Thein to say goodbye

Roseville Area Schools superintendent John Thein is set to retire Aug. 1. He told the Review the late Lloyd Nielsen, the former ISD 623 superintendent who’s pictured at right, was one of his mentors over the years. Roseville Area High School’s auditorium is named after Nielsen, a supporter of the fine arts in schools. Nielsen passed away last year. (submitted photo)
Roseville Area Schools superintendent John Thein is set to retire Aug. 1. He told the Review the late Lloyd Nielsen, the former ISD 623 superintendent who’s pictured at right, was one of his mentors over the years. Roseville Area High School’s auditorium is named after Nielsen, a supporter of the fine arts in schools. Nielsen passed away last year. (submitted photo)
A May 1998 article in the Roseville Review details former superintendent Carol Ericson’s departure from the district. Thein was the district’s assistant superintendent, and took the reins later that year. Ericson’s parting words of advice for Thein were “Keep a sense of humor.” She adds that Thein had “a real commitment to this community and to the school system.” (Review archives)
A May 1998 article in the Roseville Review details former superintendent Carol Ericson’s departure from the district. Thein was the district’s assistant superintendent, and took the reins later that year. Ericson’s parting words of advice for Thein were “Keep a sense of humor.” She adds that Thein had “a real commitment to this community and to the school system.” (Review archives)

Longtime Roseville Superintendent to retire Aug. 1

A room full of kindergarteners may not be the prime example of a place where most people can find a sense of inner zen. But Roseville Area Schools Superintendent John Thein says there’s no better place for him to find calm on a bad day—except maybe a class in the district’s senior program.

And it’s no wonder Thein likes to spend time with the kindergarteners. School board member Kitty Gogins, who’s known Thein since she joined a district committee in 2004, remembers Thein once went to a kindergarten class to read aloud, and when he asked the students what they thought he did, one student confidently shouted, “You’re the President!”

Time is ticking down on Thein’s last day as the district’s president—er, superintendent. He’s set to retire Aug. 1, after serving as ISD 623’s superintendent for 17 years.

Although Thein admits he has a hard time talking about himself, the Review convinced him to sit down for one last interview to look back on his many years of serving the district.

‘We decided we were going to be entrepreneurs’

65-year-old Thein, who’s originally from the small central Minnesotan town of Clara City, didn’t always know district administration was his calling.

In fact, he originally had plans to be a football player, until his knees called an end to play. He completed a master’s degree and educational specialist degree at North Dakota State University.

His first job out of college was with the Upward Bound program at the University of North Dakota, a government program aimed at helping high schoolers from low-income families or those whose parents do not have bachelor’s degrees to get into college.

He later met his wife, Pamela, now an attorney, in Osakis, Minnesota, where he was a teacher and city council member.

Then, at the age of 30, he and Pamela—who was 24 at the time—bought the Osakis Review, the town’s community newspaper. “We decided we were going to be entrepreneurs,” Thein explained.

The young couple only owned the newspaper for about four years, but Thein called it “a great experience.”

The pair then started re-examining their career paths, and Thein decided to go back to school to earn his doctoral degree from the University of St. Thomas.

His first school administration job was in Wahpeton, North Dakota.

He was hired by former superintendent Roger Worner as Roseville’s director of business services in 1988, and eventually was promoted to assistant superintendent the next year.

When former superintendent Carol Ericson announced she was considering retirement, Thein says he and Pamela were pondering a move to Rochester. However, the school board at the time asked him to stay and take over, and because he and Pamela loved Roseville, the couple opted to stay.

Ericson remained in the district as a mentor for Thein as he learned the ropes and eventually took over the position in 1998.

The best job in the world

When discussing which district programs or initiatives he’s most proud of, Thein has trouble narrowing down the list. But one defining thread stands out: equity.

“I’ve had such a charmed life,” he says, comparing his own childhood home and upbringing to the Cleaver family from the classic television show “Leave it to Beaver.”

Still, he realized early on, especially through the Upward Bound program, that others have faced significant challenges in getting an education.

“Not everyone has the same great opportunities I had.”

Thein’s equity vision—that “every kid counts”—is something Gogins says stands out when she thinks of Thein’s tenure with the district.

“He proposed a vision around equity, that Roseville Area Schools be committed to ensuring an equitable and respectful educational experience for every student, family and staff member regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, ability, home or first language, religion or national origin,” Gogins says. “This ... has served as a strong guide for the district’s work to help every student be successful.”

Among Thein’s proudest accomplishments are adding Harambee Elementary to the district, increasing summer school options, working with the East Metro Integration District, Community Education and the district’s special education program, among many others.

The one duty Thein won’t miss? Calling snow days.

Thein says making the decision to cancel school due to winter weather is one of the hardest a superintendent has to make, simply because it can be a burden on parents who have to arrange for childcare unexpectedly, and because school is sometimes the safest place for students to be.

Overall, Thein credits a great staff and sharp students for his success as superintendent.

“This [district] is like a family,” he says, pointing to a district-wide staff photo from the beginning of the school year. “Roseville is a wonderful place to be. It’s been a marvelous time, and it’s slid away. I have the best job in the world.”

And in fact, Thein’s leadership has even set an example in his own family—of his five adult children, three are teaching or pursuing education degrees.

Peers’ respect

Both superintendents of neighboring districts 621 and 622 had glowing praise for Thein’s leadership.

Dan Hoverman, the superintendent of the nearby Mounds View Public School District, says he’s known Thein for “25, 30 years,” and the two were Bush Fellows together in the early 1990s.

“At different times in my career, he’s been a mentor, and someone that I’ve always felt comfortable touching base with, just really one of the good guys in the field,” Hoverman says of Thein.

“One of the gifts that John has is ... he has some great one-liners that put things in perspective. When things are getting tense and things are gettin’ tough, he’s always got a way to bring it back to what’s really happening ... and work on solving the problem.”

Hoverman says the two districts have worked closely on programming over the years, largely due to their proximity.

“Like John says, either he sneezes and we get a cold, or we sneeze and they get a cold. That’s just been the relationship.”

Hoverman adds Thein would be leaving behind “a great legacy.”

“He’s been a great colleague, a great friend, a great leader for Roseville.”

North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District superintendent Patty Phillips emphasizes Thein’s “quiet confidence” and authenticity as a leader.

“To me, he’s just a golden leader,” Phillips says. “He empowers other people, and then he’s so authentic in how he does it, and he’s so humble about himself.

“He’s been in this a long time, and to succeed as a superintendent in the same district for so many years, I know how much they value his wisdom and experience.”

Phillips, who’s known Thein for 13 years, is also set to retire at the end of the school year.

Moving on

Thein compares his upcoming retirement to a student heading off to college, admitting he’s a little apprehensive about the unknowns that come with it.

But he’s got plans for the first day of the 2015-16 school year, and they involve being halfway across the globe.

Calling himself “a bit of a history buff,” he told the Review he and his brother are planning a three week-long trip to Europe at the end of the summer, in particular a trip to Normandy, France, “something I’ve always wanted to do.”

Past that, however, he says he doesn’t know what retirement will hold for him. “We’ll see what happens.”

Thein says he’s looking forward to spending more time with his six granddaughters, but will miss “the wonderful people I’ve worked with.”

“The community has been kind to me and my family,” he says.

Of the incoming new superintendent, Dr. Aldo Sicoli, Thein says “he’s a nice man.” Sicoli, Thein adds, attended Roseville schools as a child.

“He really loves Roseville. That’s important to me,” he says. “I trust him, I believe in him. He’ll be successful.”

Thein is only ISD 623’s fifth superintendent since the district was formed in 1949. Thein says he believed the position was a “destination job” for Sicoli, one he’ll want to hold for years.

Overall, Thein says he believes the district will only continue to get better throughout the years.

“I believe the best years of the district are ahead of it. [Sicoli] has ideas to make the district better. He’s the guy that can get that done.”

Thein says it’s important to remember how “smart, talented and hard-working” the district’s students are.

“I think sometimes we forget what it’s like to be a young person,” he says.

“I’m very proud of our school district. I feel so darn lucky,” he adds. “It’s been a real honor.”

Johanna Holub can be reached at roseville@lillienews.com.


Retirement and after

A Community Open House is Monday, June 8, from 3-6 p.m. at Roseville Area High School Plaza to celebrate Thein’s retirement.

A retirement dinner will be held Thursday, July 23, at the TIES Event Center in Falcon Heights. For more information or if you are interested in receiving an invitation, e-mail Merrie Zakaras at merrie.zakaras@isd623.org or call 651-628-6452.

A scholarship fund has been set up in honor of the retiring superintendent. Contributions can be sent to:

John Thein Scholarship Fund
Roseville Area Schools
1251 County Road B2 E
Roseville, MN  55113

 

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