Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel announced Monday he will leave his position next summer after five years in charge of McLean County’s largest school district.
Daniel said he's seeking another superintendent's job elsewhere. He will continue in Unit 5 through the end of this school year. Daniel was hired in Unit 5 in 2014, succeeding the retiring Gary Niehaus.
Daniel, 58, said during a Monday news conference at the district’s office, he would prefer to find another position in Illinois, particularly in the Chicago area where two of his four daughters live, along with a grandson born earlier this year.
“I love what I do, I love the energy that is part of our business and I’m looking forward to taking what I’ve learned here in Unit 5, the expertise, the professional development, the relationships and moving that to perhaps up north a bit,” Daniel said.
Unit 5 Board of Education President Barry Hitchins did not specifically address a reporter’s question about the terms in which Daniel is leaving.
“His contract expires at the end of the 2020 school year and it was just the opportune time for this decision to be made,” Hitchins said.
Under his tenure, Daniel made strides on several fronts. Unit 5’s dual credit program with Heartland Community College grew from four courses in 2013 to 15 for this school year. Facility improvements include the completion of the $1.1 million special education addition at Colene Hoose Elementary School.
Daniel also noted the district's improved high school graduation rates and student-teacher ratios during his time in the district.
Daniel said he’s most proud of the district’s efforts to bolster college and career readiness for its high school graduates.
“We are moving in a direction in a way that’s impacting our entire community… in truly creating more of a fluid transition from the 11th grade and 12th grade into their post-secondary lives,” Daniel said.
One big challenge that Daniel leaves for his successor will be the district’s finances. Unit 5 is facing a $12.8 million deficit this fiscal year, though it’s using working cash bonds as a short-term solution. Unit 5 leaders say the district faces drastic cuts (including in teachers) unless voters approve a property tax increase, a sales tax increase, or some other combination of cuts and revenue is found.
The district also faces ongoing student transportation issues as parents have complained about late buses and other issues ever since the district started outsourcing its busing.
"(Niehaus) didn't quite tell me about the transportation issues," Daniel quipped. "Transportation, that is always a struggle and that's going to continue to be a struggle."
Daniel has also faced questions after two high-profile personnel controversies. Former director of human resources and student services James Harden resigned in spring 2019 amid allegations of workplace harassment. And in August, a first-grade teacher Jonathan Hovey was charged with molesting two of his students. Critics have questioned why Hovey was allowed to continue to teach after the first allegations surfaced in 2004-05.
Daniel said he will leave Unit 5 with no regrets.
“Not really, I’ve had a very positive experience and learned a great amount,” Daniel said. “So I take that experience, I think I can benefit another district in a rather significant manner."
He added his primary unfinished business would be expanding the district's social emotional learning plan beyond this year's pilot program.
Daniel’s current three-year contract is set to end in June 2020. His annual salary is $203,000. He is set to receive a 1% pay increase based on a performance evaluation, pending a school board vote on Wednesday. He said pay was “not really” a factor in his decision to leave.
Daniel grew up in Indiana and last worked for the smaller Dowagiac Union Schools in southwest Michigan before coming to Unit 5.
The school board on Wednesday will witness a presentation from Oak Park-based School Exec Connect. The company will present a proposal to conduct a search for the district’s next superintendent. Hitchins said the plan is expected to cost less than $30,000. He said the district has hired School Exec Connect to lead the last two superintendent searches.
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