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‘He took the reins, and we moved forward’

Superintendent still energized in 50th year of public education

Superintendent Michael Shibler has spent many an hour sternly testifying before state legislators, sipping coffee in residents’ homes to explain bond requests, and dealing with crises like school bomb threats and contaminated water. But on this morning he sat in front a dozen wide-eyed preschoolers to read a picture book, “Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type.”

Shibler is in his 50th year in education, including 29 as superintendent of Rockford Public Schools. But in a profession not known for longevity, he shows no signs of slowing down — or losing enthusiasm. He looked delighted to be reading to children about cows that click-clack on Farmer Brown’s old typewriter, and who go on strike from milking unless he gives them electric blankets.

“I’ve got a really good job, because I get to read to you,” Shibler told the 3- and 4-year-olds in the Montessori preschool. He then ad-libbed much of the story, which he’s read many times, eliciting the little ones’ comments as he described Farmer Brown’s hens joining the cows on strike for said electric blankets. “So they don’t get cold,” a girl chimed in.

Fortunately for all, a duck negotiates a settlement whereby the cows return the typewriter in exchange for the blankets. “You know what Farmer Brown did?” Shibler asked the children. “He compromised … so he could stop hearing ‘click, clack, moo,’ over and over.”

Shibler is not especially known for compromise, whether it’s insisting on fuller funding of schools or keeping guns out of them – a topic on which he has been vocal since the Florida school shooting. But he knows a bit about settlements, having helped reach one in a teachers’ strike early in his tenure.

Mostly, he’s known for tirelessly promoting Rockford Public Schools, from its Blue Ribbon Exemplary Schools and 98 percent graduation rate to its 59 state athletic championships, Macy’s-worthy marching band and Developing Healthy Kids mental-health program.

Yes, it’s a really good job, Shibler says – especially in a roomful of children sopping up a good story.

“I love it, because it gets me out of an office, and into where the important things are going on,” he said afterward.

Superintendent Michael Shibler says he learned his ethic of hard work from his father, Herman, who was also a superintendent

Thrives on Challenge

Shibler has vigilantly attended to the important things, both in the classroom and beyond, as superintendent of the nearly 8,000-student district since 1989. His longevity is rare in Michigan, where the average tenure is three to five years, officials say. No other public superintendent in Kent County comes close; the majority have served fewer than 10 years.

“Dr. Shibler’s tenure at Rockford rivals any that I’ve heard of in recent years,” said Donna Oser of the Michigan Association of School Boards.

The Rockford Board of Education last fall extended his contract through 2022. Trustees praised his “exemplary” leadership in Rockford and beyond, such as in influencing state legislative votes and leading efforts to pass the Kent ISD enhancement millage last year.

He expresses no interest in retiring and seems to have plenty of energy for the job.

“I thrive on having challenges in front of me,” Shibler said. “That’s why I’m still working at 71. People look at me sometimes like, ‘Are you crazy?’”

Crazy about public education would not be far off the mark. Randall Sellhorn, who served 21 years on the school board during Shibler’s tenure, said the superintendent’s dedication to his job and the district “still baffles a lot of people.”

“He really, truly is passionate about education and kids, and the quality of the young people we have that leave Rockford,” said Sellhorn, who left the board in 2016. “They’re bright young people, and they’re confident young people.” He attributes that partly to Shibler’s belief in “whole-person education” that addresses both character and academics.

Shibler has led the district through a period of strong growth: in enrollment, up by more than 40 percent since 1991; in construction, including a new high school and freshman center; and in financial support, with four community-approved bond issues, the most recent for $76.1 million in 2014.

He has also steered it through rough waters, such as testing water at schools last fall for possible contaminants left by Wolverine Worldwide; and a series of bomb threats Rockford schools weathered in 2014-15.

Whether touting the district’s high national ranking in Advanced Placement tests, or placing placards around town proclaiming its athletic, academic and arts achievements, Shibler’s driven by his mantra: always improve.

“If you tread water, eventually you’re going to drown,” Shibler said. “You have to move forward.”

Education in His Blood

He came by that philosophy through his father, who also was an educator. Born in Highland Park to Herman and Helen Shibler, he grew up watching his father serve as superintendent there and later in Indianapolis, and eventually as a professor at Purdue University. Helen had been a Latin teacher and high school principal before having two daughters and, in her 40s, twin sons. Shibler’s brother, Steve, died of lung cancer five years ago.

He admired both parents, but Herman was Shibler’s role model. Reading about his father’s accomplishments in the Indianapolis Star, he thought, “Maybe I want to do something like that.

“I saw how hard he worked,” Shibler recalled. “So I knew it takes hard work to accomplish anything.” Shibler worked hard at high school in West Lafayette, Indiana, both at his studies and as a middle linebacker and center on the football team. His football career ended at Ball State University due to a knee injury, but the studying only intensified. He went on to earn a master’s degree and Ph.D. at Michigan State University by going to school in the evenings after landing his first teaching job.

‘I’ll take the human spirit over money any day.’ — Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler

That was in the fall of 1968 at Warren Consolidated Schools in suburban Detroit, where he taught high school math for five years and served as career education coordinator for one. He also coached JV football at Birmingham Seaholm, where some students were the sons of former NFL players.

From there it was a steady climb: to Brighton Area Schools, three years as an assistant principal and seven as assistant superintendent; Livonia Clarenceville, five years as superintendent; then, at age 42, Rockford, a place about which he knew very little. But he felt his variety of experience had prepared him for the job.

It was not an easy landing.

Shibler tirelessly promotes the successes of Rockford Public Schools, many of which are displayed in his office

An Early Challenge

The district was struggling financially and being served by an interim superintendent who had followed Joe Raymer. Shibler promptly surveyed the staff and community to see what people valued about their schools. The survey contributed to the first of the triennial RAMS reports outlining district goals, the 10th of which was approved in December.

Soon after he arrived, he led the first successful tax campaign of his tenure, a bond issue of $39.9 million that paid for a new high school. It kept him so busy, he recalls, that when he came home from work at night, his 2-year-old daughter Katie would hide his shoes, so he wouldn’t go back out again after dinner to campaign.

Despite that early success, in the fall of 1992 Rockford teachers and support staff went on strike, part of a walkout wave that included Detroit, Grand Haven and Clarkston. After three weeks, according to Shibler, he told the school board he was taking over negotiations. The next day, he said, he met with negotiators and reached an agreement in half an hour.

Along with settling wage and contract language issues, Shibler said support staff in particular had long felt undervalued.

“I talked about how I value them in their jobs and that we have allowed this conflict to continue way too long,” Shibler recalled.

Jim Haskins, who was high school principal at the time, said Shibler was able to present the facts clearly in a way people could hear and stood strong against harsh criticism. Importantly, he did not hold grudges afterward, Haskins said.

“He said ‘Let’s get going, and let’s get going forward,’” Haskins said. “He took the reins, and we moved forward. That was the key that brought us out and made us a better school district. I think it made him a stronger administrator.”

An Advocate for All

Suzy Clements was then a dance instructor and walked the picket lines with her math-teacher father, Eric Warren. Now president of the 400-teacher Rockford Education Association, she agrees Shibler helped heal the bitter divisions of the strike, calling it “a huge turning point for the district.”

“I think he had a little bit of a wakeup call, and made it a priority to not go down that path again,” said Clements, a high school Spanish teacher now in her 24th year. “He recognized that you have to be solutions-based. To butt heads doesn’t get you anywhere.

“He really values the teachers’ input, and I think he’s able to juggle community wants with what’s best educationally,” she said, adding he’s been helped by “powerhouse” human resources directors, Doug VanderJagt and before him the late Jamie Hosford. The REA and school board reached a three-year contract settlement last summer.

Shibler’s strong leadership has a downside for some who can find his decisions arbitrary, Clements said: “There are people who get frustrated because what he says is what goes in this district. He works for the school board, but the impression is what he says is what happens.”

Still, Clements sees him as an advocate for all public schools, not just Rockford, in pushing for things such as the state funding formula providing more for low-income districts. “We’ve often said other school districts should pay part of his salary.”

Shibler sees his leadership role systematically: The Board of Education holds him accountable, he holds administrators accountable, and strives “to provide the opportunity for others to be successful.” That includes principals who help their teachers succeed, and teachers who do so for their students.

“I could be gone tomorrow, and this philosophy, this culture would continue,” he said firmly.

Community Keeps Him Here

He’s reminded daily of that philosophy by a whiteboard in his office proclaiming eight qualities of leadership: faith, wisdom, vision, courage, perseverance, resiliency, compassion and passion. These exemplify Rockford Public Schools’ rise to a top-tier school district despite receiving the minimum state funding, he says.

“We’re going to be better this year than we were last year, and we’re not going to let excuses get in the way, like budget cuts,” he said. “I’ll take the human spirit over money any day.”

His office walls and shelves are covered with the plaques, pictures and personal mementos of a man who loves his school district and his family. Prominently placed is a portrait of his and his wife Connie’s three daughters: Chelsea, Holly, and Katie, who recently gave birth to his first grandchild, Brooklyn Belle Kroondyk.

Though he calls being superintendent “a lifestyle” that routinely means working nights and weekends, he never forgets Katie hiding his shoes at dinner. If he had been superintendent of a large urban district, he knows he would have been out even more nights. “I put my family first,” he said.

He says he’s had other offers, but is happy working hard for a modest-sized school district in a community he loves. “It’s just a great place to raise a family, to live and prosper,” he said warmly. “I couldn’t think of any better place to go.

“I can be in a restaurant and a fourth-grader will say, ‘Hey, that’s my superintendent!’ That to me is important.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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