District ushers in Barton era
By Emily Bialkowski
The Caledonia School District marks a new era of leadership this July with the hiring of Ben Barton as superintendent/elementary principal.
Barton comes with 15 years of experience, most recently from the La Crescent School District.
The man is not hard to spot. He’s a former collegiate wrestler with wavy – slightly wild – hair, but he’s quick to point out that communication is his number one goal and wants to hear from the district’s constituents.
“I just think that communication is at the heart of success or failure of anything. Typically, when I’ve found a problem, I find there’s a breakdown in communication. That’s when there’s misunderstandings or issues. That’s when you spend time cleaning things up,” he said.
Barton grew up in Wabasha, about an hour from Caledonia, and was recruited out of high school to wrestle for the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. While there he had the chance to continue his wrestling career and coach at the collegiate level but knew his future belonged elsewhere.
“My heart laid in education,” he said.
He completed his bachelor of arts in physical education and started his career in the Osseo School District where he taught physical education and health and coached football, wrestling and track.
While there he moved on to be dean of students. “At the time it was the fourth largest school district in the state with 1,800 students. I think I had more disciplinary issues there in that one year as I have had following,” Barton said.
From there he moved on to be the principal of grades 7 through 12 at Hinckley-Finlayson.
“After you’re gone from where you grew up you start recognizing what you had and how amazing it was,” Barton said.
This realization led him to La Crescent where he’s been for the last seven years as middle school principal, learning center principal, district assessment coordinator and mentor to several curriculum areas.
“Then I got the itch to become a superintendent. This is the first and only job I applied for, and I’m just thrilled to be here now,” Barton said.
His master’s degree is from St. Mary’s University, and his superintendent/principal-ship certification is from St. Cloud State.
Barton said he believes we are at a time in history where our world is changing as rapidly as it ever has. He said it’s important to prepare students for that ever changing world.
“I don’t want our students just to be good at school. I want them to transfer skills acquired here in school to new challenges and problems outside,” he said.
He also believes two factors must exist for students to be successful: respect and security.
“We have to have a positive climate where students feel respected and safe. If we have that as a foundation then learning will happen,” he said.
And finally, Barton said he’s going to “hammer” on the idea that, “none of us can do this alone.”
“We have to work together as a team. We all have different roles in helping our students meet their potential,” he said.
Barton hopes to encourage the team environment by communicating through the district’s website and hosting coffee and conversation events like he did in La Crescent.
“Anyone who wants to can come and just talk about what’s going on in the schools,” he said.
Staff and finances
Likely the bane of all superintendent’s job duties, Barton said he knows the budget will be something to address.
“If we’re not healthy financially it’s difficult to have a positive culture,” he said.
He vowed to look at all revenue options but admitted that referendum is not out of the question in the next five years.
“I don’t know what the solution is, but I’ve been able to see the need in the short time I’ve been here for some improvement from where we’re at. It’s going to be my job to get an improved understanding of all of our budget, revenue and expenditures, and look at ways to improve efficiencies and find creative new ways to bring in revenue to the district,” he said.
However, when pointedly asked about referendum, he said, “If that is a last resort that’s something we’ll have to do,” he said.
Barton said he thinks when people outside the district think about Caledonia they think about athletics.
“At the end of the day we want to keep the great things great, but that’s just one part of what we do here. The other piece of what we do is identify areas we can improve,” he said.
With a wife and two children at home in La Crescent, Barton said his family keeps plenty busy. His better half is the administrator of a nursing home, and the children, 12 and 17, are naturally active with their own interests. However, Barton said he tries to unwind with his newfound hobby of guitar playing, which unfolded from a love of music.
He admits the position he now holds comes with responsibility to the community, the school board, businesses and the students. “I feel like everyone’s my boss – starting with the students,” he said.
Barton remains an adjunct professor for Winona State and promises not to respond to issues too hastily.
“When you jump in you have to listen and learn the lay of the land and get the pulse of what’s going on.”