Change: Did We Really Know What We Had

The nationwide search for a new superintendent of District 29 began in earnest in the fall of 1975.

The candidate the school was looking for would bring a strict cost-cutting focus to the district.

With the help of the prominent consulting firm A.I. Kearney, the board reviewed more than 100 applications, narrowing them down to five. Their choice was unanimous: Rod Lewis, a 41 ·year-old Ph.D., and principal in the Highland Park school system, was the hands-down choice.

Rod Lewis

"Rod was an educated man," says Shirley Johnson, who was school board president at the time. "He was articulate. A great speaker. His credentials were impeccable. He knew our district.

"What we needed him to do," she adds, “was be very, very tough."

"Rod was a good man," adds Lyn Little, who joined the board in 1970. "I don't think he – or we – had any idea of what was in store.

“We knew we were headed for hard times," she adds. "But we weren't prepared for the severity of the crisis."

The community was changing, too. The days of the PTA moms pitching in to carry the library books up the stairs had evolved into a community that was polarized in its view of Harry Collins' liberal, experiential approach to education.

"I remember running in a contested election for the board, right before Harry retired." says Little. "The conservatives had microphones on their cars, and drove through the streets of Northfield on election day, screaming to get rid of the 'liberal' element in the schools.

"Those were the days," she adds, "when you couldn't get a seat at a school board meeting.

"I could just imagine how Harry and Mary Osborne must have felt. They knew they had a huge financial upheaval on their hands. And here was this group – screaming about the curriculum.”

The conservatives ultimately lost their campaign to get a foothold on the board, and eventually left Northfield. But the subsequent loss of Harry, and the legacy of their criticisms against the school, put the faculty and district on very shaky ground. Factoring in the financial problems, it was a decade of serious decline.

Major cutbacks had to be made to the music, art and gym programs Harry had so carefully built. Computers were coming into the district, and investments had to be made there as well. One-third of the curriculum was cut. Layoffs followed. Teacher morale plunged to an all-time low.

"I think Harry was wise to leave. It was probably the hardest thing he ever did. But it also says a lot about him," says Little.

"He didn't try to fight what was happening, or stand in our way,” adds Bill Carson. “But after all he’d done to build the school, he knew he wasn't right for the job."

This was the environment Rod Lewis stepped into. In Mary Osborne's view, nobody could have fixed it and come out ahead.

"Those were awful years," she says. "Even if the district had been in terrific financial condition, we would have all missed Harry. But financially, we hit bottom."

Adds Lyn Little, "I cannot tell you the hours that people in the community put into sharpening their pencils to save the school.”

One solution the board considered before Harry's departure was to merge Sunset Ridge with Avoca.

Reed Parker, a member of the board at the time, remembers the decision to not close Sunset Ridge as a defining moment in Northfield. It was also a lesson for him in what it means to listen as an elected representative to your constituents.

"I was sure that merging Sunset Ridge with Avoca was the right thing to do," says Parker. "But when the community got wind of our plan, everything changed. It didn't take a referendum for us to hear their point-of-view. You felt it all around you.

"What they were saying was: 'We may be small – but we want our own school. It's part of who we are as a community. Don't take it away from us.’

"We listened," says Parker. "And we changed our minds.”

It was clear, even if Sunset Ridge could be saved, that Middlefork School would close. With fewer kids and dollars, it was the only way to put the district on firmer financial ground.

The board thought selling the building was the right thing to do. But when an advisory committee was appointed to study the issue – and recommended that doors stay open, based on its value to children – Rod Lewis and the board listened.

"That told me a lot about Rod," says Dadie Wampler, who chaired the advisory group, which spent months consulting educators about the value of the school. “Rod didn’t try to influence our study. He left us alone to make the decision we thought was right. We convinced the board not to sell Middlefork.”

Again, the community and board rallied to find the income to keep both schools open.

“We did everything we could to get money. We rented space at both schools to the Park District, Northfield Nursery School, special education programs –  whatever we could find," says Little.

"It really did take a village," she adds. "The PTA, school board, members of the community – they were incredible.

"It was a wonderful example of a village corning together to support the jewel they had. They really loved their schools."

Gary Kline joined the board in 1980 with a clear sense of what the '70s had cost District 29.

"Our school board had always been 'pro-teacher' from the very earliest days," says Kline. "But we lost a lot of trust in the '70s. There was a lot of resentment on the part of the teachers. The school fell into a decline. Academically and morale-wise, it wasn't that great."

Lewis, struggling with health problems, stepped down in 1983 – clearly exhausted from the turmoil and pain of the years of cost-cutting and paring down.

The following year, enrollment plunged to an all-time low: 350 students.

"I don't think Sunset Ridge would be where it is today if you hadn't had a Rod Lewis to make tough decisions to cut programs and people," says Little.

Adds Mary Osborne, "Nobody could have won at the job Rod was asked to do."

But the district by the early '80s also began to emerge from its slump.

"It's a little like the federal government," says Gary Kline. "We'd made the necessary cuts and suffered the pain. We were incredibly efficient and lean now. And all of a sudden, Northfield started to expand with a lot more commercial property and a higher tax base."

In the meantime, the board revved up for another nationwide search for a superintendent.

While they geared up, they appointed Howard Bultinck, who had been hired by Rod Lewis in 1980 to serve as administrative assistant, to temporarily fill Rod's shoes.

"We planned a very intensive search," says Gary Kline. "We didn't know much about Howard – just that he was pretty quiet and very, very young. He was always a behind-the-scenes support to Rod. But we figured he could handle the job while we launched a nationwide search."

They were surprised at what they found.

"When Howard took the job, it was clear from the start." says Kline. "He was excellent at building teacher morale, at mastering the details of school finance, at dealing with the board and relating to the kids.

"One thing I've learned over the years: your superintendent is absolutely key to the health of your school.

"Everything plays off him- -- the board, the finances, the teachers, and the curriculum. It's almost like a 'headmaster' position in District 29. Your superintendent absolutely defines the school.

"It was clear from the start what we had in Howard," he adds.

"We were off to the races."