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Mark Whitener comes into Wellington Superintendent job with optimism and caution

first_imgBy Tracy McCue, Sumner Newscow — One week from today, Mark Whitener will become the new USD 353 Wellington Superintendent. He will be replacing Rick Weiss, whose tenure comes to an end on June 30, 2016.It has been awhile since Wellington has had a new superintendent – 10 years ago to be exact.Whitener comes to Wellington during a rather tumultuous time for Kansas public schools. But he is optimistic that there will be better times ahead.We sat down with Whitener to ask him a few questions on where he came from and what he expects in the years ahead for Kansas and USD 353.Sumner Newscow: What made you decide to become a Superintendent of Wellington schools?Mark WhitenerWhitener: I have served as Oxford High School Superintendent for five years. This has been a tremendous job for a superintendent. But I was ready for a new role.Here I was serving as both a superintendent and principal. I was ready for a role where I could focus my attention solely on being a superintendent.SN: Tell us about your background.Whitener: I started my public school career in Ark City in 1989 and was a fifth grade teacher. I did that for 17 years and was an academic coach as well. They asked me to be principal for Ixl Elementary in Ark City and I was there for four years. Then I became a middle school principal in Ark City. My ultimate goal was to become a school superintendent.SN: You are coming in during a tumultuous time for public schools in the state of Kansas. What do you think is the biggest challenge you will have at this moment?Whitener: Right now, certainly, finances are the biggest issue. Everyone is aware of the Supreme Court lawsuit and threat of a lockdown. We don’t know what the term ‘lockout’ means but it is most certainly something to keep our eyes on. Another issue is attracting quality staff, which isn’t just Wellington but most schools in south-central Kansas. It is harder to compete for salaries here because of our low evaluations among other things.SN: Is it more difficult attracting teachers to Wellington than others?  Whitener: I don’t know if it is necessarily more difficult for Wellington. But you can say Sumner and Cowley County schools are not wealthy school districts. For instance, Oxford’s valuation is only $16 million for the entire district. So a mill doesn’t raise a lot of money. Wellington has a similar problem. SN: Have you had a chance to look at the Wellington budget?Whitener: I have initially. Wellington, like all districts, struggle. But Superintendent Weiss has done a good job with the budget and they have made significant progress. They have made some difficult personnel cuts over the years and have worked well with the teachers association. They had a retirement plan that was quite expensive to the district and they made adjustments to that.SN: Do you anticipate there will be a school lockdown on July 1?Whitener: I don’t think so. I think we will have some leadership step up to come up with a solution, and I think the court will take some time to review it if they think the legislature has made a good-faith effort. I don’t anticipate it. But I’ve been wrong before.SN: Do you think it would be political suicide for the legislature to not come up with something?Whitener: It is an election year and I don’t think legislators as a whole want the schools shut down. Some do, but most don’t. This has been a political struggle between the legislature and the courts and it has now come to a head. SN: Are you in favor of going back to the old school funding formula?Whitener: I didn’t have any issue with the old system. The problem was the state could no longer fund the old system. There will always be some inequities in Kansas schools and the old formula recognized that. Personally, I would be in favor 0f going back to it.SN: Has the new funding mechanism caused any hardship for Oxford and Wellington?Whitener: For Oxford in the past three or four years, we have cut our staff by 10 percent. So we have people taking different jobs and different roles. Like myself, initially I took the job in Oxford to be just a superintendent. But then I became superintendent/principal. That has caused me some stress. A lot of people are getting burnt out.I know in Wellington they have reduced staff.SN: Is there a solution?Whitener: Most certainly. The legislature needs to fund schools. Study after study have shown they are not adequately funding public schools.SN: Do you think the 2012 net income tax cuts will be reinstated?Whitener: I don’t see how they can fix funding problems without generating revenue. I also don’t see them reinstating taxes on LLCs. I think it is incredibly difficult to raise taxes once you cut them. They did raise sales tax last year which disproportionately hurt poor people.  SN: Switching to Wellington, are there any programs you want to initiate here?Whitener: Several people in Wellington have asked me that very question several times over. People are always weary when a new superintendent comes in. ‘What are you going to do to us?’ they say. I don’t have any specific programs I want to bring. My intent is to get to know the school very well and the community very well. I know we will be working on a strategic plan and that we will be connecting it with the community. I also know the state has a new accreditation plan that goes into effect. So we will have to look and that will be something we have to address.SN: Do you see any weaknesses with Wellington’s school district?Whitener: I think the district has a difficult time attracting staff as I said before. But, again, it is a regional thing. I know Oxford is a technology roots school district and we have devices one-to-one for third grade to senior students. That will be much more difficult to implement in a bigger school district like Wellington.Technology and having those devices available to students will be a challenge for Wellington and will be so for some time.SN: As far as school buildings, we have four elementary schools. Do you ever anticipate closing one?Whitener: I don’t see that happening in the near future. They just added safe rooms and other improvements to all four elementary schools.SN: Do you anticipate any athletic programs being cut?Whitener: Not at this point. I do know one of the funding plans that was introduced earlier in the session, stated schools could not use funding to fund sports programs. I just don’t see that proposal becoming law.SN: What’s your feeling on school consolidation? Do you think Wellington will absorb other school districts?Whitener: That’s a touchy subject. For communities like Oxford, the school is the lifeblood of the community. If the school closes, it would be a devastating blow. There are legislators who want that to happen, but it would be difficult for them to do so. But with funding the way it is and what it could be down the road, anything is possible.SN: Do you think it is the goal of the state legislature is to make public schools obsolete in favor of private schools?Whitener: I think there are a few people who want this. But I don’t think the majority feel that way.SN: Was consolidation one of the reasons why you wanted to move to Wellington instead of staying in Oxford?Whitener: Not really. I wanted to move into a larger school district three years ago before any of this was an issue. Many administrators in the school or elsewhere want to move up. That is a natural inclination.SN: What do you think Wellington should do to be a better school district?Whitener: We need to collaborate with our families and our industries and business. Because they are the ones who will tell us how we are doing. I will be asking, “what do we need to do better in serving you?”SN: Are you planning on moving to Wellington?Whitener: Yes.SN: Tell us about your familyWhitener: I have a wife and three grown sons. My wife, Teresa, is a kindergarten teacher in Winfield and will drive back and forth.SN: Are you excited about coming to Wellington?Whitener: Absolutely. I have gotten to know some of the administrators, community numbers and chamber members. People are excited about doing great things for Wellington and I’m excited to be part of that.Follow us on Facebook.Follow us on Twitter. Close Forgot password? Please put in your email: Send me my password! 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