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Olsen’s résumé strong on referendums

Robert Olsen

Current position: Superintendent of Sturgis public schools, Sturgis, Mich.

Age: 58

Family: Single, a son.

Currently reading: "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq," by Thomas E. Ricks; and "The Audacity of Hope," by Barack Obama.

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Favorite cinema: "Dr. Strangelove" and "Young Frankenstein."

By Edie Grossfield

egrossfield@postbulletin.com

Why would the 2007 Michigan Superintendent of the Year want to leave the state that’s honored him, and go work in Rochester?

"Why would somebody not want to go there?" said Robert Olsen, the honored superintendent who heads up the public schools in Sturgis, Mich.

Olsen is one of four candidates interviewing Tuesday for superintendent of Rochester public schools.

"It’s a very good quality of life," he said of Rochester. "It’s an outstanding school district. Progressive. And, it’s got so many positive characteristics, as a community and as a state."

Olsen said he is happy in his current district, where he has been since 1998, but he felt he owed it to himself to put his name in the hat for the Rochester position.

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Also, he has some ties to the Midwest, having grown up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He has relatives living in Duluth and friends in Minneapolis.

Sturgis public schools, located in southwestern Michigan near the border of Indiana, is a much smaller school district than Rochester, with 3,300 students vs. Rochester’s 16,000. Yet Olsen, who has worked in a district with as many as 9,000 students, said he would easily handle the increase.

"It’s a matter of scale, it’s a matter of degree of difference in terms of the size and how you actually lead and manage some issues," he said. "But the issues are exactly the same, no matter how big or small."

Actually, Olsen said working in a small district has been an advantage, allowing him to become intimately involved in virtually every aspect of the district’s operation.

"I think it has fully prepared me to understand the intricate details of everything from curriculum and instruction to leadership to transportation, food services, maintenance … how to deliver, how to plan for all of those things," he said.

He said that finding solutions for the achievement gaps between students requires understanding where the deficiencies are and then calling on the district’s experts.

"Who are the experts? I see them as the teachers, first and foremost, as administrators, curriculum folks. Those are the people who can study best practices, study what’s working and what’s not working," Olsen said.

Olsen also knows that if he became Rochester’s next superintendent, he would be helping the school board pass a bond referendum for a new elementary school.

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"I’ve been involved with three successful bond referendums," he said. "As a matter of fact, I’ve never been in a district that’s turned one down or turned an operating (levy) increase down, and that’s over 35 years."

The bond money allowed Sturgis to build a new middle school, remodel its high school and make improvements to all elementary buildings.

"So, in terms of putting our facilities and our technology at a level that they needed to be, he is absolutely responsible for that," said Julie Evans, assistant superintendent of Sturgis public schools.

Evans described Olsen’s style of leadership as distributive and organized.

"We never lose sight of something that’s an issue; he keeps bringing it back until it’s resolved," she said.

Sturgis school board member Frank Kalasky echoed Evans’ comments.

"He has a management style that he tries to get all parties involved," he said.

Kalasky added that Olsen does a good job of negotiating with the local teachers union and boasted that, at least while Olsen has been superintendent, Sturgis has never had to involve a third-party negotiator.

Craig Evans, a Sturgis High School math teacher and chief negotiator for the local teachers union, said Olsen has been a good steward of the district’s budget reserves during tough budgetary times in Michigan. Because of that, Sturgis has been able to avoid teacher layoffs, even while they have occurred in surrounding districts.

For more information about the superintendent candidates, go to postbulletin.com/weblinks.

Rochester public schools: http://www.rochester.k12.mn.us

Sturgis public schools: www.sturgis.k12.mi.us

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