Unit 4 Superintendent Zola

 Unit 4 Superintendent Susan Zola

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CHAMPAIGN — Assistant Superintendent Susan Zola is packing up her office — fully stocked with LaCroix water, framed covers of her favorite children's books and an exercise bike — and getting ready to make a move across the hall to a bigger cubicle, one that comes with a conference room attached to it.

Come July 1, when Superintendent Judy Wiegand retires, Zola will take her place as Unit 4's leader, the school board announced Wednesday evening.

Zola, 54, is a 27-year employee of Unit 4 and has spent the past five years as assistant superintendent for achievement, curriculum and instruction, overseeing the district's 12 elementary schools.

She's also been around for all three of the district's recent facilities proposals put before voters, including the six-school, $183.4 million package that was approved three months ago. She says one of her top priorities is to hold onto that momentum the district gained in November.

"If you think about the affirmation the community provided to us with the referendum recently, I think we take that as a signal the community really does want to be a partner and really is invested in our schools," Zola said during an interview with The News-Gazette Tuesday morning, ahead of the official announcement. "So as we rebuild over the next four to five years ... we need to wrap that in a conversation with our community stakeholders and find out what else the community will support and what else we need to be attentive to."

Zola was one of three finalists vying for the district's top job. She was selected over Paul Fregeau, assistant schools superintendent in the North Kansas City (Mo.), and Michael Popp, interim superintendent of Flossmoor schools.

Similar to when Wiegand was hired, the district paid the Illinois Association of School Boards $22,400 to identify candidates, but ultimately decided to promote from within. Board President Chris Kloeppel said the board tentatively settled on Zola in January and spent nearly three full weeks negotiating the contract.

But the lag wasn't due to Zola driving a hard bargain, she said.

"It's a little more involved at the superintendent level. The board has been really thoughtful and I think some of it was a timing issue, of when the board could connect with each other. I don't think it was anything out of the ordinary," she said. "One of the nuances of the superintendent contract is they have to have specific goals spelled out in the contract, so I think some people don't realize that layer of intentionality that goes into it."

She'll receive a total compensation package in the $205,000 to $235,000 range, but her salary won't be made public until the board formally approves her contract at its next meeting, district spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart said.

When she makes the move across the hall, she'll leave her current position vacant, meaning one of her first responsibilities as superintendent will be to find someone to replace her.

Other than that, she doesn't plan to make any changes to the current administrative team.

"I don't envision a lot of transitions at this point, other than those that are naturally occurring for whatever reason," she said.

A former principal at Jefferson Middle School (2003-12) and Dr. Howard Elementary (1990-96), Zola said she plans to familiarize herself with the programming at the middle and high schools, since she's already familiar with what's taking place at the elementary level, and start evaluating what's working and what may need reviewing.

Also high on her to-do list: Addressing achievement gaps, expanding gifted programs for all students and visiting with members of the teachers and support staff unions. She hopes to connect with local stakeholders and help get the community schools program, which the board has been vetting for a few months, off the ground.

The eight projects being funded by the district's referendum will be a big part of her new position, as well. But overseeing those projects won't be just about bricks and mortar, she said.

"If you think about a STEM lab and the current science classrooms we have, as we are rebuilding those labs, there might be opportunities for professional learning for some of our science teachers that would help them rethink how they do work because they're moving from a less-than-optimal science lab to a state-of-the-art lab," she said. "There will probably be some building of skill sets and capacity in that space.

"We need to take that opportunity and really embrace it and ensure when we cut a ribbon six years down the road, that we're ready to transition into that space as a student learner and as an educator."