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Monday contract vote is last step toward Thompson's exit
By Jeff Kolkey
Rockford Register Star
Rockford district leaders say they'll push ahead with programs the superintendent initiated.
ROCKFORD - It's been a long goodbye for Superintendent Dennis Thompson, but the Rockford School District is a single step from losing its decisive and, at times, divisive leader. Collier County (Fla.) School Board members voted 3-2 Thursday night to hire Thompson. All that is left is to iron out a contract that is expected to be voted on Monday afternoon.
For some who have seen superintendents come and go, this is simply a time to move on.
It is a time of sadness for others who viewed Thompson as the most effective superintendent Rockford has seen in years.Rock Valley College board of trustees Chairman Ted Biondo said he was one of several community leaders who worked behind the scenes to convince Thompson to stay in Rockford. Biondo led a November referendum to maintain the property-tax rate largely because of what he saw as the achievements of the Thompson administration.
"He wasn't the run-of-the-mill superintendent that we have had in the past," Biondo said. "He was someone who thought out of the box, measured his results and got results."
The retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, West Point graduate and tae kwon do black belt who told the Rockford Register Star three years ago "I like to fight" hasn't been afraid to do so when it comes to holding schools accountable.
Although the Rockford district was on the brink of financial collapse when Thompson arrived in May 2004, his administration brought financial stability. Thompson expects the district to reach the state's second-best financial rating after an audit this fall.
Abysmal student achievement data - although some challenge results from last year because of state test changes - is on the rise.
Thompson's administration introduced educational programs that give second chances to students with behavioral and academic problems. Thompson hired reading and math coaches in elementary and middle schools targeting children, even their teachers, for immediate help when they need it.
But with any dynamic leader there is a flip side.
As he hired more curriculum leaders and fought for administrative raises that would help him attract and retain quality educators, he championed the outsourcing of school cleaning to a private firm that left more than 150 custodians laid off.
He took a stand for the "integrity" of the Rockford School District diploma when it came to denying a request for a standard diploma from the family of an Auburn High School senior who was shot and killed weeks before graduation.
Thompson marched the district toward neighborhood-based attendance zones in secondary schools, which ultimately were approved by a 4-3 vote. He told the Rockford community it was "time to get over" its painful past of discrimination and desegregation that had led to a decade of limited parental school choice.
Board member Robert Evans was one of the officials who voted against implementation of the plan because he felt it had moved too quickly and without adequate public buy-in. After the decision, Evans said the policy is as "much mine as anyone else's" and his goal is to see it succeed.
And he said the district will not falter on any of the other initiatives begun during Thompson's tenure. He said the district has the right leaders to ensure the programs' success.
Those programs include this year's coming Freshman Foundation to each district high school; an anti-truancy collaborative with the city, county and civic organizations; the Fresh Start alternative school for students with behavioral problems; a proposed Academic Career Education High School; and the alignment of curriculum at schools across the district with state standards.
"Those are all important projects," Evans said. "Every single one of those will continue in the right direction, and that is the point. Not a single one will be abandoned or neglected or de-emphasized."
School Board President Nancy Kalchbrenner is leaving a door open for Thompson to return to Rockford if he is unable to reach an agreement on a contract with the Collier County board.
Kalchbrenner said it would be difficult for Thompson to return after the board placed him on paid leave, pending the outcome of his interviews in Florida. Trust has been damaged on both sides, with Thompson declining an invitation to attend a closed special session to discuss his possible departure.
His return would have to be something that Thompson seeks and discusses with the full board, she said. "I don't care what their board does. I care what Dr. Thompson does with that decision."
Staff writer Jeff Kolkey can be reached at 815-987-1374 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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