Retiring superintendent reflects on trying, rewarding years in District 11

When Dennis Carlson was studying for his bachelor’s degree in studio art, a nude model his class was sketching stood up, fainted and broke her jaw. It was pandemonium as paramedics draped a sheet over the woman and carried her out of the classroom, he recalls.

Dennis Carlson will retire as Anoka-Hennepin’s superintendent June 30. Carlson assumed the role five years ago and in that time has had many highs and lows. Photo by Sue Austreng
Dennis Carlson will retire as Anoka-Hennepin’s superintendent June 30. Carlson assumed the role five years ago and in that time has had many highs and lows. Photo by Sue Austreng

“Not a great start to my art career,” Carlson said, now less than two weeks away from retiring as superintendent of the state’s largest school district.

The beginning of his superintendency was even more rocky than his foray into the art world. He assumed the role right after the country’s worst economic crash since the Great Depression and when the Anoka-Hennepin School District planned to close eight schools with declining enrollment.

“It was a horrendous time to take over the joint,” Carlson said, but he did so nonetheless, coming out of retirement to serve as interim superintendent in 2008 after wheels were already in motion to close buildings.

Carlson could have been the fall person if the closures didn’t go well, he said. He could have resigned shortly after his superintendency was made official July 1, 2009. Though people were inevitably upset by the closings, the community thought they were handled well, according to Carlson, so he stayed on.

His biggest challenges were yet to come.

From 2009 to 2011, seven students committed suicide in the district. Widespread allegations of educators not adequately addressing bullying, particularly when its targets were gay students, started to fly.

National and international media picked up the story, and hate mail and death threats started to pour in.

Carlson is still pained when he talks about a 2012 story that appeared in “Rolling Stone,” his favorite magazine before all of this transpired.

A huge music fan – Neil Young is his favorite rocker – Carlson shared his love of harmony with daughter Sarah, who died at age 16 in a car accident. To remember that special connection, Carlson continued to subscribe to “Rolling Stone” in her name and would think of her every month when the issue arrived.

When he read the story about the student suicides in the district, a piece titled “One Town’s War on Gay Teens,” he canceled his 25-year subscription, calling the day that magazine arrived one of the worst of his life.

It was a “brutal hatchet job on the community,” he said of the article.

Losing his own daughter, Carlson understands the devastation that accompanies the loss of a child. But he couldn’t understand the lies told about the district, people saying that Anoka-Hennepin didn’t care and wasn’t trying to keep kids safe, he said. “We care deeply about our kids and would do anything to keep them safe.”

A federal lawsuit and investigation were launched against the district.

Carlson helped negotiate a settlement with students who alleged that the district had responded inappropriately when they were bullied because of their sexuality or perceived sexuality. He helped develop an anti-bullying consent decree as well.

One item in the decree required the district to hire a mental health consultant. Dr. Nita Kumar brought comprehensive mental health services to the district in 2013. In 2014-2015, the number of licensed mental health professionals working in Anoka-Hennepin schools will double. The district will have 30 full-time equivalent positions for therapists in the schools, something in which Carlson takes great pride.

Though Carlson is pleased with the progress the district has made working to curb all bullying, “I would not deny it’s been hard, and I would also not deny that there were days that I just (asked) what have I signed up for here,” he said. “I signed up for closing eight schools. I didn’t sign up to get death threats and be hated across the country and be vilified on CNN, ‘Rolling Stone’ and so on.”

Carlson found catharsis at this year’s Symphonic Rock concert at Anoka High School, where he belted out Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.” With lyrics like, “Don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them,” Carlson puts great thought into which pieces he performs, which songs hold meaning for him.

Participating in Symphonic Rock was a great way to connect with kids, Carlson said. From time to time, he runs into students who have played with him on the stage.

“They don’t say to me, ‘Congratulations on all the success of your achievement gap and all the proficiency improvements we’ve had with test scores for kids.’ They say, ‘You sounded just like Neil Young,’ which is the greatest compliment I could get in my life,” Carlson said. Although, academic gains are nothing to scoff at.

School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann pointed out that under Carlson, the district’s proficiency as measured by Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment test results improved 3 percent in math, 6 percent in reading and 13 percent in science over the last five years. The achievement gap decreased 6 percent in math, 8 percent in reading and 5 percent in science. Fewer students are dropping out of high school and more are receiving college credit for courses taken in high school, he said.

With all of that success, he’s sad to see Carlson go.

“We’re reluctantly celebrating Denny’s retirement,” Heidemann said, though he anticipates David Law will do great things in the district, too. Law starts as superintendent July 1.

In retirement, Carlson, 66, plans to feed his artistic side.

“In this job, you have to be much more of a left-brained person. It’s all about budgets, organizations, systems management, all that,” Carlson said. “I feel like I have neglected the right side of my brain, to some extent.”

Playing gigs with PCE – his band with Patrick Plant, the district’s former chief technology and information officer, and Franklin Elementary School Principal Brian Erlandson – will help him focus on his artistic talents.

He also hopes to catch a lot more of his favorite musicians when they’re in town.

“On the job, because of all the evening work, you miss a lot of the concerts,” he said.

Carlson plans to spend much more time with family: his wife, Edee, whom he met in fourth grade, and daughter Annie’s growing family.

To Carlson, who lived on a farm outside of Aitkin growing up, Edee was a big city girl living within the city limits of Aitkin, approximate population 2,000.

They started dating while Carlson was a studio art student at the University of Minnesota.

She was seeing other men, and Carlson found her frequently unavailable on the weekends. “I was getting like leftover nights,” he said. So, eventually, he put his foot down and said Saturday night or nothing.

The pair was married in 1969.

They moved to Mercer, Wisconsin, when Carlson took his first teaching job to avoid being drafted in the Vietnam War. His number was seven, so “if I was drafted, I was gone,” he said.

He started in community education in 1973, working in Glencoe, Minnesota, then Elk River. He came to District 11 as director of community education in 1986, became an assistant superintendent in 1995 and retired in 2008 before returning to serve as superintendent.

On June 5, Carlson missed a retirement celebration in his honor, thrown by Youth First Community of Promise, to be present for the birth of his first grandson, Gideon, who was born the previous day in New York state.

During Annie’s delivery, Carlson was in charge of looking after Gideon’s older sister, Caroline, nearly 2.

“It’s just precious time to spend with my granddaughter,” he said, smiling. The pair developed a bedtime routine. Caroline would fall asleep in Carlson’s arms after he sang three songs for her.

Carlson and Edee will reunite with Annie’s family in Maine later this summer.

The weeks are flying by, Carlson said.

Though his career has had its fair share of highs and lows, “I would take all of that and accept it for the honor and privilege to do this job. … It is a tremendous community that loves their kids.”

Olivia Koester is at [email protected]