Ehler retirement ends an exciting era at R-P schools

TCR/CRAIG JOHNSON Retiring Superintendent Chuck Ehler receives a goodbye hug from R-P elementary students last week. Ehler will retire June 28 after 12 years with the district.

Chuck Ehler’s tenure as Superintendent of Rushford-Peterson Schools may have started in floodwaters that crept into an aging structure, but it ended in the halls of one of the premier school buildings in the region. Ehler, R-P superintendent since 2007, will retire June 28, 2019. Ehler was honored in an assembly last week, but sat down to reflect on his career with the Tri-County Record beforehand.

Ehler was hired in the summer of 2007, but came eerily close to not becoming the district’s superintendent. “I interviewed, and later the board called and offered me the position,” he recalled. “So I told [wife] Sharon about the offer and we stayed up talking about the position and whether I should accept. By the time we went to bed that night, we’d pretty much agreed that I wasn’t going to take it. But as I went about things the next day, I just had this really strong feeling that I needed to accept the job. Later that day I sat down with Sharon and told her my thoughts. And she just started smiling; she said ‘I have been having those exact same feelings. I think you are supposed to be there.’”

Though Ehler expected to hit the ground running, even he was unprepared for the difficulty of the first few weeks at his new post; his start date was July 9, and by August 19 Rushford was inundated by floodwaters. “That time seems almost surreal now,” he reflected. “We had so many volunteers, from teachers and students to community members who pitched in to help, and somehow we were able to start school on time. We received so much aid; food, water, a tanker truck that supplied us with fresh water. Everyone adopted that ‘Never Give Up’ attitude...that quote has served as a strong motto for me, and everyone in this community. For the first four months we had no classes in the lower level. ECFE was held on the stage of the theater. It was quite a challenge, but I’d like to think that we rose to the occasion and met it.”

With the challenge of the flood behind him, Ehler faced a new hurdle: dealing with the failing condition of old school buildings. Just months into his first job as a school superintendent, Ehler was telling area legislators that R-P needed a new school, a process that would last for years. By 2010, the district had formed a Facilities Task Force, which would go on to recommend that the district would start building with a new elementary wing. That recommendation was placed in front of district voters in a 2012 vote that was voted down. “Of course it was disappointing, but I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason,” Ehler said. “What the voters were telling us was that they wanted a one-and-done if new construction was going to happen.”

In the meantime, Ehler had met Peg Larson, a former legislator who now worked as a legislative advocate. “That was in 2011,” he recalled. “I’d been going up to the capitol alone, and didn’t feel like I was making much progress. Peg really knew the ins-and-outs and was a big help.”

In 2012, Moose Lake, Minn., was impacted by a flood and their school damaged. That district paired with R-P in a “sister school” relationship and the two approached the state legislature to fund the schools with $20 million in aid, to be included in an Omnibus Bill. “With the change in power at the legislature, this bill would fail in May of 2013,” Ehler said. “By July of that year we’d formed a second Facilities Task Force, and their finding was that we build a new K-12 facility.”

From January through May of 2014, Ehler would make multiple trips to the state capitol, where Democrats now controlled both houses, and Gov. Mark Dayton was a strong advocate for education. In February, Minnesota legislators would pass the Natural Disaster Debt Equalization Bill, which made any district impacted by a natural disaster to be eligible for funding. In June of that year Dayton would sign an Omnibus Education Bill that that contained debt equalization for both the R-P and Moose Lake districts, and by November 2014, R-P district voters passed a referendum approving the construction of a new K-12 facility.

While years of effort seemed to be rewarded with state help and passage of the referendum, Ehler was not over every hurdle. Even after ground-breaking in October of 2015 and the beginning of construction a month later, the district would face, and overcome, a pair of court challenges. Ehler would also endure his share of criticism, some quite personal. “I didn’t take it personally though,” he reflected. “My focus was always what was best for the kids, and for the long-term needs of the district.”

Greg Smith, who served on the R-P school board that hired Ehler, has nothing but admiration for the outgoing superintendent. “We interviewed several candidates and he definitely stood out,” Smith said. “He was the perfect fit and we were happy to get him. I’m convinced we wouldn’t have the new school without Chuck. He took a lot of personal grief, but what a lot of people forget is that he was under full direction from the board for the entire process, and in every step. The board looked at the numbers, and it just made way more sense financially to build new than to do endless remodeling. We needed someone to see that entire process through and Chuck did it to perfection. There is no quit in him.”

Smith said Ehler will be a tough act to follow for reasons far beyond a new building. “He has such a personal touch with kids,” Smith said. “I remember coming out of a board meeting late one night, and he needed to lock up the building. There was a fifth grade boy in the gym shooting free throws, and Chuck not only knew him by name, he took the time to work with him and correct his shot before shutting the gym down and locking the school. That is not something you’re going to find from just anyone, I can guarantee it.”

Toni Oian, R-P district business manager, confirmed Smith’s assessment. “His priority is always the kids, and he shows that quality every day on this job,” she said. “But he’s excellent to work for as well; he’s always ready to listen and answer questions, and his personal work ethic is just endless. He’s always working. He’s part of that generation where that was just instilled in you, especially if you grew up on a farm like he did.”

Ehler and his son Paul are frequently seen pulling weeds, mowing grass and shoveling snow on the R-P grounds, a process Ehler views as therapeutic as it is necessary. “I take a personal satisfaction in working outdoors, and Paul and I get a chance to work together,” he said. “I grew up on a farm outside Canton, Minn., the Iowa border was on the other side of the fence, and my parents taught me the importance of working hard, and spending time with family.” In addition to Paul, the Ehlers have a son (Matthew and wife Nicole), a daughter (Amelia and husband Tyler) and a grandson (Archie).

With retirement only weeks away, Ehler has not formulated a solid plan. “I won’t say I won’t pursue something later, but it will be refreshing to not have a plate full of activities and duties,” he mused. “Besides, my family has made a lot of sacrifices for me to pursue this. It’s time for them to take priority.”