Wauwatosa School District Superintendent to Retire After 16 Years in Position

Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Dr. Phillip Ertl will retire at the end of the 2020-2021 school year after serving as the superintendent of the district for the last 16 years.

Wauwatosa School District

Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Dr. Phillip Ertl will retire at the end of the 2020-2021 school year after serving as the superintendent of the district for the last 16 years.

By Sara Stanislawski, Wauwatosa East and West High Schools

When Wauwatosa Superintendent Dr. Phillip Ertl started in his position, the community stood divided over the school board’s recent vote to close Wilson Elementary School.

Now retiring after 16 years as superintendent, Ertl’s last year has also endured community division over how the district should approach reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Ertl says he came to the district eager to face challenges.

“With bigger school districts come different challenges and I was always looking for challenges and I knew that Wauwatosa would be a place for challenges, as long as I stay,” Ertl said.

The Wauwatosa School Board voted to close Wilson in Jan. 2005.

The district hired Ertl a few months later in March. Shortly after being hired, a school board election brought 3 new board members. Ertl started his first day in the district with 3 board members not on the board when he was hired.

His goal was to bring the community together.

“Well it was an interesting time, it was pretty chaotic,” Ertl said. “It was pretty divided, Wilson, that whole situation of closing a school kind of divided the community. So it [the goal] was really to bring people together and root for a common goal and make Wauwatosa a better school district.”

Wilson remains open today.

However, Ertl says that the 2020-2021 school year and the end of the 2019-2020 school year have in many ways been the most challenging during his time in the district.

“Everything we’re dealing with is kind of new, we’re trying to figure out, get the best information possible, and you’re trying to do what normally might take for example a week to gather information and trying to make a decision in a couple of hours at times,” Ertl said.

“There’s a lot of decision-making that had to go so you had to put a lot of trust in a lot of people that were helping share information and carry out the work. You know, it was really divisive, in a lot of ways.”

Announcing Retirement

The school board approved Ertl’s notice of retirement effective June 30, 2021, during a special session of the board on Dec. 21, 2020.

Ertl hoped to stay in the district long enough to see his two children graduate when he first started.

“I think ultimately it was just getting to the point where Logan was finishing up school, and I said when I started, and people kind of laughed at me, they didn’t think I would stay 16 years, but I said when I started, ‘I wanna go 16 years,’” Ertl said.

According to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, Wisconsin superintendents remain in a district for an average of 3 years. Ertl’s 16-year tenure far exceeds the average.

“A big thank you to everybody that I’ve worked with here in the community. They’ve accepted me, they’ve accepted my family. I know my kids feel like they’ve got a place to call a hometown. That’s pretty cool to me.”

Ertl thinks now is the ideal time for a leadership change.

“I just think it’s a good time for me professionally and personally and for my family and I think it’s a good time for the school district to pass to new leadership,” Ertl said.

Ertl urges the next superintendent to take the time to build relationships while finding and advancing areas of improvement in the district.

“I think the relationship piece is probably the most important. You need to be able to create, develop, maintain great relationships,” Ertl said.

Start in Education and the District

Ertl was looking for a place to stay for the long-term when he came to the district in 2005.

“I wanted my kids to have one school system and a place to call home,” Ertl said. “I thought that was important, both my wife and I did. My wife happened to be in Wauwatosa, where she went to school.”

Ertl started in education in 1988. His first teaching position was in Marble Falls, TX.

Ertl’s older brother was also a teacher and served as a role model.

“I kind of looked up to him and pretty much followed his path and got into teaching and loved it,” Ertl said.

After moving back to Wisconsin, Ertl taught in Tomah. He then served as an Assistant Principal at Menasha High School and Maplewood Middle School. Ertl started his first superintendent position in Kiel, WI, 21 years ago.

“You go out of teaching and coaching like I was doing, that’s a tough shift because you’re in it for kids,” Ertl said. “You gotta keep the mindset that you’re still benefiting kids, you might not have as much one to one interaction, but you got to find a way to stick with that, and fortunately I was able to do that.”

Vision for the District

Ertl did not plan to make any specific changes when he first came to the district. He instead focused on getting to know the community.

“I wanted to come into the district and see what people felt like needed to change and what people felt like needed to get better because that’s really how I approached it, it wasn’t what I wanted ever,” Ertl said.

Ertl has lived in the community throughout his time in the district.

“For me, the opportunity to live in Wauwatosa for all 16 years and not be from another community, I think I got a really good sense of what people from Wauwatosa wanted from their school district.”

Ertl says his goals changed over time in response to the community.

“I think I look at my job as a facilitator of community needs and the school board is the one that is the voice of the community,” Ertl said. “My job is to facilitate what the school board wants from the school district, how to coach and encourage them, but then carry out their direction and their vision and their mission.”

Since Ertl started, district goals have changed significantly. Equity has become increasingly important in recent years.

“Equity has become a big focus of our school district that in 2005 was probably not the primary focus,” Ertl said.

Ertl helped lead efforts to create the district’s first Equity Plan for 2018-2020, which was revised for 2020-2022.

Ertl also served as chair and co-founder of the Closing the Achievement Gap Consortium (CAGC), a group of over 35 Milwaukee area public and private school systems, including the Wauwatosa School District.

According to the CAGC website, the group is a partnership between Milwaukee Area schools and Concordia University “who have united together to create a high impact professional learning community focused on creating greater equity in their schools.”

Reflecting on his Time

Ertl learned the importance of having high expectations for students over his time in the district.

“I’ve learned that students are amazing, if you just have high expectations for students, they’re going to respond, we’ve seen that over and over,” Ertl said.

According to a press release from the district, Ertl “called for all Wauwatosa high school sophomores to take AP Human Geography to help close achievement gaps and make advanced courses feel accessible to everyone” effective starting in the 2018-2019 school year.

Ertl also led the development of the Wauwatosa STEM School (WSTEM), Underwood STEM (USTEM), Wauwatosa Montessori School, and “MSTEM” tracks within Longfellow and Whitman Middle Schools.

For the 2020-2021 school year, the district provided 3 instruction options for the more than 7,000 district students to choose between given the COVID-19 pandemic: Phase Into Learning shifting students between virtual, hybrid, and full in-person learning; all virtual “Tosa Connected” taught by Wauwatosa School District staff; and the Wauwatosa Virtual Academy offering online curriculum from by Pearson Education.

“I think trying to create a system for 7,200 students where they can all be successful, and knowing there’s a whole lot more challenges this year for students and for parents and for staff than ever before, it’s certainly been one of the most challenging things I’ve dealt with in my career, if not the most challenging,” Ertl said.

The 2020-2021 school year has also heightened Ertl’s concerns about the future of education and a shortage of educators.

“My concern is about, and my concern has been actually since 2011 when Act 10 went through, is how people perceive education as a profession,” Ertl said. “It is not me, I mean you could always find another me, but it’s the teachers that make things happen in the classroom with kids, and I’m concerned about the people that are not going into education to become teachers and there’s a shortage and that I think is going to continue to get worse if people don’t change how they look at educators. I get concerned and I think that’s been exacerbated a little bit this year.”

Despite concerns emerging about students catching up due to the pandemic, Ertl is not worried.

“There’s going to be some challenges moving into next year to get where we need to go, but I think people will be surprised that students have done better this year than many expected,” Ertl said.

Ertl notes that he has taken the district’s performance personally.

“The most challenging is when students aren’t successful, that’s heartbreak for everybody from parents to students. We aren’t always 100% in school of getting everybody to where you want them to be so I always took it as a personal failure when students weren’t successful,” Ertl said. “The biggest disappointments were when other people were disappointed in what was going on with the school district, I kind of took that personally.”

Ertl is thankful for the community members and district staff dedicated to student success he has had the chance to work with.

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with some incredible people that do the work like our teaching staff, we’ve got some of the best in the state of Wisconsin in my opinion,” Ertl said.

Ertl also recognizes the dedication of the school board.

“I’ve learned that school boards, school board members, put in a tremendous amount of time to benefit their community, and they’re not paid.”

Wauwatosa School Board Member Michael Meier has been on the board since Ertl started in the district.

According to a district press release, when a board delegation, including Meier, visited Kiel during the hiring process in 2005, a Kiel employee started crying saying they knew Ertl would leave someday, and they were fortunate to have him as long as they did.

“Now I truly understand the emotions I saw in that meeting,” Meier said in the press release.

Over his time, Ertl says he also learned how much the community cares about education.

“People are really passionate about what goes on in schools,” Ertl said. “I’ve worked with some incredible people and the students that I have had the opportunity to get to know and interact with, you know, it just reinforces my belief that education is a great tool to build communities.”

Future Plans

Ertl plans to lead the new educational division of InitiativeOne, a Green Bay-based leadership development consultant, starting in July, according to a press release.

“They [InitiativeOne] want to expand into the education market, so that’s my job to help them grow,” Ertl said.

The Wauwatosa School District worked with InitiativeOne to undergo a leadership development process 4 years ago.

“I think it had a big impact on our administrative team and how we operate together, help create relationships, maintain relationships, communicate and all those things,” Ertl said.

Ertl hopes the job will be his next challenge.

“I hope it’s a mountain I have to climb,” Ertl said. “I’m not a person that’s just gonna sit down and relax. I can do that for about half an hour. I’m looking forward to doing something a little bit different to try to impact school districts in a different way.”

This story was originally published on The Tosa Compass on May 2, 2021.