Cedarburg principal’s leadership skills cited in his hiring as next superintendent
The Grafton School District’s new superintendent is on board.
Jeff Nelson, who has spent the past seven years as the principal at Cedarburg High School, was hired Monday by the Grafton School Board.
He fills the position vacated by former Supt. Mel Lightner, who resigned in spring.
“Mr. Nelson is a strong leader with high expectations for the Grafton School District,” Board President Terry Ziegler said.
“We are confident that he will lead the district to new levels of achievement with a continual emphasis on what is best for kids.”
The board approved a two-year contract with Nelson, whose annual salary is $157,000.
Nelson was one of two finalists chosen from more than 40 applicants for the superintendent’s post, which the district began advertising in early May. He became the lone candidate last week when the other finalist, Supt. Mark Elworthy of the Wisconsin Heights School District, withdrew from consideration.
During an appearance at Monday’s board meeting, Nelson said he is excited to begin his new job.
“I’m looking forward to working with the community of Grafton,” he said.
“I have had the opportunity to meet with outstanding staff members. The office staff are very welcoming, the administrators are impressive and the board is student and staff-oriented.”
Nelson, 44, received a master’s degree in administrative leadership and supervision from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is completing his doctoral work in leadership for the advancement of learning and service at Cardinal Stritch University.
Before his time in Cedarburg, he served as principal at West Allis Central High School and associate principal at Franklin High School.
Nelson and his wife Ginger have two children, Jack and Lindy, and live in the Town of Cedarburg.
In Grafton, Nelson takes over the top leadership role with a district that has faced a series of difficult challenges in recent months.
In April, voters rejected a $49.5 million referendum on school upgrades. Several weeks later, the board asked for and accepted the resignation of Lightner, who was criticized for his handling of the referendum and personnel decisions.
In an effort to obtain residents’ input on school upgrades and search for a new superintendent, the board held a series of community listening sessions, including one June 22 in which Nelson participated.
At that time, he told residents his leadership and com-munication skills would benefit the district.
“Bridges need to be built,” Nelson said. “I’m going to try to be a consensus builder but always keep what’s in the best interest of kids first.”
Retaining top teachers, administrators and other staff members must be a top priority to help ensure Grafton students receive the best possible education, according to Nelson.
“People leave because of a lack of leadership,” he said. “We want to develop a school system that attracts and retains our best teachers.
“When people feel appreciated, they do more than expected.”
While Nelson was at Cedarburg High School, student test scores were among the highest in the North Shore area. Although that measuring stick provides a gauge for learning and achievement, there are other intangibles that are equally important, he said.
“I would hope my track record over time would show I’ve done a good job of helping students learn and improve,” he said.
“I have the ability to build relationships and improve test scores.”
There’s no reason Grafton can’t improve its current standing as one of the area’s best school districts, according to Nelson.
“I think there is a ton of untapped potential in Grafton, and a lot of things that haven’t been shared,” he said.
“I think you should brag more about the great things that are being done here and will do in the future.”
Although voters rejected the most recent spending plan to upgrade school facilities, Nelson said the district needs to find ways to improve buildings and grounds.
“Student safety comes first, but you also want kids to feel proud of going to their school,” he said.
“You don’t need the Taj Mahal to do that, but you need good facilities that you can take pride in.”
Nelson said having staff members know their superintendant supports them is critical to the district’s educational mission.
“My job is not to implement curriculum, but to have people in place who have that level of expertise,” he said.
Taking a close look at district staffing numbers based on per-pupil cost is another important step, according to Nelson.
“It’s really run lean here compared to what there is in Cedarburg, Mequon-Thiensville, Nicolet and other local districts,” he said.
“We have to look at that data. Budgets should be set based on your priorities.”
Nelson has spent the past week working with interim Supt. Tom Andres. His first official day as superintendent will be Tuesday, July 5.
Meanwhile, the district continues the search to fill several other administrative positions, including its business manager.
Kristin Sobocinski, who has been the director of business services the past three years, has resigned to accept another job.
Sobocinski has been hired as assistant superintendent for business services with the Elmbrook School District.
The board accepted her resignation Monday.
“It’s sad news. We thank you for all you’ve given to the district,” Andres told Sobocinski.
The board is expected to soon hire a new athletic director/associate principal for Grafton High School. That position is being vacated by Kevin Deering, who this spring accepted a job as the principal of John Long Middle School in Grafton.
Plans call for several finalists for the athletic director/associate principal post to be interviewed July 6. The board is expected to announce a hiring by July 11.