Verona Area School District superintendent Dean Gorrell hasn’t yet conceptualized what he’s going to do after he retires on June 30, 2021.
While he made the announcement of his impending retirement in an email to district parents Wednesday, Jan. 8, Gorrell said there’s still so much work left to do in his last 17 and a half months. He said thinking about life post-VASD isn’t something he’s considered much.
“I don’t anticipate retiring and putting my feet up … I’ve told my wife I’m going to take a ‘gap year,’” Gorrell said with a laugh.
After 16 years with the district, he will have spent his final four years guiding the district through the planning, building and opening of a new high school, the implementation of resulting new attendance boundaries for the elementary and middle schools – as six schools are changing locations – and restructuring the district’s administrative team.
Multiple factors are driving retirement, Gorrell said. When the time comes, he’ll be 58, having spent 36 years in education.
“It’s really a 24/7 job, and it’s tiring,” he said. “I’m a pretty high energy guy, and I have been my entire life, my entire career, but as you get a little bit older, the energy requirement gets a little harder to fulfill – no surprise there.”
In June 2015, during an interview about his 10 years with the district, he told the Press he didn’t see himself ending his career here, but he wasn’t yet focused on going elsewhere. That apparently had changed by the next year, however, as he had applied for at least three other jobs.
Before the district’s successful referendum to buy land for the new school in 2016, he was a finalist for a superintendent job in Ohio, but his last contract, signed in 2018, included language that prohibited him from actively seeking other employment opportunities while giving him a raise to nearly $174,000. That deal nominally expires in 2020 but contains an automatic extension to 2021.
The district has already made initial plans for finding a successor, having met in closed session in recent weeks to discuss administrative restructuring. The district plans to hire a search firm in the spring, engage parents and the community over the summer and come to a decision by the end of the year.
School board president Noah Roberts wrote in an email to the Press that the board has a “large task” ahead of them to try to fill Gorrell’s role.
“In addition to his normal responsibilities as superintendent, Dean has spent thousands of additional hours managing the post-referendum process, so frankly I wasn’t surprised to hear he may need some rest,” he wrote. “But, in all seriousness, Dean has served in this role for well over a decade, which means a lot of institutional knowledge will leave with him.”
The district has changed significantly in the 15 years since Gorrell’s arrival.
His tenure saw the start of bilingual programs, an increase in program offerings and the creation and growth of the 4K program. The district also began building its financial reserves early in his tenure by putting away around $1 million a year while making programming cuts that were at times controversial.
The district has had to deal with several challenges in that time, including getting tagged by the state Department of Public Instruction for referring too many minority students to special education and struggles to reduce achievement gaps – the differences in academic outcomes and test scores between black and white students.
Other challenges included shifting student demographics and societal changes that required the district to make changes to how they ensure student safety and communicate with families, Gorrell said.
The district has taught him a few things since 2005, Gorrell said. He said he’s learned to have humility, to develop collaborative skills and to increase his aptitude for patience and forgiveness.
“It just re-emphasizes daily that you need to have empathy for other people, (and understand) their walk in life to the best you can,” he said.”It’s so much more than policy, protocols and procedures – those are all important, for sure, but for me, what’s most important is approaching this with a servant’s heart and empathizing as much as you can with what these policies and practices actually mean and how they impact people.”
Former school board member Ken Behnke, who was chair of the personnel committee when Gorrell was hired, said he wasn’t surprised to hear Gorrell announce his retirement.
“(Gorrell) always said that a superintendent has a shelf life,” Behnke said. “The job of superintendent is a tough, tough job, and to serve a district for 16 years is a good, long tenure.”
A district changed
The largest difference between the district today and the one Gorrell was hired into, he said, is its size, he said, with the enrollment up by 1,200 students.
But education all over the United States has become more complex in the last 15 years, Gorrell said, no matter what role a staff member plays in a school district.
One aspect of that is communication, as students now often relay information to their parents or families about what’s happening at their school much faster than the district can get it out to the public.
Another is security, as mass shootings at school sites have become more prevalent across the country. The district has taken proactive steps such as camera systems and the hiring of a district school security coordinator to lead initiatives to better protect the district’s students.
In Verona, specifically, the demographics of the students have changed, with more socioeconomically disadvantaged or even homeless students and more complex family dynamics than before.
That’s created an entire set of complexities, requiring the district to put more emphasis on equity and collaboration among administrators and rethink its governance structure.
Gorrell views those “positive steps forward.”
“They force us to think differently, to think more inclusively,” he said. “They’re benefits packaged with challenges.”
The year 2010 was not an easy year for Gorrell as superintendent, or for many of the school districts across the state.
That was the year then-Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators put Act 10 into law, which mostly removed collective bargaining rights for public school employees in their contract negotiations.
And while VASD’s school board and the district employees didn’t become as divisive over the new law as much as other districts, Gorrell still said that Act 10’s passage was the most significant event of his career as an administrator.
“That was just a hard time for everybody,” he said. “That was so divisive amongst family members, amongst coworkers. It pit board members against teachers … that didn’t manifest as much here, but it was still a hard time.”
Another tough time was when an EF-3 tornado struck northwestern Verona in June 2014.
The district not only had to rebuild portions of Country View Elementary School, but had to care for its students and educators who had an attachment to the school.
“It’s more than just you’ve got a damaged building that can be rebuilt, it’s an emotional connection,” he said.
Community efforts helped care for families in the area who were displaced, students sold bracelets, T-shirts and lemonade to raise money for the PTO’s tornado relief fund and quick work by contractors and staff got the school up and running before classes resumed in September.
Leaving a legacy
Behnke said one thing that always stood out to him was Gorrell’s “passion” to make sure all students succeeded, regardless of a student’s background.
That passion was a driving factor in implementing the personalized learning initiative and encouraging more students to enroll in Advanced Placement courses, Behnke said.
“Verona has a sizable student population that starts out at a disadvantage,” he said. “He was an advocate for making sure everyone was doing their best.”
Roberts said Gorrell’s advocacy for educational equity will be one of Gorrell’s significant accomplishments, as it will continue to be a district priority long after his retirement.
“Superintendent Gorrell’s most lasting and impactful mark on VASD, as is the case with all of our educators and staff, will be his work to support students,” Roberts wrote.
Behnke and current school board member Tom Duerst, who was the board president when Gorrell was hired, also commended Gorrell’s business savvy.
Each said Gorrell saved the district significant amounts of money with his ability to negotiate with insurance companies and consultants. He also encouraged the board to improve its financial standing to get better interest rates for construction projects.
Duerst said he thinks the lasting legacy Gorrell leaves on the district will be rooted strongly in the new high school being still under construction.
“If we can open the high school smoothly, I can’t think of anything bigger than that,” he said. “If we can finally get to the end of this road and have everything work next year, how can anything be bigger than opening a new high school and being the guy who was the catalyst behind it?”