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Wadena-Deer Creek district picks Westrum as superintendent

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WADENA — On Saturday, the Wadena-Deer Creek School Board named Lee Westrum as its next superintendent of schools.

Westrum currently serves as superintendent at Benson Public Schools in Benson.

The school board reported it had the arduous task of deciding between three strong candidates for the superintendent’s position. Those three candidates included: Westrum; Christopher Mills, superintendent and elementary principal of the Stephen/Argyle Central in Stephen; and Kevin Wellen, superintendent of New Richland (NRHEG) Public Schools in New Richland.

On Saturday morning, the finalists each spent one hour and 15 minutes with the school board. Within the allotted interview time, each candidate had 25 minutes to give a presentation on the process and development of a budget, followed by school board members asking each candidate 15 questions. In addition, candidates received guided tours of the school campus and the city of Wadena.

After the interviews, the school board discussed the candidates during their special board meeting.

“It’s like splitting hairs,” said Board Vice Chair Ann Pate, noting how closely matched and qualified the three candidates were at the conclusion of the interviews.

The school board closed the special board meeting and caucused for 22 minutes. After reconvening the meeting, they voted unanimously to offer the job to Westrum — pending an agreed upon contract.

School Board Chair Steve Techam phoned Westrum on his cellphone to offer him the job. Westrum verbally accepted the offer over the phone with the understanding it is subject to a pending contract.

“We were very pleased with all three candidates,” Techam said, in a news release. “It was a tough decision. But we are thrilled to have Lee as our next superintendent.”

Westrum, 43, has served as superintendent at Benson Public Schools since 2007. Prior to that, Westrum climbed the ranks at Benson starting in 1992 as a social studies teacher to activities director, principal and eventually superintendent. Benson Public School’s enrollment is about 900 — comparable to Wadena’s 1,000 students.

After spending 21 years at Benson, Westrum said he naturally “loves the community” and that they’ve been “very good to him.” However, he is ready to move on to the challenge of being superintendent at WDC.

“I am impressed with the progressive nature of your school district,” Westrum told the school board during his interview Saturday. “I’d like to be a part of your school, your community and move ahead with the progress that’s been made. ...I feel comfortable here. It’s a very nice fit for me.”

A native of Clearbrook, Westrum received his bachelor’s degree in social studies education from Bemidji State University and his educational administration degrees from St. Cloud State University.

During the interview on Saturday, Westrum told the school board his greatest strength is being a “collaborative leader.” When working with staff, he tries to be inclusive and is not afraid to ask questions. Furthermore, he said he believes in an “open-door policy.”

Besides his background in education, Westrum has leadership experience that extends beyond the walls of the school. He was elected three times to the Benson City Council, serving from 1999-2007.

“I have sat on both sides of the board table,” Westrum said. “ … That experience gave me a unique opportunity to live in both worlds and it has served me well as a superintendent.”

Westrum also has a strong connection to the Wadena-Deer Creek community. His wife, Jennifer (Carter), a psychologist, is a 1989 graduate of Wadena High School.

“Having been married in Wadena and spending a lot of time here over the years, I know the Wadena-Deer Creek community very well and I consider it to be a strong, tight-knit community and an excellent place to live, work and raise a family,” said Westrum in his cover letter.

The Westrums have two daughters who are in seventh- and first-grade.

In November 2012, the school board hired BKB Associates of Mankato, to conduct the search for WDC’s superintendent. The agency compiled a “Profile of Leadership” based on interviews of WDC stakeholders. Those people interviewed included each school board member, district and building administrators, staff, students, parents and community leaders.

In the report, the leadership skills and expectations of the next superintendent is the ability to communicate internally and externally, a strong understanding of quality teaching and learning, ethical and integrity, collaborative skills, student focused, visibility, problem solver/decision-maker, accountability, personal and approachable, visionary and leads by example.

The report stated the most significant challenge the new superintendent will face is maintaining the trust between the community and the district.

Furthermore, the Wadena-Deer Creek School District has gone through some very difficult times in the past few years. A second challenge will be to maintain the positive relationships and visibility within the district that has become the norm. A third challenge will be to maintain the financial health of the district. And the fourth challenge is related to technology and setting a clear vision for what’s next.

The board hopes to have Westrum under contract by the first week of March, Techam said. Current superintendent Virginia “Ginny” Dahlstrom plans to fulfill her contract, which ends on June 30. She decided not to renew her contract. Dahlstrom has been superintendent at WDC since 2008. Pending the approval of his contract, Westrum will begin his duties as WDC’s next superintendent on July 1.

The three finalists were selected from a pool of six candidates interviewed by 30 members of the Wadena-Deer Creek-Bluffton communities, as well as WDC school board and staff members on Feb. 11 and 12. Fifteen individuals applied for the superintendent opening. The other two finalists, Mills and Wellen were at WDC Middle/High Schools for interviews on Saturday.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
I've worked at the Brainerd Dispatch with various duties since Dec. 7, 1983. Starting off as an Ad Designer and currently Director of Audience Development. The Dispatch has been an interesting and challenging place to work. I'm fortunate to have made many friends, both co-workers and customers.
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