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Gibson recalls tenure fondly, looks ahead

Superintendent to become principal

June 6, 2012

For Matt Gibson, retirement is a relative term.

While the long-time Elmbrook School District superintendent prepares to formally say goodbye to those he has served during a retirement party June 14 at the Wilson Center, he already is preparing to take on a voluntary role for the EEF and become the first principal of the Wisconsin International Academy in Glendale.

Phase of retirement

Gibson is extending his 40-year career as an education leader - 17 at Elmbrook - in what he describes as a three-day work week that also will include some consulting in and out of education.

"This is a big transition," Gibson said. "I've always been upwardly mobile looking in a sense for the next career opportunity, even though I've been here for 17 years. This is the first time that I will be scaling back, and that's just admitting my age."

He said it will be a new phase in another way too, because, as he puts it, "when you are the superintendent, you carry the organization on you shoulder and you do that because it's inherent in the responsibility."

Heartfelt thanks

He also carries an ample sense of gratitude.

"I really want to express my gratitude for the opportunity to serve Elmbrook," he said. "I have never taken that for granted. It has been a privilege to earn the respect of the 25 board members who have served during my time."

His time began in 1995 after a 23-year span of teaching and being superintendent in districts that span a large portion of the state. After earning a bachelor's degree in music education from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Gibson was a music teacher in the Manitowoc and Fond du Lac School Districts from 1972 to 1976. He became principal of the Rib Lake School District in 1976. In 1981, he started his superintendent career, serving Swallow and North Lake Schools, Fox Point-Bayside and Stoughton.

Throughout those positions, Gibson said, he gained an increasing level of complex responsibility, learning to work with more departmentalized districts, listen and advise key players such as board members and parents, and ultimately meet the expectations of high-performing schools.

Took another look

He almost never made it to Elmbrook.

"We had just moved to Stoughton and purchased a house," he said, noting that he was reluctant to uproot his wife, Nancy, and their three children. "They really wanted me to come here. I felt honored and knew this was a career move that might not come along again. Nancy and I talked it over and eventually decided that we should do it."

His first impressions of Elmbrook are still how he sees the district.

"I was immediately impressed with the students and their high level of presentations at board meetings," said Gibson, who has seen many more students give those presentations over the years.

He was equally impressed with the adults - colleagues, residents and parents - who worked to successfully pass an $8.9 million referendum that helped reorganize the elementary and middle school lineup that exists today.

"A group was in place when I got here, and they really drove it," Gibson said. "I just helped them put some of the pieces together."

That experience helped Gibson learn the community politics and helped shape his leadership for the next decade and a half.

Lifelong learner

Over the years, Gibson said, he learned more about being a superintendent.

"I learned the discernment of when to be sturdy and when to be flexible," he said. "If you are too flexible you don't have the stature," adding that he has taken a middle ground, giving recommendations to the School Board on virtually every issue by representing "all the different voices" of the community.

Taking in minority as well as majority views in his recommendations and other actions, Gibson said, is his role as a facilitator. After a $108 million building referendum failed in 2007, he put together a team of proponents and opponents that reshaped the proposal "line item by line item" and eventually passed a $62.2 million referendum in 2008.

Despite his accomplishments, which also include a five-year financial plan in anticipation of ACT 10, Gibson points to failures that involve not extending the district's continuous improvement efforts.

In the end, it is about student achievement, and Elmbrook recently was able to break the 25 mark for ACT scores. Gibson knows that the district always will be compared to other high-performing districts.

What it's all about

His most memorable times in the district, he said, are recurring reminders of student achievement.

"I was touring a group at East earlier this week and there was a freshman girls choir doing college-level work," he said. "Their phrasing, articulation, musicality and spark were so impressive. I could walk into any classroom around the district and I can find that kind of high level of achievement."

His retirement will be a three-peg stool of activity. He will help the Elmbrook Education Foundation achieve its goal of establishing an endowment, be the first principal of the Wisconsin International Academy - designed to bring Chinese students here to learn English and the culture - and forge a new executive coaching career.

The Gibson File

PERSONAL:He's from Pepin, southwest of Eau Claire. An only child, he looked up to his parents who influenced his career choice but never pushed him into the field of education. His father was superintendent of the local school district, his mother was a teacher. "My father was my strongest role model, and my mother was very creative," he said.

PERSONALITY:Long-time Executive Assistant Carol Chetney describes Gibson as "a good man who is well organized." When asked what people may not know about him, she said, "He has a great sense of humor that he doesn't usually show." She said they have a running joke about closing the schools due to inclement weather. "When I hear we are about to get some bad weather, I ask him if we should start closing the schools now," Chetney said. "He just gives me that look because he knows."

Saying Goodbye

WHAT: Retirement celebration for Elmbrook Superintendent Matt Gibson

WHERE:Wilson Center, 19805 W. Capitol Drive

WHEN:June 14, 4 p.m. reception, 5:30 p.m. program

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