Prairie du Chien District Administrator Retires

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On his last day of work, Prairie du Chien School District Administrator Drew Johnson stands above what will be the orchestra pit of the new 750-seat auditorium. The $18.9 million school facilities upgrade project is among the latest and most noteworthy accomplishments in which Johnson played a large part during his 10 years as superintendent. “It will be a beautiful new auditorium and a remarkable school facilities upgrade,” he said. (Photos by Ted Pennekamp)

The building that will house three full sized basketball courts on the west side of the high school is moving along quickly.

Work for the air conditioning is being done in the expanded home economics room at the high school. There will be air conditioning in all three Prairie du Chien school buildings. The air conditioning should be up and running by the start of the 2017-2018 school year, said retired District Administrator Drew Johnson.

 

District administrator had key role in 10 years of accomplishments

By Ted Pennekamp

 

In 2007, when Drew Johnson was hired as the Prairie du Chien School District administrator, the school board had three main goals: 1) improve the financial situation of the district, 2) improve the buildings and grounds, and 3) improve academic offerings and achievement levels. The following is a synopsis of his past decade at the school district. Johnson recently retired from his position.

Regarding finances, in 2007, the school board had an ambitious goal to raise the fund balance from in the one hundred thousands to over $1 million. Vicki Waller, who was newly hired as the head bookkeeper, and Johnson scoured the books to figure out if that was a doable goal. 

Johnson said, “To be honest, we doubted that we could fulfill that goal, as in those years the state controlled revenues were only slightly increasing, flat, or in some years negative. On the expenses side, costs were rising at about 4 percent. This was the financial contradiction that the district was caught in. In addition, the district had a huge unfunded post-employment liability commonly called OPEB. However, the district went to work and put zero-based-budgeting in place and put in place a practice that requested expenditures must be essential to the operation of the school or it must be shown to increase student achievement.” 

The other necessity was that when a staff member left, the default was to not fill the position if the student programming could be maintained. Because of this financial necessity, the staffing levels at the school were very lean. For example, the certified teaching staff was down to about 96 full-time equivalent (FTE) about four years ago. With this conservative approach, over the year, the fund balance grew to well over $2 million, Johnson said. Plus, all of the OPEB was fully funded through a separate fund. The current school board has made it a priority to replace almost all of those positions, and last year passed a budget with a planned deficit. The fund balance has now shrunk a bit, back to less than $2 million, Johnson said. 

For comparison on staffing levels, this coming fall, the certified positions are projected at 108 FTE. Johnson added, “The increased operation dollars that will come in from the passed revenue limit referendum will pay for those positions and should hold a strong fund balance into the future. The financial position of the school district is now excellent.”

Regarding the buildings and grounds improvement goals, there were some major items that had been identified for decades and some new items due to program additions. Some changes that were essential, but not really noticed, were all of the roofing replacements, heating systems upgrades and energy efficiency upgrades, said Johnson. The biggest change was moving from steam to hot water heat at the high school. This led to a huge savings on the heating bills. The one item that almost everyone noticed was the back, or south, parking lot at the high school. 

“High school students used to write poems about the back parking lot. I remember a cute and creative one that was called the ‘Ode to the Pothole’ and it had verses about the holes in the back parking lot swallowing up whole cars,” Johnson said. “The parking lot was fixed in a joint venture with the hospital. At the time, in the old hospital location, there was a severe parking shortage, so we agreed to have hospital staff parking in the front lot. In exchange, the hospital helped us resurface and expand the south parking lot. This was a great partnership, and an addition to the school that will continue to be very valuable for event parking for the new facilities.”

Storage is always an issue. Johnson stated, “To correct that, at the high school we built what is called building number five, near the football field to replace the red wood structure that was rotting and falling down and mostly only housed a raccoon family.” 

Another project corrected the issue of a tiny lunchroom at the high school. Johnson said, “The central courtyard was nice, but by filling that in, we gained a nice commons area that gives plenty of place for lunch and has adjacent access opened up to the library,” Johnson said. “It has really become the central hub of the high school.”  

In another efficiency move, the district has systematically moved all buildings to epoxy flooring, which is low maintenance. In the past, the tile had to be stripped and waxed yearly, which was a huge janitorial load. The epoxy floors eliminate all of this maintenance.

The construction of 20 solar panels near the high school football field was also a nice energy efficiency project. The solar panels produce “green” electricity and save the district between $8,000 to $10,000 per year in electricity costs. The panels serve Prairie du Chien High School, Bluff View Intermediate School and B.A. Kennedy Elementary School. 

At Bluff View, the softball and soccer fields were added to give permanent homes to those associated high school teams and to give options for expanded use for Bluff View students during the school day. 

Another major upgrade to help out the daily operations for the elementary levels were the enhanced play areas at B.A. Kennedy and Bluff View. “Every other year we put out a facilities questionnaire to all staff, and the playgrounds always were at the top of the list for the lower grades,” said Johnson. “The play areas were small, and after any precipitation they became a muddy mess. We corrected those issues with the rubberized surfaces, which allowed more days of use and expanded the options with handicapped accessible apparatuses. The PTO helped on these projects with some added equipment.” 

Of course, lastly, as far as buildings and grounds is concerned, the building projects that are now being built will bring the school district back to being as modern as any school in the region. “When completed for full occupancy in the fall of 2018, the enhanced school grounds and facilities will allow for increased safety and security, greater programming, more efficiency, a better learning environment and much wider community uses,” said Johnson.

The most important goal was to increase student achievement levels. “Everyone talks about raising student achievement, but few actually do what it takes to achieve increased achievement levels,” Johnson said. “It is very hard. There is no shiny book or program that will instantly raise achievement levels. It takes a combination of increased expectations, for both staff and students, coupled with a quality curriculum, and most importantly, more time on task to allow for the accomplishment of what is needed.” 

To those ends, the Prairie du Chien School District has been arguably the most aggressive of any district in the region. “Our academic achievement levels 10 years ago were not where we wanted them to be,” said Johnson. “In many grades, the data reports put us close to the bottom of comparable schools. It has taken a lot of hard work by our staff to improve. I can now state that we are in the discussion as one of the top academic schools in the region and viewed as being leaders in innovation. To me, that, by far, has been the most important change over the last decade. Our students have been challenged and are responding very well. I thank the staff, parents and students for embracing these higher expectations.” 

To increase achievement, there has to be more time spent on learning the subject matter. Over the years, time has been added to the students’ school day to allow for more instruction and built-in time to help students. “It is so important to help the students who need the help when they need the help,” Johnson said. “We used to have parents stating that they couldn’t help their kids with the homework, especially in math. We basically doubled the time spent on math and also we added reading time in the middle grades. In the middle school, reading was part of an English period, which was not enough, so we added a separate reading period, so in effect, doubled that also. With the scheduling changes, we were able to add the extensions and breakouts that allow teachers to be right there working with the kids to help them keep on track. Plus, we expanded after-hours for additional help for students. On top of that, we have a superb summer school option for kids. These changes all have reaped huge dividends. Along with that schedule change, we have time for most teachers to have common planning time with their cohorts, which is very important.”

Early and often intervention has been a priority over the last decade. “We have turned BAK into what I call the ‘premier early learning center in the Midwest,’” Johnson said. “Within our 3-year-old and 4-year-old programming, our staff does a wonderful job of getting our little kids off to the best start possible. It is amazing what has been done, and a lot of our academic achievement gains can be traced back to the great start.” 

Removing barriers has been another priority. Johnson stated, “We have tried to universally adopt programming to help all students and families. It should not matter what side of the tracks a student lives on. They deserve the best possible access to the best education possible.” 

For example, in-town busing and summer school transportation were added to give a safe and consistent transportation option for all students. 

“We have great technology systems at a school that allow all of our kids to access what is needed for modern research and usage of technology,” said Johnson. “Ubiquitous is the word that comes to mind for school technology, as kids now have access to Chromebooks, and all classrooms have SmartBoards and associated hardware/software as needed. We start keyboarding and computer applications in grade two. This is a big change from 10 years ago. Plus, we have the Mighty River online school.”

Beyond the core subjects, there have been many other curricular changes. Chinese language and culture was added, along with an expansion of Spanish in elementary school to give the K-12 Global Literacy Program. “Our kids have the exposure and the opportunity to really learn a foreign language,” Johnson said. “Our world is shrinking with technology in communications and it is extremely important for our students to be exposed to this world outlook. Plus, for those students that excel in the language, it will open many more options.” 

Special education programming has undergone great changes also, as a Life Skills Center was added, along with greater autism programming, and a full move to keeping kids in the regular programming as much as possible.

Another change has been the expansion of college credit options for students in the high school. “We used to have one advanced placement (AP) class and a sprinkling of youth options opportunities,” Johnson noted. “Now, we have our students taking hundreds of college-level classes through 18 AP classes; Southwest Tech articulated credit; and Project Lead the Way medical, engineering and computer programming. The potential is to save thousands on college costs by taking those equivalent credits in high school. This fall, we will be entering into a program with Upper Iowa University to expand the college options even farther. This returns relevance to the high school years and is a huge wallet savings for the students and their families, plus it gives our kids a jump-start on their post-secondary education plans. We give our students access to programming that normally is only available at prep schools or in larger school districts.”

Johnson stated as a wrap up, “I think we have accomplished a lot over the last decade. It took a lot of people working together to get these things done. I only have a couple items that are left on my unfinished vision list: A) Add a future arts director to run the auditorium and start an educational program of classes to lead into college credit in theater operations. This is an area that has many jobs and many practical applications. B) Expanded after-school activities incorporating a lot of enrichment and partnerships in the community. Within this realm, add a late route activities bus at 6:30 p.m. This would coincide with the new facilities opening up in fall 2018. This could offer a way to get kids home for dinner at a decent time and give more kids the availability of staying after school for the various activities. C) Study the need for wrap around care for the 3 and 4 year olds and the need for a full day option for 3 year olds. In closing, [I’m so grateful to] everyone who has given time or treasures to Prairie du Chien Public Schools. Looking back on the last 10 years, it’s satisfying—a very good feeling.”

Johnson said he and his family will continue to live in Prairie du Chien.

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