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Ada-Borup Public Schools leader to be offered East Grand Forks superintendent job

East Grand Forks School Board members plan to offer the district's superintendent position to Mike Kolness, superintendent of Ada-Borup (Minn.) Public Schools.

Mike Kolness

East Grand Forks School Board members plan to offer the district's superintendent position to Mike Kolness, superintendent of Ada-Borup (Minn.) Public Schools.

After more than two hours of discussion Wednesday night and several hours of interviews with staff, community members and administrators, the board chose Kolness out of four finalists. He was unable to be reached for confirmation by press time.

Kolness as well as Todd Selk, principal of Valley Middle School in Grand Forks, Chris Mills, superintendent of the Stephen-Argyle (Minn.) Central School District and Jeremy Olson, superintendent of the Henning School District and Underwood Schools in Minnesota, all appeared for interviews Wednesday in East Grand Forks.

If Kolness accepts, he will replace Superintendent David Pace, whose last day will be June 30.

Several board members, staff and others agreed each of the finalists were strong candidates for the job. The list of strengths was longer than the list of weaknesses in each case, they said.


"They're all very fine individuals, and they're very successful at what they're doing," said Greg Vandal, a consultant from Peer Solutions who is helping the district manage the search. "I haven't seen a stronger pool in any of the searches I've done recently."


Each finalist met for an hour Wednesday with members of the School Board, school staff, administration and the community.

Questions covered several topics, including how the finalists approached budget problems, how they would handle a diverse student body and how they maintain objectivity when balancing the requests of several stakeholders.

Interviewers also commented on whether candidates had a personality that would fit the district. They described most candidates as positive people who were passionate about serving students. Mills described himself similarly and said he'd be the type of leader who would be straightforward about positive or negative behavior.

Several interview questions reflected the district's priorities, which include improving communication, test scores and district culture. In one session with community members, Olson said he understands changes to district culture can take time.

At the district in Henning, it's taken five years to improve, and this year he feels it's in a good place, he said.

"It's not a one-year fix," Olson said.


Interviewers said they also wanted to find a superintendent with a strong financial background. In a session with community members, Kolness said his district has experienced declining enrollment, and they had to "adjust staff accordingly," which included placing his wife and several longtime employees on unpaid leave of absence.

Every department in his district had to reduce their budget because there were no upcoming retirements, he said.

"We made it through that process," Kolness said. "The trust level deteriorates anytime you start talking about people's jobs. We all learned from it."

Some finalists spoke at length about the ways they build relationships with staff and the community. Kolness said he prefers one-on-one contact and keeps people informed through a weekly radio spot, writing articles for the newspaper and through social media.

"It's our job as administrators to promote our schools," but he also encourages teachers to do the same, he said.

Comparing notes

After the interviews, the groups gathered to compare notes on the finalists.

None of them had much-if any-experience with new Americans or English language learners, and while the subject was not initially a priority for interviewers, they asked each candidate about it.


The topic spurred some public criticism of the district this fall, when a controversial email that appeared to come from teacher Bryan Perkins about the way ELL students are taught led him to be temporarily suspended and later drew a public apology from the School Board.

Interviewers were also concerned with all of the finalists shifting from managing a smaller district to a larger one.

Kolness' high expectations for staff and students, longevity in the district and communication methods were among his best traits, groups said. However, he also didn't appear to be as concerned with improving culture or morale and may potentially struggle with negotiation situations, they said.

Olson had a strong financial background, communication skills and focus on collaboration, they said. But some found his fast career path, which may have caused him to lose some experience along the way, and his fiscal conservative nature to be possible weaknesses.

Mills did his research on the district, had strong legislative ties and was an effective communicator, they said. But they questioned his time management skills and lack of experience with different districts.

Selk was approachable, he had worked in diverse environments at different districts and had local connections that could benefit the district, they said. However, that same familiarity with the community concerned some as well as his lack of a superintendent's license, which he will obtain July 1.

Selk also is East Grand Forks School Board Chairman Tony Palmiscno's brother-in-law.

Palmiscno contacted the Minnesota School Boards Association when Selk became a finalist. The association cited the law and encouraged Palmiscno not to abstain from the hiring process because he has no financial interest in the hiring.

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