeting late Wednesday afternoon.

    While everyone, including Olson, is confident a deal will get done, Board Chair Frank Fee said the board needs to prepare for Olson’s starting annual salary to be more than retiring Superintendent Chris Bates is making.

    In the literature advertising the position, the salary range was in the $136,000 per year vicinity. Board members gave the board members who will negotiate with Olson – Fee, Kari Miller and Tim Dufault – some “wiggle room” on salary in order to better the chances of sealing the deal. While Fee said that Olson told him during a visit last Friday that he doesn’t want agreeing to a contract to be “about the money,” Fee did say at Tuesday’s meeting that Olson has an excellent health insurance package in the Underwood and Henning school districts, where he is currently superintendent, and that the board might have to “get creative” in putting a package together that’s agreeable to Olson.

    Olson, his wife and four daughters - the oldest is in fifth grade – will be traveling to Crookston on Wednesday before the 4 p.m. negotiations meeting to visit the three public school buildings. Fee said the family has initiated some online house searching in Crookston as well.

Stellar site visit

    After a second round of interviews last week, the board unanimously identified Olson as their lone finalist, pending a site visit to his current place of employment last Friday. Fee and Miller took that trip and reported to their colleagues that the visit could not have gone any better.

    While they didn’t travel to Henning because Olson was working there that day, Fee and Miller spoke to a variety of teachers, administrators and board members in Underwood – around 10 miles from Fergus Falls – and heard glowing words from everyone on Olson, who’s been superintendent in Underwood since 2010 and was hired to lead nearby Henning four years later.

    “The reports from every person were outstanding; he’s just very highly thought of by his staff,” Fee said. “I think we heard three times that he’s a ‘rock star.’”

    Fee added that staff indicated they’re sad to see Olson leave, but they knew it was just a matter of time before he moved on. “They’re glad they’ve had him for the time they did,” he said.

    Fee said they asked people to mention any possible concerns they had about Olson, who earned his masters degree from UND in Grand Forks, and “Nobody had any at all.”

    Olson challenges his staff, Fee explained. “They said he handles problems well and backs his staff well, and that he sets the bar high for everybody in their school district and then gives them the resources to follow through,” he told the rest of the board Tuesday.

    Miller said it was especially encouraging to hear from Olson’s staff and colleagues how he’s “progressed” and “grown” in his years as superintendent in Underwood. Walking through the school hallways, Miller also noted that you could sense a positive climate and culture. “It was just all very positive,” she said.

New bus garage there

    Fee and Miller, while chatting with the buildings and grounds supervisor in Underwood, toured a new bus garage there. Fee said it was a pole barn constructed by Morton Buildings and held 14 buses. It’s heated, has an office, a service bay, and a wash bay. “You’d never know it’s a pole barn,” Fee said.

    As far as facilities go, a new bus garage is by pretty much all accounts the Crookston School District’s biggest need. A ballot initiative last year failed by a wide margin among district voters, however, with most voting against feeling the bus garage plan being proposed was too expensive.
Make it happen

    Fee noted that he was a little surprised to learn what Olson makes, but then Miller said that he’s also paid to be superintendent in two school districts, which has likely been advantageous for him. Fee said that he, Miller and Dufault probably would be wise to enter negotiations with Olson figuring they’re going to have to pay him more than Bates is currently paid.

    Fee, along with Dufault, noted that they’ve heard from some people in the community since Olson emerged last week as the lone finalist that the board “needs to do whatever can to hire him, within reason.”

    Board member Dave Davidson spoke for the sentiments of the board when he said the board will give the trio of negotiators the parameters to “make it work.” Olson, Davidson continued, “Could be an employee so important that we need to do what we need to do to get him.”

    If the negotiations were based solely on salary, Fee said the deal would probably be hammered out as soon as today, Tuesday. “But insurance will be the bigger challenge,” he added.

    Minnesota School Boards Association consultant Sandy Gundlach, who helped the board in the search for a superintendent, said the goal would be to come to a handshake agreement Wednesday, and then the board would officially approve Olson’s initial contract when it next meets on Feb. 12.

    “He wants to get it done; he doesn’t want to be sitting here tomorrow haggling, he just doesn’t want to go sideways or backwards,” Fee said, adding that Olson indicated he’d like to make some trips to Crookston before the current school year ends to hold some initial meetings with staff.

    “His enthusiasm is impressive, exciting, even,” Miller added.