Super start

Wausau School District’s new superintendent, Keith Hilts, plans on focusing on the whole student


Keith Hilts started July 2 as the Wausau School District’s new superintendent

It has been about two weeks since Keith Hilts started as the Wausau School District’s superintendent, and already he’s been busy reaching out to community leaders, including the police chief and the chamber of commerce president.

That’s exactly why he was hired, says School Board President Jeff Leigh, and making community connections will be one of the superintendent’s priorities.

Hilts started work on July 2, and is ready to hit the ground running. Having previously served as superintendent in the Ashland School District for eight years, Hilts is no stranger to controversy — Act 10 and the tension between teachers and administration happened in his first year on the job. In his time in Ashland, there was an incident in which a homecoming parade float in 2016 was decorated with Trump’s proposed border wall and featured racist depictions of immigrants. Hilts apologized to parents in a letter and said he had initially approved the politically themed float in concept but didn’t realize it would include racist depictions of Mexican people.

Another incident involved a teacher being suspended in Ashland for comments she made on social media about the police shooting of a 14-year-old native American girl. The teacher was reinstated following a letter from the ACLU.

“The only thing you can do is be honest with people,” Hilts says. “Even over-communicate, if that’s possible.”

One of Hilts’ goals as he leads the Wausau district is to look at the whole student, and that means addressing not just academics, but the social and mental health of kids. Wausau has some great pilot programs around those issues that he hopes to expand.

“Earlier in my career, I was more academics focused,” Hilts says. “But when you work with young people you see some of their needs, you see some of them don’t have strong support structures. I realized we weren’t really prepared to help support the whole child.”

Some of the issues Hilts will face going forward include overcrowding at John Muir Middle School, and financial issues left by reduced state aid, and teacher shortages — though Hilts says it’s less of a problem in Wausau than other communities because there’s a good support network, competitive pay and teachers like the community.

Leigh says Hilts was chosen from a field of three finalists, and stood out not only because of his commitment to the whole child, but also because consultants vetting him heard glowing things from his references in that regard. “Essentially we saw him as a good, positive communicator who will help bring the community and school district together, and improve relationships as well,” Leigh says.