Parting ways

Retiring RCAPS Superintendent Steven Westhoff reflects on highlights, challenges of nine-year tenure

  REED CITY – Chaperoning prom last weekend and watching students enjoy a highlight of their high school years allowed Reed City Area Public Schools Superintendent Steven Westhoff to focus on what initially drew him to a career in education – the students. On Monday, after nine years leading the district, Westhoff made public his decision to retire from his 32-year career in education at the end of the school year. He said he will most miss getting to know students, as well as working with the administrators and teachers at RCAPS. “The brightest spot of my year this year has been here in the high school with the kids, being able to interact with them,” he said The current school year afforded Westhoff the chance to work even more closely with students, as he took on the role of high school principal in addition to his responsibilities as superintendent. In the past month, Westhoff went from securing a contract extension as superintendent and fighting to maintain his role as principal to deciding to step away from the district completely. “As boards change, as people change, as visions change, as time goes on, the way people interact with each other loses the freshness, the positivity and the creativity it should have,” Westhoff said. “Sometimes it’s better to separate and go in new directions. It became obvious to me and to the board that we had a desire to move in different directions.” At a meeting Monday, board members unanimously approved a retirement agreement for Westhoff, 54, which included a $65,133 incentive with the option of another payment of the same amount if he does not seek other employment after leaving the district. “We have spent a lot of time talking about it,” board president Dan Boyer said at the meeting. “We all agree – and I include Mr. Westhoff in this – that at this point in time, this is the best course of action for all of us.” Westhoff still is mulling over post-retirement options – amid the busy end of the school year – but he said he wants to continue his lifelong mission to educate in some capacity. “My whole life has been education. I don’t see myself walking away from that, even if I work outside what technically you would call the field of education,” he said. Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District Superintendent Curt Finch will facilitate the superintendent search, as he did for Big Rapids Public Schools and Morley Stanwood Community School in the past two years. Finch met with the RCAPS board Thursday evening to set a general timeline for the process. Before beginning interviews, the board will hold two forums to gain feedback on what district staff and community members are looking for in a superintendent. Staff will meet at 3:45 p.m. on May 7 and the public is invited to a discussion at 5:30 p.m. the same day in the board room. The board plans to close the job listing on May 24, and announce the top candidates on June 4. The first round of interviews will take place June 5 and 6, followed by a second round of interviews on June 7 after the board narrows the field again. RCAPS hopes to offer a contract to its top candidate at a regular board meeting set for June 17. Finch said Westhoff was a pivotal part in encouraging collaborative efforts among all six districts in the MOISD. “Steve was a bold superintendent, making tough decisions that weren’t always popular,” he added. “But he always had the best interest of students in mind.” Westhoff was hired as RCAPS superintendent in 2004, after serving as a middle school principal at Rockford Public Schools. His wife and two daughters, who now are in high school, moved with him. RCAPS had seven superintendents in the 11 years before Westhoff was hired. Westhoff walked into the district just after the community had passed a $12.6 million bond to break ground on a new elementary building as well as make other significant renovations around the district. In reviewing RCAPS’ finances, he realized the board had approved a budget with a $2.4 million deficit. So Westhoff took up the task of making cuts and balancing the budget, and unfortunately hasn’t had the chance to stop the reductions. “Even though I think we’ve been very successful in how we’ve reduced expenses and made budget cuts, the bad point is we’ve had to do it every year that I’ve been here,” he said. “Every year in Reed City, it’s been budget reductions, budget reductions, budget reductions. Much of that has to do with the lack of funding and revenue from the state of Michigan.” In the course of career, Westhoff said the biggest change to education has been raising expectations for students and staff, while simultaneously reducing funding from the state level – which puts all school districts in a very difficult situation, he said. “We haven’t gotten over this hurdle where we’ve been able to convince our legislators to fund education to match what they say is their top priority,” he said. “Every year we continue to ratchet up and increase expectations that we have not only for student performance but also for staff performance. I’m OK with that. But the thing I’m very opposed to is when you try to tell people you must do that without giving them the resources to be successful as they do it. That’s what the state of Michigan has done.” Declining enrollment at RCAPS has added fuel to the financial fire. In the past nine years, the district’s enrollment has dropped by about 400 students, Westhoff estimated. “Declining enrollment continued for quite awhile until the last two years,” he said. “It’s nice to hope maybe that’s leveled off. When the revenue you receive sromt he state is getting cut in significant chunks and your studnet enrollment is going down, that leads to financiall issues. That leads to us having to make some very difficult decision.” The most difficult decision of his time as superintendent was to privatize food and custodial services in 2008, Westhoff said. That decision led to the recall of four board of education members, with the reasons cited including the board’s support of cutting positions at lower pay scales and extending the superintendent’s contract. “We were forced to make some decisions we didn’t like,” Westhoff said. “But when you only have so much money and you’ve got to find ways to provide services you are required to provide, unfortunately you are backed into corners where you make decision based on economics that are difficult for communities to accept.” He also is disappointed at the elimination of an alternative education program and elementary art and choir – decisions also based on financial constraints. Still, there have been many bright spots in Westhoff’s time as superintendent. He is proud of the fact that the district kept moving forward every year despite the continued budget cuts, and staff found creative ways to maintain many programs with less funding. Westhoff also cited RCAPS’ commitment to offer physical education every day at every grade level, establishing of the ALPS program for advanced high school students, building the Biodome and making Adequate Yearly Progress academically every year as points of pride in his tenure at RCAPS. The success of G.T. Norman Elementary School’s Family Night program also has helped the district gain statewide attention. As Westhoff leaves his work at RCAPS, he hopes better days are on the horizon for the district and other schools across the state. “I’ve always been told things in education are very cyclical – you have your hills and your valleys,” he said. “Well we’ve been in this valley for a long time.”
Superintendent search timeline After nine years at Reed City Area Public Schools, Superintendent Steven Westhoff has announced his retirement by the end of the school year. He will remain available to offer guidance to his successor. Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District Superintendent Curt Finch will facilitate the superintendent search for the RCAPS board of education. On Thursday, the board set a preliminary search timeline, as follows:
  • Friday – Post the job opening, and begin an online student/staff/community survey available on RCAPS’ website,
  • May 7 – Forum for staff to give input on what they want in a superintendent at 3:45 p.m. in the high school library.
  • May 7 – Forum for community members to give input on what they want in a superintendent at 5:30 p.m. in the board room. The survey will be closed.
  • May 24 – Close job listing.
  • June 4 – Board will hold a closed meeting to review applicants and announce approximately six top candidates.
  • June 5 and 6 – The first round of interviews will take place at 4, 5:45 and 7:30 p.m. on both days in the high school library. The board then will name approximately three top candidates.
  • June 7 – The second round of interviews will take place at 4 and 5:45 p.m., with additional time slots added as needed.
  • June 11 – Board members will make a site visit to the top candidate’s current school district.
  • June 17 – The board will offer a contract to the top candidate.