Champaign's new school superintendent, Judy Wiegand, brings much to her new role, and much rides on her success.
The Unit 4 Board of Education looked far and wide for a new superintendent before finding its preferred candidate at its own doorstep.
Judy Wiegand was a latecomer to the field of prospective new school superintendents in Champaign, agreeing first to serve on an interim basis and only then throwing her hat in the ring for the full-time job. In our view, she was the clear choice from a disappointing field of applicants.
Wiegand brings to the superintendent's role fully 25 years of experience in the Unit 4 schools, a unique advantage in tackling the challenges and opportunities in this most critical of jobs. It is experience that — if used correctly — can provide great advantages to the district moving forward. Wiegand should know the district — front to back, its strengths and its impediments, its buildings, its staff and its students. That's something that no other applicant could offer. That she was tapped as an interim superintendent following the termination of Arthur Culver speaks to her reputation. She offers the district a distinctive combination of both youth and experience that could yield substantial benefits.
None of that experience could rival the opportunity she has had to see several different individuals in the exact role she now will fill. Each of her predecessors brought with them strengths and weaknesses, and the discernment to draw from the former while avoiding the latter could serve Wiegand richly.
Culver, while not without accomplishments during a particularly trying time in the district's history, was perhaps the most polarizing figure in the office's history. Fairly or unfairly, he was not well liked — either inside the district or outside it, where he was seen as remote and aloof. That flaw alone is fatal in an individual who must restore sagging confidence in the public schools.
Culver may deserve more credit than he receives, but his abrupt termination came as no surprise, even to him. School board members and community leaders alike lacked confidence in his ability to take the district where it needs to go.
And let there be no mistake about what that destination should be.
Champaign — and Urbana as well — demand and deserve outstanding public schools. There is no reason either community should settle for less. Frankly, we believe those schools are better than most give them credit for being. But they can be improved, and both quality and public confidence must be restored until they are once again a source of universal public pride.
No one articulated that message any more clearly that Wiegand's most immediate successor — interim Superintendent Robert Malito. In just a few short months, Malito offered the community a glimpse of the possible that any permanent replacement would be well served to emulate, articulating a long-held (and increasingly unsaid) vision that no place should have a better school system than these education-rich communities. For too long, the public schools have been widely viewed as a problem to be explained rather than a resource to be trumpeted.
Malito recognized that and faced it head-on, bristling with enthusiasm and a dynamic personal style that yielded more public outreach in months than Culver managed in years. Malito so quickly created such a positive impression of the possible that he took to offering a practiced response when community leaders here asked — often — if he would stay on a long-term basis.
"If I were 10 years younger," he'd chirp back convincingly.
Well, Wiegand is 10 years younger. One of the community's most important positions is in her hands. She has a vote of confidence from the school board and from Malito. She now must extend that confidence among the district's many constituencies, some of whom know her well and many of whom are yet to meet her for the first time. She brings much to this new role — and much rides on her success. She deserves all the help and well wishes the community can extend her.