People in prominent public positions can unwittingly generate extreme reactions; often, they are either much admired or much maligned.
I have had the opportunity to work with retiring District 88 Superintendent Harold Remme over the past 16 years; my reaction to his personality and leadership style is best described as informed admiration.
During his 16 years as superintendent, he has provided an extraordinary level of service to the district. He has navigated it through difficult financial times with level-headed, solid skill. He has been its anchor in a sea of change.
Remme in his office
Affable, approachable, a straight shooter, he has been honest and open with the public. His door is always open.
A leader's involvement in community organizations builds relationships and fosters a positive image of the school system as a community partner, believes Mr. Remme. He has been an engaged ambassador and a tireless advocate for students and staff.
He has modeled an extraordinary work ethic. He appears to work at least 80 hours each week; he is always there whenever I call him. He juggles an exceptional number of diverse commitments.
"He is very dedicated to the idea of a quality education available to all students and has
worked hard his whole career making that dream come true.
"I worked with Harold on the School Board for 12 years, nine of those as chair, and I came to trust him and his instincts greatly. He is such a caring, compassionate and truly NICE guy. But he is also a highly intelligent and consummate professional who is so very knowledgeable about all aspects of education. Plus, he's so personable that everyone feels they know him well because
he's so warm and friendly.
"I've never seen anyone who doesn't rest on his laurels and is always pushing towards making things better like Harold. Many of those quiet days holed up in his office were devoted to digging
into the pile of professional journals littering his desk, planning his next initiative or other
way to improve educational delivery.
"I learned much from him, including passion and compassion; positive thinking in the face of adversity; grace under pressure and humility; hard work and ethics; and the importance of holding an unwavering belief in a hopeful future. The students of District 88 were lucky to have had him as the leader of our schools for 16 years and I am lucky to have called him 'friend.'"
Former Chair of District 88 School Board
"He has become a fixture of our community, not only as a professional, but as an employee, boss, supervisor, negotiator, fellow club member, committee member, activist, friend, confidant and a mentor. We are also blessed that he has been a student of change, keeping current with the many changes and challenges that being involved with education presents and offers. He also challenged staff to stay current and up to date, so our students would be ready for the next step in their lives when they graduated from high school."
District 88 School Board Chair
"Harold has been an outstanding supporter of United Way as a past board member and an ongoing leadership level donor. And as a parent, I still marvel (and treasure) the individual notes he would send my children to recognize some accomplishment they had while at New Ulm."
United Way of Brown County Area
Caring, warm, genuinely interested in people, he truly cares about each person who crosses his path, he shares their joys and sorrows. He has cared to follow the ups and downs in my own children's school careers, and they are not even in "his" school system.
For those who do not know, he is a dedicated walker. He walks "religiously" every morning at 5 a.m. "The morning walk is good for me, physically, and provides me with a time to gather my thoughts for the day," says Remme.
I am not a product of the U.S. educational system; he has taught me much of what I know about the field of preK-12 public education. I have marveled at his knowledge, both expansive and profound, of the field's complexities and undercurrents, at his comprehension of the full picture and how various trends inter-relate and inter-react.
His deep understanding of complex educational issues is manifested through, and matched only by, an extraordinary clarity and simplicity of expression. He makes tangled matters appear deceptively simple and understandable to even the most "lay" of people.
Two plaques hanging in Remme's office provide, I think, a good summary of his philosophy as an educator.
One bears the phrase, "Quality is doing my personal best." The other states, "Nothing is so unequal as the equal treatment of unequals."
He has promoted and lived by these phrases during his entire career.
"Each student is special and individual in their own way," says Remme. "While working with students in a classroom, on a committee, or in an extra curricular activity, I have emphasized to them that I expect them to do quality work which means their very best effort in everything they do. Success in life is making a commitment to do quality work every day, in every way..."
As to the second motto, "meeting the individual needs of students in every possible setting demonstrates to them that they are valued," says Remme. "Once that relationship is established, an atmosphere for achieving excellence is enhanced."
Remme grew up on a 200-acre, 25-cow-herd, farm near the town of Dennison. He developed his work ethic on the farm, where the work day began at 5:30 a.m. and ended when the sun goes down.
Remme was an active member in the Kenyon High School FFA chapter. He held various offices in the organization and was a participant on several judging teams.
He decided not to attend college immediately after graduation from high school but stay home on the family farm. During the slow farming time of year, winter, he was engaged in overhauling auto and tractor engines and doing auto body work on vehicles.
While farming, he also assumed the role of church custodian and became a Sunday school teacher. "This was a factor in my decision to return to college and seek a teaching degree," recalls Remme.
After three years of farming, he decided to leave the farm and enroll in college, Winona State University. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in 3 1/2 years. During his college years, Remme took a part-time job as a bus driver, which proved to be another learning experience related to education.
Remme assumed a fifth-grade teaching position immediately after student teaching, replacing a teacher on maternity leave; then taught grade five science in a departmentalized setting at Cochrane/Fountain City, Wis.
His next position was in grade five in the Winona system, at the same school he had done his student teaching (Minnesota City Elementary). While there, he was asked to move to a newly-opened school in Winona that implemented an open-space setting and computerized individualized education program called Westinghouse PLAN (Programmed Learning According to Needs). This educational experiment taught him a lot about individualizing instruction, notes Remme.
By then, his mentors had noticed and encouraged his leadership potential - something he would do with others in the future. Remme was transferred at mid-year to a teaching/principal position at a school 20 miles from Winona that was ordered to be a part of the Winona system by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE). He taught a combination classroom of 35 fifth and sixth-grade students and did the principal duties after school hours.
He was next assigned the principalship of two elementary schools, with a total of 690 students. One school was an in-town school, and the other a rural school. He continued as an elementary principal and also assumed K-12 curriculum coordinator duties for Winona Schools. While serving as curriculum director, he was instrumental in developing the format for PER (Planning, Evaluation, Reporting) later adopted by MDE.
During the above years, Remme also was attending Winona State University and received a master's degree and sixth-year certificate in educational administration.
In 1979, Remme was chosen to become the superintendent in Trimont, with a total enrollment of about 350 students. "It was a great learning experience," says Remme. "As superintendent, you did everything... I was business manager, curriculum director, community ed director, substitute bus driver..."
In 1981, he was chosen to become superintendent in Tracy, with an enrollment of about 1,200 students. After three months on the job, the system experienced a four-day teachers strike, one of the first teacher strikes in Minnesota. The strike was short but the impact of such events lingers "almost forever," remembers Remme.
After 16 years in Tracy, he assumed the New Ulm superintendency for the next 16 years.
He has presided over many significant happenings in District 88. During his tenure, the district experienced a 35 percent reduction in enrollment and a 30 percent reduction in teaching staff. The student population when he arrived was about 2,950 students, compared to 1,925 today. Approximately 60 percent of the current staff were hired during his years in New Ulm. The district saw a nearly 10 percent increase in special education services and conducted 10 referendum campaigns - of which five passed and five failed. The district also implemented all-day, every-day kindergarten; closed the Hanska, Lafayette and Middle School buildings; and added classroom space to the high school, Jefferson and Washington buildings to replace modular units. Remme facilitated the creation of a combined athletic conference (Southern Alliance, eventually dissolved;) helped adopt a teacher "professional growth model" format; and met with a group of teachers monthly for several years, which led to the adoption of a "professional learning team" concept. He also created an opportunity for students to be engaged with the School Board, through the Student Committee and the Breakfast Club.
Remme has been active in professional organizations. He has served on the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA) Board of Directors and the MASA legislative committee. He and a colleague started the Minnesota Rural Education Association (MREA), and Remme served on its Board of Directors and as president. He served on the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) Representative Assembly and chairs the Minnesota Liquid Asset Board (which manages nearly $ 3 billion of Minnesota school district investments).
Remme has received the MASA Polaris Leadership Award; was named MASA Administrator of Excellence; received the MREA Distinguished Service Award, the MASA Leadership and Service Award, the Boss of the Year Award and an FFA Honorary Chapter Degree.
Remme has emphasized openness and communication on issues of education with the public. He has written more than 800 School Talk articles for the Trimont Progress, Tracy Headlight Herald, New Ulm Journal, Hanska Herald and Lafayette Ledger, and appeared on local radio programs.
"An educational leader is expected to communicate fluently and effectively about educational issues to staff and the community," says Remme.
In another comment, he adds,"For me, integrity means 'saying what you do and doing what you say.' As educational leaders we can best accomplish our goals and tasks when others know they can 'trust' us. That trust is built by keeping people informed about what you are doing and providing them with facts about the school operation, even if those facts are difficult to share. They need to know the facts surrounding decisions before they can understand why a decision was made. Sharing information regularly about school operations is a key activity in establishing and maintaining integrity."