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Published December 01 2009

Q&A with West Fargo's Dana Diesel Wallace

West Fargo Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace sat down with The Forum recently to discuss her nearly four-year tenure.

Here’s a look at the interview:

What were your goals when you started?

Well, it is all about learning. So it was to understand from the people involved in that – be it at the level of the school, or the board, or administrators – what they thought we did well, what they thought we could do better on. And again, the board was very interested in ‘let’s get going, let’s get a strategic plan,’ so a lot of that listening and talking and bringing in groups with folks lead to the development of the strategic plan.

Why do you think the School Board hired you?

They clearly had an agenda for change. They had seen I had been successful in improvements in student achievement through other improvement efforts.

I got that track record. I think that’s what they were focused on. And some of the things, I’d worked in a growing district, led academic programs, been a principal … but I think (they) largely thought I could come in here and affect some of the change that they felt needed to happen.

Do you think you’ve done or are doing what they hired you to do?

I think we’ve been able to improve student achievement and the programs for them, for kids. That’s very data driven, it’s not anecdotal and that’s what I understood people wanted me to do. So yes, I think we’ve been successful.

How do you react to those who said they didn’t vote for the June school building referendum because of you?

I think we heard some of that. And we heard they weren’t going to vote because of the board, and they weren’t going to vote for a second high school and they weren’t going to vote for it because it cost too much money.

So how do you take it? You take it as part of the territory. If you’re going to be about change and improvement, you’re going to ruffle some people’s feathers.

Do you think the public’s criticism of you has been fair?

Yes and no.

When there are fabrications about your personal life … to me, things that people make up, things that are blatantly not true, why would they bother you?

One certainly can (criticize), and that’s fair game. On that path of change – and again with a community that’s a little divided about what they want – sure, a superintendent becomes a focal point for criticism and blaming and finger-pointing.

You’ve worked in larger school districts that built several schools a year. West Fargo’s reaction to growth has been different. Why do you think that is?

They (Wake County Schools, where she worked last) had crossed that bridge. I think the 20th high school was being built when I left.

That’s a big issue here for some people … it’s good old Packer pride, the sense of belonging, it’s a sense of community around one thing. And those are very powerful and can be very powerfully good things. (Building new schools is) something you really have to work on. I didn’t know that coming in.

Do you consider yourself a controversial leader?

I think some of the things we have done since I’ve been here have been controversial. No doubt about that.

Where do you go from here? What’s your vision for the school district?

Goal 2011 (the strategic plan) is all but realized. It’s time not to … put up our feet. … I think the next piece is to come back out and say ‘what’s our next goal’, what’s going to challenge us and how do we want to marshal again our energies and resources to do the next thing we think will be great for kids.

We’ve started a conversation very early about world class and what world-class education looks like. Is it necessary that our kids are competitive with the kids in Williston (N.D.) and Wishek (N.D.) and Wiesbaden (Germany)? I think that’s where we need to go. The world has changed a lot even if schools haven’t.

How would you evaluate the last three years and what do you think were challenges to attain your goals?

Like every other job I’ve had in this field or out of it, (it’s been) a lot of learning, which really makes it fun for me. I think I enjoy those types of challenges, enjoy having goals and being driven to reach those, driven to distraction if we don’t.

I think we set a very challenging goal (strategic plan) the first time. I remember working with the principals in several meetings and … that’s when people said, ‘whoa we need to kind of slow it down.’ And I listened to that. I kind of had a bigger, different goal in mind, but I listened to that and it made perfect sense.

What was the failure of the June referendum like for you personally?

We put a lot of work into it. We talked to a lot of people; some people would say we didn’t talk to enough. The board worked, worked, worked on that.

It got gigantic in terms of the price tag. But when you’re that close in it, you’re excited about it and you’ve committed a lot of energy and you can see the good things that can come out of it, it’s disappointing for it to not pass. We just got to go back and try again.

- Kelly Smith