If Brian Busler had to pick out a bumper sticker to sum up his soon-to-be realized retirement, he’d have a tough choice – “I’d rather be fishing” or “I’d rather be teaching.”
Turns out the long-time leader of the Oregon School District gets to do a bit of both, starting July 1.
A nice, long fishing trip probably isn’t the worst idea after a hectic, unforgettable past few months of his tenure, which began in 2006 and has seen tremendous growth and changes. Busler told the Observer last week he’s hoping lessons were learned, as he looked back on his time in Oregon, and what’s ahead, including part-time teaching at Edgewood College and a long-awaited trip west for some fly fishing.
“You never could have predicted this as the end of this chapter in my life,” he said. “Because we’re a learning institution, we can always learn from it. It reminded us of the importance of personal connection in the teaching and learning process, and also to be flexible and patient, and to be problem solvers and work together.”
Busler, who is in charge of hundreds of district teachers and support staff, said he couldn’t have been prouder how they handled the abrupt change from in-person to virtual school in a matter of days back in March.
“One day we were in session, the next day we ended up closed for the school year,” he said. “Teachers, by their very nature, are very student-centered and are caring and supportive of their students, and this was very hard on them and on their students who love to see their teachers.”
District officials postponed the long-scheduled OHS graduation set for June 14 until July 26, with hopes of holding some sort of in-person ceremony before the now-alumi go their separate ways. Busler said it’s been “very, very odd” ending the school year without that traditional ceremony and even worse, it’s happened to a group he’s watched grow up since they arrived as kindergarteners.
“It’s one of the pinnacles in life in public schools; students earning the right to walk across the stage with their high school diploma,” he said. “It is a ‘mountaintop high’ experience for them, and as educators, also for us.
“This is their opportunity to have that experience and because of the health pandemic, we can’t provide that.”
The trail to Oregon
Busler was business manager at the Verona Area School District in 1988, working for the-superintendent Tony Evers when he was recruited to the Sun Prairie School District by superintendent Al Rosenthal. Busler worked there as deputy superintendent for 10 years for Rosenthal, whom he termed a “tremendous mentor” who saw a glimpse of a potential future even he didn’t.
“He constantly told me I was going to be a superintendent some day – an idea I initially rejected,” Busler said. “He tossed enough challenging projects at me with a smile and then supported and lifted me up when that project maybe didn’t go as well as it should have, but constantly encouraged me to grow and develop.”
Ten years later, Rosenthal’s prediction came true, when Busler was promoted to superintendent in Sun Prairie, where he worked until the superintendent position in Oregon opened up in 2006.
The OSD has seen significant growth and transformation in Busler’s 14 years, which included a turbulent middle section, working through the effects of the Act 10 legislation approved by state legislators in 2010 and impacting teacher relations. After a failed $33 million referendum in 2012, Busler shepherded a successful $54.6 million capital projects referendum in 2014, followed by a $1.5 million recurring teacher compensation referendum in 2016 and a $47 million referendum in 2018 to fund, in part, a new elementary school.
Through it all, he said his greatest memory will be the students, staff, families and community members he’s gotten to know, particularly the educators he’s hired.
“Everyone has the same (teaching) license, but not everyone has the same heart and mindset,” he said. What I’ve always looked for is a heart and a mindset that’s kind and interested in supporting our students. And, by and large, we have attracted and retained top teachers and support staff that have (that).”
Focus on ‘True North’
Kerri Modjeski, who is wrapping up her final year at Brooklyn Elementary School to become principal at the new Forest Edge Elementary School in Fitchburg, said Busler found a balance of letting his principals lead while having a “grounding presence.”
She recalled the first time the two met, during a “wild and wacky game” with her third-grade class on the first day of school.
“At the silliest of moments, Brian came by to introduce himself, and I was certain he would write me off as a wild card,” Modjeski emailed the Observer. “(But) he joined in the game and laughed with the kids. It was then that I knew OSD had a superintendent that was grounded in what’s real – students.”
District in-house counsel and director of human resources Jina Jonen called Busler an “incredible leader, educator, mentor and boss,” with a consistent theme of doing what’s best for kids.
“It was his ‘true north’ in every decision,” she wrote the Observer in an email.
Deputy superintendent Leslie Bergstrom said she will fondly remember the compass-style pins Busler was known to hand out at administrators’ meetings, as a visual reminder to remember “true north” in making decisions, of which she said she probably has a “few dozen.”
“While we all would laugh when we received yet another pin, those pins represent something that is meaningful to all of us,” she wrote the Observer in an email. “A leader who never wavers on Oregon students as the center of our work creates a team of people who never waver.”
Teaching and trout fishing
For nearly 30 years, Busler has taught – part time, of course – graduate-level courses for aspiring educators at a variety of area colleges and universities. In the fall, he’ll return to Edgewood College to continue working with students in the doctoral program there, as well as some Master’s degree students.
“Once the teaching bug is in you, it continues,” he said. “It’s a flexible schedule on my end, and it’s important to me to help contribute and develop future generations of leaders.”
And while he’s hoping to preside over some sort of in-person ceremony for this year’s OHS graduates, he also has his sights on the wily trout of Montana’s famed Madison River, as he’ll be spending some time with his family at and around Yellowstone National Park in September. The area is home to some of the most prized trout streams in North America, where Busler hopes to try his luck.
“We’ll see if some of those flies that I’ve tied can convince a trout into biting,” he said.