December 9, 2022 at 12:18 p.m.
School Board grapples with Superintendent resigning
“It has been my honor and privilege to serve the Chisago Lakes Schools as the Superintendent for the past six years,” Jennissen said in an e-mailed statement. “Recently, I informed our staff that I intend to resign my position effective June 30, 2023. I wish to thank Mark Leigh, Lori Berg, Jerry Vitalis, Dani Strenke, Brenda Carlson and Tom Lawlor for taking a chance on me six years ago.
“I will be forever grateful for the opportunity. I also wish to thank the many board members, administrators and staff I’ve had the honor and privilege to serve students and families, alongside. Finally, a thank you to the greater community: civic organizations, city leadership and church leaders. You contribute to an outstanding community where families thrive. You all have been a pleasure to work with.
“I am looking forward to finishing strong in support of our students and staff as well as positioning the school board to continue moving Chisago Lakes forward.”
The news came as a surprise to many around the district. The school board, many of whom have worked with Jennissen for the majority of his tenure, reflected on his achievements, as well as what the district will look for going forward.
“I think Dean has done a really good job. I’m serious,” current board chairman Mark Leigh said.
Leigh, who has worked with multiple superintendents over his 36 year stint on the board, said that Jennissen is one of the best, “if not the best” that he’s worked with.
“Dean wanted things done by the book, or policy or law. He felt we needed to live under a contract until the next negotiation session and at that point, to bargain. The history had been that we would often make exceptions between the negotiation sessions. It’s not that there shouldn’t be exceptions and Dean understood that clearly, but that was the starting point for pretty much everything he did. Let’s do what’s right, what’s in contract and what the law states. And a lot of people didn’t like that. We had pushback because that was different. As we saw it as a school board, that was important and should dictate and guide what we did.”
Leigh also praised Jennissen’s ability to communicate throughout the district, even if some people didn’t see it that way at times. “Dean really stepped forward to try and communicate with people well on a regular basis, and to sit down and meet with them. And I think he did a really, really good job that way. It wasn’t always viewed that way by people and it made it difficult for his tenure. It really made it hard.”
But, at the heart of the matter, Leigh, who did not seek re-election in November and will be attending his last meeting on December 15, was disappointed that the district would be losing a great superintendent.
“I believe he is a really good man. A man of integrity, honesty and truthfulness, whether or not people saw that. Once people met him one on one, they saw that. There was a lot of stuff said about him that wasn’t true. You can pretty much say anything on social media and people take it for the gospel and that’s really hard to deal with these days in any setting. As I see it, Dean was one of our best superintendents. I’m thankful we had him and I got to know him professionally and as a friend. I’m not quite sure what went into his decision to move forward — maybe envisioning a rocky road, maybe he said I don’t know where to go from here — but I think he just said it’s truthfully time to put it in God’s hands and see what the next phase of his family’s lives are.”
Board member Brenda Carlson also was a part of the board that hired Jennissen and served on the board his whole tenure.
“I’m sad to see him resign. I don’t think he gets credit for what he’s actually done. It was tough when he came in. People forget what he did. Look at all the construction and negotiations through budget cuts he was involved with,” she said. “He’s a great community member. He loves the community and school. Whatever he does, he will be phenomenal at it because he works hard. He’ll be successful. It’s just too bad it’s not going to be here.”
Carlson, as well as fellow board member Jeff Lindeman, praised Jennissen for the timing of his decision, which gives the board ample time to find candidates and on-board a new superintendent that overlaps with Jennissen to ease the transition.
“Dean specifically told me he wanted to announce this early so the district had a chance to pursue all avenues, and I really appreciate that on his part. That was very thoughtful of him to do,” Lindeman said.
Both Carlson and Lindeman figured the board would transition the new members in the January meeting and get through the organizational aspects of it and then dig into the process of finding a new superintendent.
Carlson said it’s important to her that any candidate be a great communicator and leader. She also said she prefers someone who has been at every level of teaching, much like Jennissen had done. Prior superintendent experience wasn’t a must for her, although the hiring parameters will be determined by the board as a whole.
“COVID has taken a lot out of people in the education industry,” Carlson said. “Admins, teachers, paras; a lot of people are burned out and nobody knows what the public school sector could look like in five years. But, I’m confident we have great people from the bottom up in our district and as long as the new superintendent can be personable, and communicate and work with people and not against them, that will be huge.
Lindeman, who has had public clashes at times with Jennissen, was as surprised as any when he was informed of the decision. “It came as a surprise to me, and I think everybody. He did share with me that as of now, he has no plans moving forward. It was just time for him to step down so Lisa [Jennissen’s wife] and him can prepare for what’s next. He was likely not wanting to commit to three more years, which is pretty typical when people start to think about retiring or moving on to the next phase. I also think if you look at the last five years, we’ve made a lot of cuts culturally and that’s strenuous on a superintendent. And then the whole COVID thing, nobody with or without experience, was prepared for that.”
In relation to COVID, Lindeman said he thought the school’s plan last year to combat the pandemic was one of Jennissen’s greatest achievements as the district superintendent. “His planning is one of his greatest strong suits and benefits he has. His plan was exactly what our district needed. He read the community and the plan that he put together was the right one for Chisago Lakes.
“He also brought a lot of accountability financially with some things with vendors we have,” Lindeman continued. “When things didn’t make sense, he didn’t just stay status quo. He questioned why we are doing it this way, which I agreed with.”
Lindeman knows what he wants to see in the next superintendent, and that’s a collaborative and open candidate. “We need to find a champion for the district who is willing to take a collaborative approach. This district is always struggling with communication and how to use social media. We need a unified message by the district to the community. There’s a lot of myths out there and we have to continue to dispel myths and bring the truth of where we are with our district. In spite of the cuts and COVID, we have an unbelievably comprehensive high school. Parents are satisfied with the schools and teachers in our buildings, and the paras and support and custodians and food service. They love our schools, but there’s some historical things we have to address that people have brought up in different communications. Whatever the truth is, let’s get it out there so the community trusts what the school board and leadership do. Collaborative leadership and what that means is a big part of that. It’s important that when you make policy or decisions that you include the people that are going to be affected. That’s a really critical thing.”