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New Unit 5 superintendent ready to start
Unit 5 superintendent Gary Niehaus holdS plans Thursday (June 28, 2007) at the Unit 5 offices in Normal. (Pantagraph/CARLOS T. MIRANDA)

NORMAL - Gary Niehaus expects his Monday to be much like Friday was - except he will have the title of Unit 5 school superintendent.

Niehaus has been preparing for a double transition, handing over his title as superintendent of the Charleston school district and assuming leadership of Normal-based Unit 5 from Alan Chapman.

Chapman is retiring from a long career in the school district, including stints as a teacher and as principal at Normal Community High School.

"At this point, there has not been a laundry list of surprises," Niehaus said.

He attributes that to a transition process that has included many conversations with Chapman, district administrators and community members.

He said the most difficult task so far was finding a new chief financial officer for Unit 5. James Gillmeister, a certified public accountant in the private sector for 25 years and financial chief for the Western Springs school district for eight years, starts his new job simultaneously with Niehaus.

Although there is a loss of history and continuity when longtime employees move on or retire, newcomers also bring fresh perspectives, Niehaus said.

"It provides an opportunity to ask, 'Why do we do it this way? Is it the best way to do it?'" he said.

Niehaus used the Unit 5 board room at the district's 1809 Hovey St., Normal, administrative building last week as his home base until he could move into his own office. On the walls were photos of past school board members, and on the table lay plans for the $100 million worth of building projects the district is considering for a possible February 2008 referendum.

In recent days, Niehaus and Chapman met with town and city officials, architects and other people who will be part of his everyday work life in the district. He spent close to a dozen scattered days getting acquainted so he can be ready to go on Monday.

Niehaus said his first official day at the district will be comparable to his last unofficial day. Friday, he met with Commerce Bank officials for breakfast to talk about the district's financing. At 10 a.m. he met with the Farnsworth Group architects about the construction plans.

At noon, he met with Meghan Leisberg, the district's community relations specialist, to learn more about her role. He also had scattered conversations with other Unit 5 staff members throughout the day.

His first school board meeting as superintendent will be July 11.

Two weeks later, on July 25, he hopes to have an after-hours meeting in which local business people will see a presentation of the school district's five-year financial projections. He expects it to begin at 5:30 p.m. and last an hour.

"It's something we've done, and it's been very helpful to the public," he said.

As for life outside his job, Niehaus said, "We're here."

He and his wife, Becky, have a home in the Fox Creek area of Bloomington. Furniture and boxes are in the home, but not unpacked.

During the transition period, he has been driving about two hours back and forth between Charleston and the Twin Cities for meetings and others business.

"That's hard to do," he said.

He and his wife won't have any travel time to see their youngest son, Ryan, however.

"We thought we would be empty nesters," Niehaus said. Instead, their son will attend Illinois State University this year and will call Normal home.

The couple has a daughter in Salem and a son in Washington, D.C.

As for Chapman, he said the last week was hard to describe. He made many final decisions about what to keep, what to pass along and to whom, and what to throw away.

"We had a long time to prepare for this," Chapman said.

Gary Niehaus

Title: Superintendent, McLean County Unit District 5, which has about 12,000 students.

Previous title: Superintendent since 2003 at Charleston Community Unit School District 1, which has about 3,000 students.

Previous positions: Superintendent, Salem Elementary School District 111 (seven years); middle school principal, River Forest, Champaign and Effingham (13 years); high school assistant principal and academic dean (six years); physical education and social studies teacher (two years).

Education: Doctorate of education, Loyola University of Chicago; education specialist degree, Eastern Illinois University; M.S., Southeastern Louisiana University; B.S., EIU

SOURCE: Gary Niehaus, Unit 5

Compiled by Phyllis Coulter


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