Family sets tradition of school leadership

Todd Prusator and his brothers followed their parents into education, making gatherings a K12 sounding board

School superintendency is a family business for the Prusators. Todd Prusator leads Community Consolidated School District 231 in a small community 70 miles west of Chicago. His two brothers, Bob and Jeff, also are Illinois superintendents, all within about 30 miles of each other in the northwest corner of the state.

The three brothers, who grew up in the small town of Tiskilwa, followed in the footsteps of their father, Bob, who spent his career in the rural community’s public schools and retired as superintendent. Even their mother, a former school nurse, followed the family tradition in education.

And that’s why when they get together for family dinners, which happens about four times a year, they act as each others’ sounding boards and confidantes. “We’ve joked that if we throw enough [questions] at us, one of us will get it right” Todd Prusator says with a chuckle.

Managing Editor Angela Pascopella spoke with Todd Prusator about the family business and his proudest moments.

Apparently, K12 education is a family business. How did that happen?

My dad was a teacher, coach, and then administrator and superintendent for 33 years at Tiskilwa School District in Illinois. It’s a rural district with about 600 students. It was a place where he probably thought it was going to be a first job and move on. But he really enjoyed it and ended up spending his whole career here.

He was a very successful coach. He’s in the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame. He won over 500 games. He had an unbelievable coaching career. And we grew up in that environment. It’s something we wanted to do and knew we would enjoy.

We went from teaching and coaching to administration. Bob, the oldest, is the superintendent at Dakota Community Unit School District, and Jeff, the youngest, is at Mendota Township School District.

We grew up in Tiskilwa, where we had great teachers and coaches and mentors who really created a culture of excellence and treated people with respect. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Tell me more about the culture.

In 1995, Tiskilwa shut down as an independent district and was annexed into a nearby district.

Last November, a group of people put together a “We Are Tiskilwa” reunion. They invited back not just my dad, but also the football coach, track coach, volleyball coach and music director, and others who were at the district then. They gathered everyone together to celebrate what we had there. That’s very unique to me, that people had such a good feeling about what they went through.

With having my brothers in the business too, it has been a great built-in support system for us. We’re dealing with the same things. So it’s really nice to have two people you can really trust, call up and say, “Hey, I have this issue, What do you think?” Because being a superintendent can be a very isolating position.

Superintendent Todd Prusator

Rochelle Community Consolidated School District 231, Illinois

Students: 1,661 (K8)

Staff and faculty: 225, including teachers

Per child expenditure: $6,000

Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 61 percent

Yearly budget: $70 million

The topics will vary depending on what we may be going through at the time. Usually it is about an unusual situation¬‰ —it could be about complex dynamics of relationships in a certain situation or a complicated series of events that have created an issue.

I guess our discussions are more for relating the complexities that only people doing the job would really understand or appreciate, rather than the technical aspects.

What are you most proud of regarding the Prusator family in education?

I think what is important is: What is the overall environment and culture being created? It’s really about caring about the people you work with, being honest and transparent—caring about your teachers, your staff and your students, and making them feel valued. I think that’s the basis of any quality educational program—it’s the investment in the people.

You should run your district the way you should run your life.

What does caring look like to you?

This is my 12th year here as superintendent. We’ve gone through quite a few changes over the past 10 years. You know Illinois is in a financial disaster. We’ve had our state aid pro-rated. When the economy went down, our local revenues also went down. We went through significant staff reductions. Our resources are more limited, and we’ve also gone through changing demographics. We have about 50 percent low-income students compared to 30 percent when I started. And we have an increasing ELL population—we’re at about 20 percent. When I started, we were about 8 or 9 percent.

And then we had changes and mandates over accountability and the increased pressure on test scores. It’s the most difficult time we’ve been through in education.

But we just settled our collective bargaining with our teachers’ union and it was the easiest and least stressful negotiation we’ve ever been through—at a time when people could be very dissatisfied. Collective bargaining can get really nasty.

It was a four-year contract for a 1 percent increase on base salary. One percent is not as much as we wanted to give, but it’s where we are at. Working conditions and benefits pretty much remained the same. We try to be transparent with the association. This was the limit our district could do and the teachers understood that.

I think it’s the culture here, and it’s not just me. It goes to the credit of the board and the teachers. Everyone understands we’re all going in the same direction. I would hope I’ve had some influence over that.

Given such challenges, many would-be superintendents, who are intelligent and would be quite successful, shy away from the job. What would you say to them?

The job is difficult. Particularly the mandates and the finances put a strain on things. It puts more of a premium on getting more good people in administration to navigate through that.

The job is not for everyone. But it’s for people truly invested in making sure students have every opportunity and for those who want to provide support for teachers and staff to be able to work with students.

I still believe education is the most noble profession anyone can get into because of the impact, and because of who you are serving. The influence you can have is beyond what any other profession could have.

What are the best successes you’ve helped create at Rochelle CCSD?

We have a growing ELL population and Hispanic population. The credit goes to our teachers and staff to embrace our diversity and view it as an asset.

And it’s about understanding that we have a wide range of needs for those growing populations, and making sure we’re meeting the needs of all kids, including the traditional population of high-achieving kids.

We’ve progressed from a full ESL program and started a bilingual program, which is a better model for kids. And next year we’ll start a dual language initiative with English and Spanish speakers in both languages in kindergarten, so the students can become biliterate. That’s taking diversity and making it an asset.

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