New administrator marks busy first year as head of Whitewater schools

District Administrator Eric Runez, who is approaching is second year on the job, prepares for a school board meeting in his office on Monday. (Tom Ganser photo)

By Tom Ganser


The world looks very different from a window seat of a Boeing 737 climbing to a cruising altitude of 34,000 feet.

On a clear day, houses and skyscrapers, highways and shopping centers and lakes and rivers are all magically transformed as the plane rises, and their visual relationship to one another takes on new dimensions. The transformation is even more dramatic on a clear night, viewing small towns and cities from 6 or 7 miles up.

On July 1, 2011, Eric Runez, began his job as district administrator for the Whitewater Unified School District.

Despite 14 years of prior work in schools, five as a social studies teacher in Waterloo, Iowa and Denver, Colo., and nine as a principal in Johnson Creek and at Whitewater Middle School, on that day Runez started looking at Whitewater schools in new ways.

Like the view from that window seat view in the Boeing 737, Runez said his initial reaction to becoming Whitewater’s superintendent was “having to look at everything from 50,000 feet.”

Runez already had a taste of taking a broader perspective of schools as a principal as he said he “looked at your entire building and maybe how it fits into the district.”  But he admitted “looking a little further out” is even more important to him now.

“As the district administrator, you might have an elementary principal who wants to push this initiative, but I have to then balance that with my other two elementary schools. Or a middle school who wants to do something. How does that impact the transition from elementary school to middle school, and from middle school to high school, and the entire K-12 experience for my kids here in this district?” Runez said.

He described “the political aspect” of his job as both challenging and interesting.

“In this particular climate there are a lot of changes going on. A variety of different interpretations are being shared with districts on how to handle anything from base wage to creating handbooks …,” Runez said. “Even though those things are really, really challenging and can be very difficult to learn and then implement, it’s really interesting. I enjoy that challenge.”

In his work as district administrator, Runez knows the importance of building relationships with a broad and varied spectrum of people, including WUSD employees, students, parents, members of the school board, local citizens and community business leaders.

“Being able to build and foster positive relationships with folks is really important to garnering the support for your school district and the kids in your schools.”

With a confident smile, Runez admitted that becoming district administrator has meant “a pretty steep learning curve.”

“This job is very different than being a building administrator.  That political piece, that challenge that I enjoy learning about, was huge,” Runez said, “and I feel I was really very fortunate to have just outstanding people around me.”

Having been WMS’s principal eased Runez’s transition to becoming district administrator.

“In being a building principal in a district this size, you get to get to be more ‘in the know’ than you would in a larger school district,” he said because of regular and face-to-face interactions between the building principals and the central office administrators.

Runez quickly credited his team of principals and central office administrators with helping him throughout the year.

“I have really been pleased with how strong and cohesive my administrative team has been this past year. Whether it came to the budgeting process, planning professional development, or whatever it was we had to tackle, I always felt like we were very much on the same page,” Runez said.

Although confessing to being little unsure about how his collegial relationship with Whitewater’s principals might have changed with his new title, Runez said that being known was a huge advantage.

“People who were here knew me, knew what I stood for, knew much about my beliefs and work … What you see is what you get with me,” Runez said.

On his ascent to 50,000 feet, Runez said he looks carefully at WUSD’s relationship with neighboring school districts. He now regularly asks, “How do we interact with our neighboring districts?”

A good example of this is Wisconsin’s Open Enrollment Program.

In this program, a student can seek admission to attend school in another Wisconsin school district, with the educational funding that the state provides following the student to the new district.

“I worried about Open Enrollment as a building principal,” Runez said.  “But I worry about Open Enrollment even more now as the district administrator.”


Reaching 50,000 feet, Runez asks himself, “What does any initiative or any piece of action we put into place here compare to what’s going on locally, regionally, nationally. I mean, you do have to look at all those things.”

Runez said he believes it is important to keep Whitewater’s building principals informed about what is happening in education at the state and national levels.

He said he wants them to be aware of changing policies and trends because they end up “rolling downhill and impacting your jobs.”

Probably the greatest challenges that Runez said he faced during his first year as district administrator were formulating a budget and providing leadership in communicating throughout the Whitewater community the background to a very significant referendum (which ultimately passed) tied to three years of funding.

“I didn’t come in taking this position saying I knew exactly the budgeting process we’re going to use,” Runez said.  Still, he knew that “the superintendent has a pretty big role in establishing that that process should look like and how you’re going to incorporate and involve and engage other people.”

As district administrator, Runez said he depends on his natural tendency “to work with people.”  He said that as a principal he “had a hard time buying into that mentality that people work for me.  My philosophy has always been they work with me.”

Runez also strives to put into practice advice that he was given by Greg Wescott, the current district administrator for Elkhorn Area Schools who served as Runez’s mentor during his administrative practicum.

Wescott told him, “As a superintendent, always remember what you wanted from your superintendent when you were a building principal.”

Runez said he remembers that advice, and also remembers that as a principal he wanted to be part of the district’s decision-making process.

Surprises are inevitable in a school district like WUSD, but Runez said he believes being “a pretty adaptable person” has gone a long way in helping him to cope with the surprising and unexpected.

“I have enough flexibility that if something happens I don’t panic,” he said. “As I’ve gone through this year, things would come up [but] I wouldn’t panic. I’d call some of my network of support, or I would brainstorm and problem solve with my leadership team and people who have historical background.”

Reflecting on his first year on the job, Runez said, “It’s awfully important to remember the experiences that have created your foundation.”

With a year as Whitewater Unified School District’s district administrator under his belt, Runez now has some important new experiences to remember, experiences that just might smooth out his ride at 50,000 feet – at least a little bit.

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