This week, nearly 25,000 Madison schoolchildren will settle into the routines of a new school year defined by anticipation and anxiety about big changes to come.
After eight years as superintendent, Art Rainwater, 64, will retire in June. Last week, the Madison school board moved decisively on its new top priority by agreeing on key details for the replacement search and setting a half-dozen deadlines leading to the hiring of a new superintendent early next year.
Rainwater's announcement in early January of his plan to step down has given his loyal deputies ample time to consider retirement or new jobs. In recent months, Rainwater has lost three top aides: chief of staff Mary Gulbrandsen, legal counsel Clarence Sherrod and budget director Roger Price.
Rainwater calls Gulbrandsen and Sherrod his "two closest advisers," and tried to convince both to stay for his final year. "I honestly talked to Mary probably 15 times a day," Rainwater says. "There probably hasn't been a thought that went through my head in the last nine years that she didn't react to."
More high-level retirements are expected at the end of this school year, leaving in place as few as three of nine department heads with significant time on the job. The brain drain is coupled with a relatively inexperienced principal base, especially at the city's four major high schools, and departures in other administrative positions.
With this mass exodus, many people see opportunities for Wisconsin's second-largest school district, with 6,500 employees and a $331 million annual budget. The vacancies and rookie status of recent hires will allow the next superintendent to more readily mold top staff to his or her vision and priorities, which some job candidates will find appealing. But the void also erases important institutional knowledge, presenting risks for the district.
"The whole transition makes me nervous," admits board President Arlene Silveira. "I think the senior staff have a lot in their heads, and we have to make sure that is somehow captured and passed on to the new people."
The turnover at the top comes at a pivotal time for the city's schools, as the district is hamstrung by state-imposed revenue caps and changing demographics portend difficulties in maintaining student achievement gains.
Most observers agree Rainwater has an impressive record as an educational leader and manager. Others hope his replacement will focus more intensely on parental involvement, innovative and experimental programs, and better success at lobbying for state funding changes.
As concerns grow about important items getting lost in transition, the school board has asked Rainwater to develop a transition plan for top staff as well as his successor.
Already, officials say the loss of institutional knowledge is being felt. The district's failure to comply with a deadline in a state statute has left it unable to cut back on busing for private-school children as planned. Insiders attribute the oversight to staff turnover. Rainwater says he doesn't know exactly how the oversight occurred, but concedes: "It concerns me how many little things like that are out there and don't get communicated during a transition."
Veteran board member Carol Carstensen hadn't thought much about the transition problems until the busing snafu. Now, she says, "I'm very worried about it."
Another worry, expressed by nearly every board member in recent months, is whether the district will be able to recruit candidates on a par with Rainwater.
But board members also view the process with some excitement, as it gives them a chance to shape their collective vision for the future. They see this as a community-building exercise for the public, as well.
Rainwater believes Madison will be a big draw for quality candidates. He sees the superintendent post here as among the most enviable jobs in American public education.
"My candid and honest assessment is this is an incredible school district," he says. "The intellectual capacity and thoughtfulness and commitment of the staff in this school district, from top to bottom, at every level, is somewhat unique."
Rainwater cites the district's successes and the city's culture as other selling points, along with the resources and partnerships with the UW-Madison. He says the superintendent here can have "beliefs and dreams about what should happen to children, and you've got the human resources and wherewithal to make it happen."
But, he cautions, "It is a very demanding job, not just in terms of time. The expectations of the community are extraordinarily high."
The right candidate, Rainwater says, must possess pedagogical fluency, management skill and public relations savvy. He says Madison schools "probably undergo as close a scrutiny by the media as any district in America," and the new superintendent must be aware that "every mistake you make is public, and you're going to make some."
Last week Monday, the school board spent 3½ hours poring over search details with the Illinois-based firm of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. The board has authorized spending $24,000 on the search.
After setting various deadlines, the board spent more than two hours deciding who to invite to help consultants develop a profile for the candidate search. This month, the consultants plan to hold 34 hour-long sessions with select individuals and interest groups.
The school board agonized over how to include racial and ethnic interests, deciding to hold special sessions isolated by race. Leaders of African American, Hmong and Latino organizations will get their own sessions, as will groups representing unions, business and media.
Nixed were suggestions for targeted sessions with clergy, private and parochial school representatives, district "critics" and the police. The consultants do plan three open forums where these and other voices can be heard (see sidebar). Members of the public can also complete a Leadership Profile Assessment form at the Madison School District website , under "Superintendent Search."
The profile developed from these sessions will be presented at the board's meeting on Oct. 8. Then the consultants will begin recruiting and interviewing candidates. The goal is to complete the process by Feb. 4.
In what may be a reflection of the district's loss of seasoned brass, the board decided against giving special consideration to internal applicants. And it called for a competitive salary and benefits package, at least matching the $190,000 average for comparable districts that happens to be Rainwater's current salary.
Notably, the consultants said there appeared no need for a special "roles workshop" to train board members in working better together, as they sometimes recommend. One volunteered that some school boards he works with are a bit "dysfunctional," but he saw none of that here.
That comment drew chuckles and self-congratulatory comments from Madison's board members, including pleas to the only present media - Isthmus - that such comments be reported.
Timeline for superintendent pick
Sept. 19-20: Interviews/forums to develop "leadership profile" for new hire. Includes three public sessions, each 60 to 90 minutes in length: Wednesday, Sept. 19, 10 am, Exhibition Hall, Alliant Energy Center; and 7 pm, Memorial High School auditorium. Thursday, Sept. 20 at 7 pm, La Follette High School auditorium.
Oct. 8: Leadership profile presented to board
Jan. 7: Slate of candidates presented to board
Jan. 26: Board makes final vote on new hire
Feb. 4: Board announces new hire