By DENISE GRANT
Dean Wittwer was looking for a challenge when he became Findlay’s superintendent of schools nine years ago.
“But I certainly wasn’t expecting a disaster,” he said.
Wittwer, like so many others, found himself wading through the second-worst flood in Findlay’s history on Aug. 22, 2007.
Water rose to six feet in the basement of Central Middle School in downtown Findlay. The district’s administrative offices, including his own, were there, as well as its computer network hub, the school’s cafeteria, and permanent records room.
All school buses were stranded, parked side-by-side and bumper-to-bumper, on a little patch of high ground at the bus garage on Blanchard Avenue.
Wittwer, along with several members of his staff, spent the first 48 hours trying to ease the crisis for the schools, and help everyone else.
Findlay High School became headquarters for the Emergency Management Agency, and the district’s trucks and personnel helped deliver supplies to the shelter at The Cube at 3430 N. Main St.
School people were everywhere, trying to salvage as much possible, he recalled. It was miserably hot and humid.
After two days, he ordered everyone out of the Central building. In the silence, he stood staring at the thick mud.
“I can remember looking around and saying ‘God, this changes everything,'” he said.
In 2005, Wittwer was superintendent of Wapakoneta Schools, his hometown schools. He had earned a reputation as one of the best educational leaders in the state.
Under his watch, Wapakoneta Schools went from a $1.7 million deficit in 1992-93, the year he was hired, to a $4 million surplus.
At the same time, the district renovated four buildings, and built new sports facilities and a bus lot. Wapakoneta Schools also consistently ranked in the top 10 percent of efficient school districts in the state.
His accomplishments read like a checklist for members of the Findlay school board as they worked to find a new superintendent. Findlay Superintendent Robert Lotz, a long-time district treasurer, was retiring.
The board approached Wittwer with a five-year contract at $125,000 a year.
“Findlay Schools had a very good reputation,” he said. “I guess, I was looking for more of a challenge than I even realized at the time.”
Wittwer liked the idea of a bigger school district. Findlay Schools are about twice the size of Wapakoneta’s.
By then, Findlay schools were struggling. There were money problems, union problems, curriculum problems, and district leadership could not agree on a fix to the district’s building needs.
“I had no clue about the condition of the buildings,” he said.
But he was already aware of the money trouble and stalled union talks, and he was quick to open a dialogue with the teachers’ union, said former union President Dee Groman.
“I always found him to be an outstanding listener. He was sure to listen to all sides of an issue and was sure to follow the contract that we had negotiated,” she said.
Groman retired from the school district in 2010 and works as a labor relations consultant with the Ohio Education Association in several northwestern Ohio districts, including Findlay.
“I will be sorry to see him move on. He is such a great advocate for his teachers, and you don’t always see that in the superintendents I work with,” Groman said.
Wittwer was also quick to begin work on building a solid administrative team, which included Paul Blaine as interim assistant superintendent. Blaine had retired as superintendent of St. Marys City Schools in 2004, a position he had held since 1987. The men were colleagues and friends.
Together, Wittwer and Blaine began rolling out a financial plan, which the school district still follows. There were staff meetings, public meetings, and still more meetings as they tried to explain it.
A lot of changes had to be made. The most difficult was overstaffing.
Over the past nine years, Wittwer’s administration has eliminated over 60 jobs, most through attrition.
Difficulties, Wittwer says, are a good catalyst for change.
“If you have money problems, it forces you to spend your money more wisely, and that’s not a bad thing,” he said.
However, staff members, especially those at the high school level, challenged the changes and argued that cuts would hurt programs. However, Wittwer said the only programs that would be lost would be those that no longer appealed to students.
By 2007, the fiscal plan was in place, the strategic plan had been updated, and district-wide changes had been made to curriculum. Voters approved a continuing levy for capital improvements, and staff reductions were underway.
Wittwer knew stepping to the podium on the opening day for teachers in August 2007 that he had to rally his staff.
The flood, which came just days before the start of the new school year, had the district scrambling to get the doors open.
Travel through the city was still difficult, and many students and staff members were homeless. Classes were dislocated, and even his administrators was scattered in temporary offices throughout the city.
Parents complained that the start was too soon, and the city was still a mess, with heaps of trash piled everywhere.
But Wittwer pressed to start the school year. For Wittwer, the response came down to a question of faith.
“We often ask where is God when there is a disaster,” he said.
God, he told his staff, would be found in the recovery.
“I knew that when I was standing that day in the floodwater in the basement of Central,” he said.
The school year started just a few days late, as people rallied to help each other and flood victims in the community. And Wittwer was already at the drawing board.
Maybe it comes from his days of playing or coaching football, or as an art teacher, but Wittwer loves strategizing on those large, white dry erase boards. There are color options, arrows, drawings and lots of numbers. It helps him explain, and think.
It was there that he first made the argument that Ohio School Facilities Commission funds should be used for more than to fix up Findlay’s old buildings. Damages to both Central Middle School and Washington Intermediate School qualified the district for the program, which is reserved for the worst school buildings in Ohio.
Wittwer successfully argued that the decision on how to best replace lost space would not be made in Columbus. The commission eventually agreed, and the community took a year before settling on seeking two new middle schools and a new technical school.
The district lost its first bid for the bond issue needed to pay the local share of the project on Aug. 4, 2009. The 4.4-mill, 28-year bond issue would raise about $54 million, a match for a pledged $19 million from the state.
It was Wittwer’s only loss at the polls as superintendent in Wapakoneta and Findlay.
Voters didn’t like the price tag and the loss of what many saw as historic buildings. Some were nostalgic about the buildings. Others criticized the inclusion of the technical school in the deal, and wanted only the middle schools.
The school district had until the November election to pass the bond issue, or the commission would withdraw its offer. The district could reapply later, but the deal would be open to renegotiation.
There was another problem.
Both Findlay and Hancock County were in dire financial straits and wanted to ask voters for more money, too. And it was evident the economy was in the Great Recession.
Fearing voters were in a foul mood, officials had hoped to avoid having three tax issues on the ballot at once.
“We really had no choice. We had to put up a united front. The stakes were huge,” said Wittwer. “It truly was a defining moment for Findlay and Hancock County.”
The campaigns ran separately, but the message was the same: Findlay/Hancock County would have to forge its own way through the economic turmoil.
The schools’ message was educational and economic. The new construction would help put people to work and bring money.
Voters passed all three questions.
The Courier acknowledged the win the next day with a front-page headline: “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Wittwer has kept that newspaper and a copy of the rare front-page editorial, endorsing the taxes, on the wall of his office since.
“I believe people went to the polls that day and believed they could make a difference. They did,” he said.
Both middle schools opened in January 2012. The Millstream Career Cooperative building opened that fall.
Wittwer supervised the construction of all three buildings, although the school board had offered to hire a supervisor for the job.
And, he started talking about retirement.
Wittwer has been working under a retiree/rehire agreement with the city schools this past school year. He will begin as superintendent of the Allen County Educational Service Center on Aug. 1. He was hired under a two-year contract at $95,000 a year.
Under Ohio law, a state employee can retire, begin to collect a pension and then be rehired, and still collect a salary in addition to a pension.
Ohio’s educational service centers function like a cooperative and provide support services to the public schools in a variety of forms, including curriculum development, therapists and special education classrooms.
The new job should be less demanding, Wittwer said, He is looking forward to the slower pace.
It’s sort of “full circle” for Wittwer, who began his teaching career in Allen County in 1975, teaching art at Shawnee High School.
“I need some flexible time, but I still need a challenge,” he said.
On May 29, Findlay school board recognized Wittwer. The Dr. Dean and Pat Wittwer Fine Arts Wing at Findlay High School will open next fall.
The new entrance to the arts wing is part of a $2.5 million renovation to the school’s main entrance that was announced earlier this spring. The high school entrance will resemble the entrance to the Millstream Career Center and will include a security office.
The formal entrance bearing Wittwer and his wife’s name will be located near the entrance to the R.L. Heminger Auditorium.
Wittwer said Findlay Schools will continue to face challenges. Continued uncertainty in school funding and the difficulties facing families are probably at the top of the list, he said.
However, he said the city school district is well positioned “for the business of educating children.”
“It has been a wonderful experience, bar none,” he said.
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