photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick
Rockford — It wasn’t always easy being the superintendent’s daughter, Katie Kroondyk says – especially when that superintendent was Michael Shibler.
Whether it was him giving her dates a thorough look-over, or her hiding his shoes when he came home at night in hopes he wouldn’t go back out to a meeting or game, attending school in the district her father headed came with high expectations.
But now that he is retiring after 32 ½ years of leading Rockford Public Schools, Shibler’s oldest daughter fully appreciates what he’s done for her, her two younger sisters and the school system her preschooler now attends.
“We are so proud of him,” Kroondyk said of herself and sisters Chelsea and Holly, who have five children among them. “There’s definitely a sense of pride when people come up and share how they feel about my dad and what he’s done for the community.”
Many a Rockford resident would doubtless share similar sentiments about Shibler, 75, who retires at year’s end after more than three decades of helping build RPS into a thriving district where students’ academic, athletic and artistic honors pile up like Arnie’s bakery pastries. Shibler proudly keeps track of the accolades displayed on signs leading into town.
‘That’s really his biggest achievement, is that he fought for so many.’– parent activist Christie Ramsey
By far Kent County’s longest-serving superintendent, Shibler will hold his last school board meeting tonight, Dec. 13, fittingly enough with approval of RAMS XI, the most recent of the triennial strategic plans he initiated for continuous district improvement. He’ll close his office door Dec. 31 satisfied with the work he, his staff and community have done through a period of dramatic growth.
“I can’t tell you how rewarding it is,” he said on a recent morning in his memento-filled office. “When you look back on your life, you want to believe you’ve made a difference. I really believe I can say that.”
A ‘Real Guy’ for All Students
Those who have worked with Shibler for any period of time are happy to say the same.
“If you look at him as an overall leader, it’s astounding what he was able to accomplish,” said Christie Ramsey, a parent of two current students and two RPS graduates, and who received her Rockford High School diploma from Shibler in 1999. She referred not just to his accomplishments in Rockford but for schools statewide, due to Shibler’s persistent pushing for legislation on equitable funding and other issues.
“One of his greatest achievements is that he wouldn’t stop fighting,” said Ramsey, who has long worked alongside Shibler with Friends of Kent County Schools. “He wouldn’t stop going to the House to testify. He wouldn’t stop speaking out publicly about what was happening to school districts, not just his own. That’s really his biggest achievement, is that he fought for so many.”
She also praised his handling of challenges such as a rash of bomb threats, protections against gun violence and criticism over COVID mask measures. Said Ramsey, “He did these things to make sure our kids were safe. You could always send your kid to school and know you were OK putting them on the bus every day.”
Behind the public figure advocating for public schools is a man who loves interacting with and listening to people, said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler.
“The bottom line is he cares about kids, and he cares about people in a way that I don’t think you see,” said Koehler, a longtime colleague whose two sons attended Rockford. “The guy you see on TV, and see up there exhorting you to do this or hammering the legislature for failure to do this or that, is not the real guy. The real guy is the guy who genuinely cares about people and who makes genuine connections with people, and thrives on it.”
A ‘Culture of Continuous Improvement’
The real guy says he still loves the “lifestyle” of a superintendent but that he’s ready for retirement. He insists it wasn’t prompted by the stress of the pandemic, although he admits the last two years have been the most challenging of his career. (The scathing criticism from some parents over masks “goes with the territory,” he says, though “I do draw the line when it becomes personal.”)
He considered retiring a year ago, he said, but “decided I can’t leave the district under these kinds of challenges.” When it became apparent the pandemic was far from over, however, he announced his retirement in June.
He does so confident the next superintendent will continue Rockford’s upward trajectory because of the systemic “culture of continuous improvement” the district has built.
“Nothing would make me happier than to see our district continue to move in a direction that’s documented by continuous improvement, and I feel comfortable that will happen,” he said.
The school board has hired a firm to begin a search process and will begin seeking applications in early 2022, with Korie-Wilson Crawford serving as interim superintendent. Tonight board members will say their goodbyes.
A legacy ‘that will be hard to match’
Geoffrey Downes, president of the Rockford Board of Education, issued this statement on the board’s behalf:
The Board of Education would like to thank Dr. Mike Shibler for his 33 years of leadership. During this time his countless contributions to our community, staff, and most importantly the students of Rockford, has left an indelible impression on literally thousands of people. During his tenure Dr. Shibler has led the Rockford Public Schools through times of growth and significant change. He has provided clarity to the community on several bond issues which have provided improvements to teaching and learning in our schools, led the district through countless changes in curriculum, funding and educational legislation, and provided consistent guidance through the challenges of a pandemic and school safety concerns. Dr. Shibler has left a lasting legacy in our district that will be hard to match.
‘When you look back on your life, you want to believe you’ve made a difference. I really believe I can say that.’– retiring Rockford Superintendent Michael Shibler
“Dr. Shibler has left a lasting legacy in our district that will be hard to match,” said board President Geoffrey Downes (see box).
Shibler will not take credit for all of that legacy, repeatedly citing the work of the whole staff and community in establishing excellence as the norm.
“The RPS school and community are in a class by themselves,” he wrote in a parting message to the district. “Together we have worked hard to create a public-school system that is second to none.”
New Marriage, New Life
Just as he leaves his career, Shibler has experienced another big change: his recent marriage to a former high school sweetheart. Following a divorce from his first wife, Connie, he connected with Dede Couey through a group email to their high school graduating class in West Lafayette, Indiana, about a classmate’s death. Their romance rekindled, and on Oct. 23 they married in Denver, where she lives. They’ll split their time between her home and his, he says.
So closing his office door will open another into a new life, one rich with travel and full of quality time with Dede, his children and five grandchildren. He retires grateful for “an incredible career” with Rockford and trusting in what lies ahead.
“It’s going to be great,” he said. “I’m so looking forward to the last quarter of my life.”