Andy Rikli admits he's a numbers guy.
“I have yet to meet a spreadsheet I didn't love,” Rikli said.
But the 39-year-old administrator from Omaha's Westside Community Schools emphasized his personal side Tuesday in a forum with Papillion-La Vista Public Schools residents.
He shared anecdotes and bits of family history with a crowd of about 60 people gathered to gauge his suitability to become Papillion-La Vista's next superintendent.
“If you take nothing else away from our time together tonight, I hope you get a feel for me as a person,” Rikli said to the gathering at the district's central offices.
School board members are scheduled to meet tonight to decide whether Rikli or West Point Public Schools Superintendent Ted DeTurk, 47, will replace Rick Black.
Black, who has led the district nearly six years, will retire June 30.
Like DeTurk the night before, Rikli spent about 45 minutes answering questions submitted by residents and read by Omaha TV anchorman Rob McCartney, the forum moderator.
Rikli introduced his wife, Amy, and children, Sam, Meredith and Adrianna, who were in the audience.
“These are my rocks,” Rikli said. “These are the people that I get out of bed for in the morning. We're a package deal, for good or for bad. And if I'm lucky enough to be your candidate, you're going to see a lot of us. And you're going to own a little piece of me and my family, and I'll own a piece of the community.”
Born in a small town in northwest Missouri, Rikli told the crowd he spent his early childhood in Rochester, Minn., before moving to Auburn, Neb., with his mother. His parents were divorced.
“I had a good childhood, I had a loving mother, but it was kind of difficult in some ways,” he said.
He lived with his grandmother, money was tight, and his mother at one point worked three part-time jobs.
“My mom had to work very hard to create the kind of life for my brothers and I that she wanted. And we didn't always have the things that other kids had,'' Rikli said. “And I don't share that to elicit sympathy. I share that because it really had a profound impact on me, my work ethic, what I value. And I think it changed some perspectives I had about kids of people who come from, perhaps, different economic backgrounds than we're used to.”
He attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on an ROTC scholarship and got his first teaching job in Lincoln.
For the past nine years, he's been in Westside, where he has held various positions. Rikli was director of assessment and school improvement, director of administrative services and principal at Sunset Hills Elementary School. Since 2010, he has been assistant superintendent for administrative operations. He is responsible for the budget, transportation, building and nutrition services. He oversees district communications, government relations and employee salary negotiations.
Questioned about whether the emphasis on standardized testing has impeded teacher creativity and innovation, Rikli said schools are “testing our children to death.”
“You don't have to put a cow on a scale to make it grow faster,” he said.
Asked how he would handle complaints, from teachers or parents, he said he prefers that grievances be handled closest to the problem and, if not resolved, on up through the chain of command.
He pledged to stay visible and active in the community, attending sporting and other school events. The superintendent is the “diplomat in chief” and face of the district.
“You can't lead from being behind a computer, from behind a desk,” he said.
Asked how to handle boundary issues in a growing district, he said the district can't let boundary disputes get in the way of natural growth.
Regarding how to make sure high-achieving students get instruction at their ability level, Rikli said such learners are a critical group. All students have to be treated equitably and be given what they need, he said.
High-ability students should be identified no later than third or fourth grade. Otherwise there is a risk that, unchallenged, they will drop out, he said.
On the importance of theater and fine arts, Rikli said educators know that having a broad liberal arts education is important.
Asked about technology in education, he said it is only “a means to an end.” Westside emphasizes technology, but teachers must be trained to teach with computers, and the proper culture must be cultivated in the schools, otherwise “you've done nothing but buy a $900 paperweight.”
On the hotly debated topic of the Common Core State Standards, Rikli said that while local control is important, having some consistency in U.S. standards is good for competing globally. The Common Core is a set of academic standards adopted by 45 states. Nebraska has not adopted them.
He said the Common Core is probably coming to Nebraska, and the retirement this year of Education Commissioner Roger Breed will probably speed up that process.
People can curse the standards “till we're blue in the face,” he said, but Nebraskans can't “bury our heads in the sand,” particularly if failure to adopt would put federal money at risk.
Asked his thoughts about teaching modern languages, Rikli said schools should probably start languages in elementary schools and teach Mandarin, Chinese, Farsi and Arabic because knowing them would make students more marketable.
He closed the forum by saying he's committed to stay in Papillion-La Vista for the long haul and make the district great.
“I think it would be a fun ride, and I'd be thrilled to be a part of it,” he said.
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