ALTOONA — Like every other late August just before the start of another school year, Altoona school district teachers returned to class last week, meeting and prepping for the return of their students.
But this school year, which begins today, isn’t like all the rest. Teachers and the district’s other staff said they are returning to a more hopeful, positive environment after last school year erupted in controversy that brought the district many unwanted media headlines and resulted in the ouster of former schools Superintendent Connie Biedron.
A new superintendent, Ron Walsh, leads the district after the school board hired the former Elk Mound and Boyceville interim superintendent in May. He officially began his work on July 1 and works part time in the Altoona district, which has about 1,600 students.
Walsh will work for this school year, and the school board will appoint someone else as superintendent after that.
Teachers, staff and school board members said they’re glad to have the tumultuous previous year behind them and are optimistic an improved climate at school will prompt not only better relations among district personnel but a better environment for student learning.
“Obviously, what happened last year took a huge amount of our time, our effort, our emotions,” school board member David Rowe said. “Now it is back to improving the school and policies and focusing on the kids. “We are looking forward, and I believe we are going in the right direction.”
Biedron resigned on Feb. 17 after the school board voted to negotiate her ouster. She had enjoyed the board’s backing from her hiring in March 2012 until her controversial disciplinary action against athletic director Jamie Oliver for his firing of then-football coach Steve English.
Oliver contended Biedron had directed him to dismiss English. Biedron denied that claim and sought to punish Oliver. However, text messages between Oliver and Biedron revealed the superintendent backed English’s firing.
Subsequent investigation of the matter revealed Biedron’s management style created a climate of fear and intimidation in Altoona schools, prompting some employees to leave the district.
During last school year, his second in Boyceville, Walsh had decided he was ready to retire. Then he received a text last spring from Altoona school board President Robin Elvig asking if he was interested in working part time in the district and telling him of the superintendent job opening in Altoona. He decided to apply.
“I was going to be done,” Walsh said. “I had decided I was ready to retire. ... But when I learned about this situation, I decided I wanted to try to be part of moving this district forward to a better place.”
Walsh, 63, said he is impressed with the commitment of Altoona’s teachers and staff members to providing a quality education for students. He said the mood at the district’s schools has been upbeat despite the challenges of last school year.
“It was pretty amazing to see the staff all here working hard, working with energy,” Walsh said last week. “We are going to focus on moving forward with a focus on our kids.”
Walsh pointed to photos of two Altoona students on the wall of his office as inspirations. Both students have overcome life-threatening medical issues and have found success, he said.
“The kids are the reason we all got into this profession,” he said.
Rowe praised Walsh, a Chippewa Falls native, for the job he is doing so far, saying he values staff and their input.
“From what I can tell so far, Ron is doing all the right things,” Rowe said.
School board member Brad Poquette agreed.
“His vast and varied experience regarding school administration will be a very positive benefit to the district,” Poquette said of Walsh. “His desire to make positive connections with all staff is very strong and we look forward to his leadership.”
Walsh said he will focus on student achievement. He said he hopes to forge a close working relationship with Altoona city officials and will work to move on from the difficulties of last school year.
“I really want to move forward in a way that addresses the concerns of the past and allows us to move on to a better future,” he said.