A more rigorous curriculum, advancements in technology and improved internal and external communication by the district are just a few of the examples of the legacy that will be associated with Dr. Nancy Rajanen, who recently announced her decision to retire as Superintendent of Waconia Public Schools effective June 30, 2014.
“It’s not a decision you take lightly,” said Rajanen, who started in Waconia in 2008. “I could continue to do this job and do it well but I needed to consider what was best for me, my family and the district.”
When she retires next summer, Rajanen will have spent six years as superintendent in Waconia, a stint that makes up only a fraction of her 36 years of experience as an educator in Minnesota public schools.
Prior to Waconia, Rajanen was the Assistant Superintendent/Executive Director in Robbinsdale Area Schools for five years. Her career also includes administrative positions in the areas of Special Education and Human Resources in St. Francis, Minn., and Anoka-Hennepin Schools for a total of 16 years.
“My decision comes with incredibly mixed emotions, as I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to work within this educational community,” Rajanen said. “I am incredibly proud of the progress that has been made in labor relations, community involvement, curriculum expansion, and character development of students.”
When she arrived in Waconia in 2008, Rajanen recalled facing the challenges of “considerable conflict” between members of school administration, the school board, staff and the community.
“Those disharmonies have become a distant memory as we have developed respectful practices, hired professional staff, publicly honored and acknowledged staff accomplishments, and made positive decisions about our standard of communication and interactions,” Rajanen said.
Getting people to work together toward a common purpose was one of Rajanen’s strengths.
“It always came down to, what was best for the kids? It was an approach that unified people,” said Rajanen, who is especially proud of her record of hiring and empowering people that are able to create a shared vision that can be carried forward. “The board has told me I’ve hired good people. I’m really proud of that, I really am.”
In terms of hiring, Rajanen made it a priority to improve administrative processes that she had heard described as “secretive and not employee friendly” when she arrived in 2008. Through the addition of employees such as Director of Human Resources Sonya Sailer, Rajanen feels that the district’s directors “operate in a transparent manner with an openness that promotes cooperation through a collaborative system.”
Strengthening the district’s curriculum is also something that Rajanen has made a priority.
“Over the past six years, we have added six pre-engineering classes, expanded foreign language options in breadth and depth, conducted thorough reviews of our programs and offerings, and implemented Senior Seminar and service learning opportunities throughout the curriculum,” she noted. “Our curriculum was good before but it’s even better now. Pushing for the more rigorous classes really ramped it up.”
In terms of technology, Rajanen has made sure that Waconia students will be prepared.
“In 2008, there was considerable energy spent on the ‘PC vs. Mac’ argument,” she recalled. “After six years, we have multiple options, more than 1,300 iPads in the hands of students, Technology Integration specialists, and best practices instruction that utilizes technology to enhance student learning.”
Rajanen has also worked to intertwine the district’s tradition while simultaneously moving it forward.
“While we treasure the small town feel in Waconia, we recognize that kids are competing in a global economy,” she said. “I think what we’ve done has prepared them well for that while protecting both sides of the equation.”
Rajanen is also proud of her push to create the district-wide Service Day held on Martin Luther King Day in February, something that has grown over the years to include many people in the community.
Although the district has had success under her guidance, Rajanen is quick to share the credit with others.
“All of these accomplishments are the result of a dedicated team of professionals, working together for the benefit of students,” she said. “None of this would have been possible without the support and commitment of outstanding school board members, dedicated staff, administration, and community.
“Our accomplishments are significant, and I have been honored to have been a small part of these successes.”
Finance Director Todd Swanson has worked with Rajanen for the past three years. Although he is disappointed that Rajanen has announced her retirement, he wishes her well in her future endeavors.
“She’s been a great boss to work with and I’ve really enjoyed my time with her,” he said. “We will miss her leadership but at the same time, life goes on and we will find a good candidate to fill the position.”
According to school board chairman Brian Rothstein, the board was preparing to hold contract discussions with Rajanen and would have sought a firm three-year commitment but no formal negotiations had started before Rajanen made her announcement.
Rothstein described Rajanen’s decision to retire as somewhat surprising but not altogether unexpected.
“Nancy has a lot of skills and interests outside of K-12 education and I think her exploration for positions outside of District #110 over the past couple of years helped her realize that she was craving challenges that this role could not provide,” he said, calling Rajanen “a great leader” who has built “a wonderful staff.”
“It was a pleasure to work along side her as the board chair over this past year,” he added. “Nancy does an excellent job of assessing her personal strengths and then finding the support needed to compliment her skills.
“Nancy has done an exceptional job of being visible within our community,” Rothstein continued. “Her ability to communicate with people from all walks of life will be missed as we seek solutions to facility needs. She is one of the most genuine and classy people I have ever known.”
Rajanen looks forward to finishing her work as superintendent in the coming months.
“We still have a lot of really important work to do, from the facilities plan to the communications plan, but we’ll be in a great spot on June 30 to leave things in place for someone else to pick up,” said Rajanen, who expects the position to be attractive to her peers. “I think we will attract a lot of very good, experienced superintendents from other districts and Waconia will move forward without missing a beat.”
Rajanen does not plan to be involved in the selection of a new superintendent, a process that usually takes about four months. Rajanen isn’t sure what she will do once she retires from her superintendent position, but she expects to stay busy, possibly by teaching at the college/university level, becoming involved in political advocacy or teaching ESL to adults.
In any case, she is looking forward to having more time to spend with her family and friends.
Contact Todd Moen at [email protected]