by Jim Boyle
As the doors swung open on Sept. 3 for the start of the 2019-20 school year, the superintendent of Elk River Area Public Schools was boarding a school bus in western Elk River as the sun came up.
Dr. Dan Bittman found a seat at the front of the bus, coffee in hand, and, as many students, staff, parents and community members in the 13,000-plus student district have grown accustomed, he eagerly greeted everyone he came in contact with.
Students boarded with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The district’s leader wished them well as they exited upon arrival at their school.
At the helm of the eighth largest school district in the state, Bittman himself is embarking on what could be a breakout year. The district is now in the second year of its five-year strategic plan, and the district is presenting its largest bond referendum to date and an operating levy.
Pleased with his work in his first two years of a three-year contract, the Elk River Area School Board capped off a busy summer with a three-year contract extension.
Board members went to great lengths to make sure Bittman felt appreciated and valued, as they did a comparison of the fifth through 11th largest school districts in the state to make sure he would be comfortably situated in the middle.
School Board Chairman Shane Steinbrecher said Bittman’s initial contract was bare bones, and it gave the district a chance to see results.
“The results for the district have been excellent,” Steinbrecher said, pointing to Bittman’s leadership through everything from strategic planning and preparing a bond and levy referendum to balancing the school district’s budget this past spring when $10.2 million in cuts were needed. “The district has been transparent. The district is living within its means. And Dr. Bittman’s leadership has been phenomenal.”
His contract calls for his 2020-21 gross annual salary to be equal to the average (including performance pay issued in some districts) paid to superintendents of the fifth, sixth, seventh, ninth, 10th and 11th largest districts in the state. The superintendent will receive a 2% raise in the second and third year of the contract.
Board members’ comments of support for his contract included references to his commitment through visibility, leadership, hard work, excellent performance and a genuine interest in establishing and strengthening relationships with the community.
His performance was called “exemplary” by at least one member and it was noted that he exceeded expectations in every area in which his performance was evaluated.
“His pay should match his performance and be comparable to that of similar-sized districts,” one board member said.
Others commented on his marketability and that the district cannot expect to retain him if it continues to pay him a comparably lower salary.
Bittman will make $211,196 for the 2019-20 school year. The average salary (including any negotiated performance bonuses among the six comparable districts), totals $230,452 for the 2020-21 school year. That’s about what Bittman will be paid for the 2020-21 school year and he will receive a 2% increase in the second and third year of his new contract.
Bittman told the Star News heading into negotiations he was hopeful to have meaningful conversation with board members to express his gratitude for the opportunity to serve ISD 728 and be compensated similarly to peers in comparable school districts and positions.
“The board and I recognized that my compensation was not comparable to other superintendents in similarly sized districts and that I would need to prove myself,” Bittman said. “We also recognized that we wanted and deserved an opportunity to get to know each other better and to make sure it was a good fit. I am grateful that board members were willing to review other contracts and to ensure my salary was comparable and “in the middle.”
Bittman also said he feels fortunate every day he comes to work and thoroughly enjoys being here.
“Knowing that the board would like me to remain here makes me proud and want to work even harder,” he said.
Bittman said he was attracted to the Elk River Area School District because it was one of the most respected, innovative and accomplished school districts in the state of Minnesota.
“I have watched the school district for years, dating back to my years as assistant commissioner at Minnesota’s Department of Education and always felt it was a place I wanted to be, contribute to and learn.”
He said he found the good reputation to be well deserved.
“I love ISD 728, the people, communities, and the values and mission we stand for,” Bittman said. “Every day I have the opportunity to learn with and from amazing students, staff, families and community members. I have enjoyed every single day and have so many highlights.”
Among the experiences he counts as highlights have been watching students perform and succeed in the 728 Cadet program, watching the district’s Collaborative Team Members be empowered, inspired, and make amazing things happen within each of their departments and schools, and the energy and support seen at community events (athletic events, band concerts, open houses, etc.).
“I have also enjoyed meeting with students each month throughout the district, as I continue to learn so much from them, and to be inspired by their potential, influence, insight and continued successes,” he said.
Bittman said he has been surprised by the growth and future growth projections, which show 2,000 more children coming in the next five to 10 years. As of last month, the district had 300 more students than it did the previous August.
When asked what he hopes to be able to say are his top accomplishments in the coming years, he said: “I am hopeful that we will have a successful referendum in November so that all learners can continue to have quality experiences and opportunities throughout the district for the next 10 years, and that we do not have to ask for further financial support for another 10-plus years.”
He also hopes:
•All learners have access and opportunity regardless of such things like where they live, how much money their family makes, or what they look like.
•He’s able to continue to build and maintain a strong foundation to meet the growing enrollment, facility, and learning needs of students, families, and communities.
•To support the district’s teams to fulfill their mission to educate, inspire and empower the schools’ diverse learners, to shape their futures, to accomplish their dreams, and to contribute positively to local and global communities.
•To play an important role in cultivating an innovative environment where all members of the community embrace exceptional opportunities for all learners to achieve the district’s mission and outcomes.
Bittman said he is honored and humbled to be part of the Elk River Area School District.
“I see myself staying in ISD 728 as long as I can positively contribute to and help others fulfill our vision and mission, and hope to retire here,” he said. “I feel blessed to be part of this spectacular school district and school community, and cannot imagine being anywhere else at this time.”