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Nelson now ready for retirement

District 833 Superintendent Tom Nelson's last school board meeting is this week as retires after four years.

He and his wife, Margaret, plan to return to Prescott, Ariz., where they were living when he took the job in the district after a stormy and failed superintendent search by the school board. After the first search ended, the firm suggested Nelson for the job. After the initial interview, Nelson accepted the position.

Nelson, said it was the "right time" for him to return to education because soon after he retired from Buffalo, Minn., he realized he was not ready for retirement.

"There were some very talented people here who needed a sense of direction," he said. "Things fell together very nicely. The stars were lined up."

The communities in the district have a "real can-do attitude," he said.

Under Nelson's leadership, the district went through many changes including several referendums and passing one of the largest construction bond issues in state history, which led to building East Ridge High School.

For most of his first three years in the district, the economy was decent, he said.

"There was a tremendous amount of energy and the district was helped because of it," Nelson said.

Growing up in southern Minnesota, he didn't think he would find the same small-town atmosphere in the south Washington County area suburbs, but found many of the same characteristics here. Parents are very supportive here and show up for all school activities.

Thinking strategically about the future helped bring about changes in the district including the process to re-draw attendance boundaries, he said.

It took time to get participation and feedback from parents.

Some people feel school board decisions are made ahead of the public portion of the process but that's not the case, according to Nelson.

"We didn't tell them the answer," he said. "We were willing to see decisions get shaped without micromanaging the process."

As the district moves ahead under the leadership of incoming Superintendent Mark Porter, it will still have to demonstrate that district schools are the best choice for families because there are other choices such as charter schools and going to other districts.

School districts reflect what's going in society and in an economy that is undergoing some drastic changes, he said.

The federal No Child Left Behind act has brought many changes to the district that will remain challenges into the future.

"Whether you are for or against it, the philosophy behind it is a good one, that every child can learn," Nelson said.

Some of it has created havoc but it has led to more interventions for students before they fail.

Nelson said he will miss the people he has met and worked with, and being in classrooms.

"I'll miss the energy that's around a good school district," he said, "and this is a good school district."

He plans on spending more time with his seven grandchildren and look for some volunteer activities to keep him busy.

"That's what I failed to do the first time I retired," he said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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