There’s a new superintendent in town.
Thursday night, school board members chose Annette Freiheit as the next leader of Winona Area Public Schools.
Freiheit, currently the head of Minneapolis-suburb Pine City Public Schools, told board members in her finalist interview that her first 100 days as superintendent would be focused on listening, visibility and relationship building. She brings a background heavy in community connections; at her Pine City post, she organized joint meetings with the city and county governments, working with those entities to address the needs of students living in poverty.
She beat out James Wagner, superintendent of a Wyoming school district, and Pelican Rapids School District superintendent Randi Anderson to clinch the role.
Freiheit is a 1983 Winona State University graduate and told the Daily News Thursday night that she has long loved the community.
“I always feel like I’m coming home,” she said.
Though Pine City is a significantly smaller district than Winona, board members praised Freiheit's genuine nature, collaborative leadership style, acknowledgement of areas where she needed growth and commitment to honoring teachers in the classroom.
The unanimous decision was reached after only a short period of deliberation and little disagreement.
Freiheit also received the highest score of the three candidates on the second-round interview and assessment form filled out by board members.
"I think she's willing to walk with us and learn with us and grow with us," said member Tina Lehnertz.
Added Jim Schul: "I think teachers are going to love her. I think the community is going to love her."
Board chair Nancy Denzer noted that Freiheit will be the only of the three candidates to wrap up a full contract with her school district before moving on to Winona.
Freiheit is believed to be the first female hired as superintendent of Winona Area Public Schools. Kelly Halvorsen served as interim superintendent after Stephen West resigned in January 2017.
Prior to her superintendent’s role, Freiheit spent 13 years as a principal in Hayfield Community Schools. That district closed a school building while she was there, she said, lending her intimate knowledge of the wounds that can create within a community and what it will take to heal them.
Freiheit also said that while learning to navigate a larger school district will require time and organization, working for a smaller one left her well-equipped to wear many hats and understand different people’s roles. As principal, for example, she was also coordinating curriculum and testing.
Taking deep dives into data and identifying strengths and areas for improvement will be critical, she said, but just as critical is listening to staff, administration, students and families with their boots on the ground.
“I like to learn about where things are at … It’s more about the people around me than about myself,” Freiheit said Thursday.
MSBA representatives who helped guide the superintendent search, which started in earnest in March, told the board that the unanimous vote was a good sign of more collaboration ahead.
Freiheit replaces Rich Dahman, who announced earlier this year he would retire as superintendent at the end of the school year.