Nicolet High School District Superintendent Rick Monroe, who surprised the community Tuesday by announcing his retirement, told Patch in an afternoon interview that the decision was based on an “accumulation” of factors and largely was a lifestyle choice because he wants more time for other pursuits.
Those pursuits include his volunteer work for St. Vincent De Paul – he said that he and his wife visited three people who needed assistance last weekend alone – and his desire to spend more time in New York visiting his adult children, playing piano, and being involved in church.
“To me, this hasn’t been a job or career. It’s been a lifestyle,” he said – a lifestyle that means he is stopped by people while “buying paint at Home Depot” and that requires him to attend school board meetings and extra-curricular activities, creating a life very focused on work. “I’d like to be able to just go hang out with my kids,” he said, explaining that he made the decision to retire around Thanksgiving.
Although he acknowledged challenges – a school board that didn’t always work together, in his words, and the “financial challenges” of Act 10 – Monroe said those things were not a driving force in his retirement. In fact, he said he could not think of “one thing” that was a singular precipitating factor in his retirement, even as he stressed his positive feelings for the district and community.
“I wouldn’t say the functioning of the board was a reason that I decided to retire — that would not be accurate to say – but was working with the board challenging? Yes. That is challenging for all superintendents,” he said. “The core challenges would probably be just trying to get the board to work together, to get a board that is completely trusting of each other and knowledgeable to the role of each other as individuals and as board members.”
Both Monroe and the school board president independently cited the same key accomplishment of his tenure – they described an improvement in the high school’s culture that focuses more on individual attention and warmth. Exemplifying this student-focus approach: The red carpet that Monroe has unrolled for students on their first day of school, at which time they are also greeted with applause and music.
“Nicolet has become more student centered,” he said. “When I first got here, we were policy driven and weren’t always doing things in the best interest of individual students but were just following policies. Now, we are nurturing every student; we are making sure that every student is connected with at least one faculty member.”
Board President Marilyn Franklin, the only member of the board who was on it when Monroe was hired, agreed. “Besides the academic stuff, which has been very good, he created a renewed sense that the kids have a good feeling for their school. I do believe you walk into the school and it is a happy place. He believes in the worth of individuals. He has compassion for people.”
As for board tensions, she said, “The external demands, both financial and educational, have made board members more demanding of the superintendent. Fiscally we have to provide a quality education with less dollars so board members are always looking at what a program costs, how can we combine it, streamline it. But a school is still a school. It’s not a business.”
Monroe will retire at the end of the school year, on June 30, after serving as head of the district since 2007. He said that he has goals he still wants to accomplish in the next six months. Among them is working on a collaboration with Cardinal Stritch University on a new program that would train African-American high school students to become educators in the hope they would stay in North Shore districts, which have trouble recruiting enough minority applicants.
According to a press release from the district, Monroe revealed the retirement news at a special faculty and staff meeting on Tuesday morning.
Monroe has been an educator since 1976, when he started as a special education teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools. He worked in that district for 19 years as a teacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal. He also later served as principal of St. Francis High School and Shorewood High School before being named superintendent at Nicolet, the release said.
No plans to go elsewhere
The district release said that Monroe announced his retirement now in order to give the school board enough time to analyze options regarding his replacement. Asked whether he would consider going to another district, Monroe said he had nothing on the table now nor any plans to do so. But he also would not completely rule it out.
In a letter to the Nicolet School Board announcing his retirement, Monroe called it a “special honor and a privilege” to serve the Nicolet community for the past six years. “As a North Shore resident, I was well aware of the exceptional reputation enjoyed by Nicolet,” he wrote.
He commended School Board President Franklin for her “constant and steady support of my work.” He also praised what he called an “exceptionally talented and committed staff.”
Former school board member Kelly Herda, who was on the board that hired Monroe, said she believes Monroe’s retirement is “horrible for the district. I think it’s terrible for our children’s education to lose one of the best district administrators out there, a man who really knows curriculum and really knows administration, and who is so well rounded.”
She recalled when Monroe was first hired, and was talking to the board about his discipline philosophy, and said he “looked at me and said, ‘kids are going to make bad decisions but that doesn’t mean I love them any less. Our job is to treat everything as an educational moment.’ He is an educator. That’s what really drew the School Board to him — education of his students was his number one priority and always will be.”
Successes and challenges
Nicolet was named a Blue Ribbon School by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in 2008, made the Advanced Placement District Honor Roll in 2012 and was named to Newsweek's "America's Best High Schools" list this year.
Monroe also had his challenges, including a massive flood in 2010 that damaged the school and delayed the start of the year. However, he cites that as a powerful moment of collaboration and community. He, as with other state administrators, also grappled with Act 10's cuts in state aid. In addition, the district passed a spending referendum that was divisive. Just over half of voters approved the 2011 referendum to allow Nicolet to raise its state-imposed revenue cap by $2.15 million in each of the next five years.
The 2012 homecoming week also was tough. First came controversy when a group of seniors decided to circumvent the planned dress-up day with their own theme of "LAX (Lacrosse) Bros and Preppy Hoes.” That was followed by vandalism, cancellation of the annual homecoming pep rally and the arrest of a former school board member for disorderly conduct at a gathering in the school parking lot following the football game.
Monroe admitted frustration at that time over what he called an “us against them” perspective of students and some community members toward school officials. On Tuesday, he said the homecoming “drama” played no role in his retirement.
Herda, who said she was surprised by the retirement, felt that there was a decline in collaboration by factions on the school board and in the community.
"If you have a school board not functioning in a collaborative and cooperative way, that impacts and makes the administrator’s job that much harder, and it can burn people out,” Herda said.
Asked about that specifically, Monroe didn’t deny it, but he did say it didn’t cause his decision to retire and he said such tensions are common on many school boards.
“Some board members have self interests at heart when they come on the board, they have an agenda, and I’m not speaking of Nicolet in particular; I’m just saying this happens anywhere there is a board. Some people are single-issue board members,” he said. “Some are here for the greater good of the school and are totally open minded. If there is anything that is frustrating, it’s probably making sure that everybody knows what their proper role is. It’s not something that’s well defined.”
Franklin said that it is difficult for any administrator to have “five bosses.” She added that it was too soon to say what criteria the board would seek in a new superintendent.
“This all came as a huge surprise to all of us,” she said.