New West Aurora superintendent wants to establish a team approach
By Linda Girardi For Sun-Times Media February 10, 2014 10:14AM
Updated: March 12, 2014 6:12AM
Jeffrey Craig talks with ease about his move to become the new superintendent of West Aurora School District 129.
“I have had a lot of opportunity to build teams. I am very much on building that team-collaborative approach,” he said.
The West Aurora School Board last week voted unanimously to hire Craig, concluding a seven-month national search that included visits to districts where some of the finalists were employed.
James Rydland, who has served as West Aurora’s superintendent since 2005, announced in June 2013 that he would retire from the post at the end of the 2014 school year.
Craig, 53, will begin his new job July 1, but will commute from Iowa to Aurora on accumulated vacation time and work per diem to begin the orientation and transition process immediately.
The School Board also directed the district’s legal counsel to finalize the new superintendent’s contract. His base salary will be $190,000 plus benefits.
Craig for the past year has been superintendent of Interstate 35 Community School District near Des Moines, Iowa. He previously was a principal for three high schools, including Oswego East High School.
“We are here to support our students and give them great opportunities through our school system. I am honored to be part of the team,” he said.
Craig often references “team” in his conversation about the challenges that he faces with both district’s finances and the unusual opportunity to build his leadership team to fill the anticipated high number of retirements.
“Iowa has a different way of getting to the bottom line, but the same concerns are still there,” he said of Illinois’ school funding.
Craig said he plans to meet with Rydland and other members of the administrative team in the weeks ahead.
“There is a lot of institutional history that is about to retire, so we want to tap into that,” he said. “The next challenge is to identify how I will fill those shoes. It is a challenge and daunting but it is exciting as well.”
He said the transition to the new Common Core education standards is another challenge.
“We don’t know what the assessment or even the curriculum will look like,” he said. “There are some unknown waters we are stepping into.”
Craig said he brings strong leadership skills to the district that “empowers” people in their positions.
“There are times the bottom line falls with me, but I build teaming by allowing people to do their jobs. I can’t be the superintendent and assistant superintendent, principal or dean,” he said.
“I have to be able to put the right people in those positions,” he said.
Craig said his work ethic can partly be attributed to his success both on the wrestling mat and on the sideline as a wrestling coach. His father was a national wrestling champion from the University of Iowa and together they have been involved in every facet of the sport.
One of Craig’s roommates in college was a student of former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert when he was a wrestling coach at Yorkville High School.
“We used to go back to Yorkville and work out,” Craig said. “It has probably formed who I am, my work ethic and ability to take on challenges. Nothing is too difficult. We put our nose down and work hard. I look for some of those similar traits in people.”
Craig said he had to add 150,000 square feet onto a high school in Iowa last year and still educate 2,200 students.
“It was OK. I know what is happening here as far as the transition. We will deal with it,” he said. “I will look for those folks who have had to take on personal and professional challenges to be employees. That is a great asset.”
Craig said he originally hails from Iowa but moved at a young age with his family to Oak Lawn. He graduated from Richards High School in Oak Lawn and was named a distinguished alumnus and member of its athletic Hall of Fame. Craig said he has been involved in wrestling on the state, national and international level.
Craig said his outreach in Aurora will be different given Iowa’s rural landscape.
“It is a very rural district, so when I inquired about where people gathered they pointed to the feed store. Tuesday mornings that where I would start to hear from people and get the word out,” he said. “What I heard when I started in Iowa was the community was disenfranchised and part of my responsibility was to bring them back together.”
“People here want to be part of the district, be involved and know what is happening. That is what I want to espouse on,” he said. “I spent seven months in a small town in Iowa, moving back to the urban area will not be a difficult transition.”
Craig said he and his wife, Mary, have three grown children and one grandchild.
“My wife will be looking for housing and meeting with community groups while I’ll be meeting with school groups. We have targeted certain days of the week and we will have long-working weekends,” he said.