PLAINFIELD – Associate Superintendent Lane Abrell’s first order of business when he came back to Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 last July was to visit the district’s 30 school principals and introduce himself.
“I had to know about the culture and climate,” Abrell said. “I wanted to connect with the principals and know about the good and bad things in each school.”
People who have worked with Abrell say his ability to build relationships and trust is his major strength. He’ll use it to lead the district after July 1, when the “associate” will officially drop from his title.
Abrell is taking over from Superintendent John Harper, who has led the district for the past 12 years and oversaw its expansion into the fourth largest school district in the state based on enrollment.
The district enrolls more than 25,000 students in five high schools, seven middle schools, 17 elementary schools and one pre-kindergarten school.
The 64-square-mile district includes all of Plainfield and stretches into parts of Joliet, Crest Hill, Romeoville, Lockport, Bolingbrook, Naperville and unincorporated Will and Kendall counties.
Harper, who is retiring on June 30, will take a position as principal of Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox. But Abrell has been operating in full capacity as superintendent since March.
The transition from Harper to Abrell is a unique one, because the change was planned a good year and a half in advance, school board President Roger Bonuchi said.
“We’re a very big school district so the transition is important,” Bonuchi said. “There’s a lot of complexity and we didn’t want to change over for a few days.”
The district isn’t completely new to Abrell. He was previously the assistant principal and principal at Plainfield Central High School from 1997 to 2006.
After 2006, he left to become the superintendent of the Leland Community Unit School District 1.
“He was an amazing leader,” Leland 1 bookkeeper Rose Kidd said, commending Abrell on passing a referendum before he left that will net the district between $250,000 to $325,000 every year.
“Rural schools have a hard time with this economy. For him to pass that, it helped us out tremendously,” Kidd said.
Leland school board Vice President Rick Crissip said without the referendum, Leland 1 would be broke.
“He also has a good rapport with teachers and the union,” Crissip said. “We never went on strike during his years here. Most contracts got settled within a few weeks of coming to the table.”
When Harper announced his retirement, the board was figuring out how to find the next superintendent. One consultant told members that many new superintendents have one week before they start to lead the district.
Bonuchi said the board didn’t like that idea. So they decided on a one-year transition where they would pay the incoming superintendent a salary for a mentorship role under Harper starting July 1, 2013.
That salary, $160,000, was small for a superintendent in a district the size of Plainfield but large for an administrator. And the district was also paying Harper more than $300,000 in salary and benefits for the 2013-14 school year.
But Bonuchi said the district essentially only paid $10,000 on Abrell’s salary this past year after accounting for the money saved on replacing three assistant superintendents that left the district.
Abrell’s salary as superintendent will increase to $205,000.
The next step was to devise a plan that would slowly transfer responsibilities from Harper to Abrell.
The plan was divided into four quarters during the 2013-14 school year: July through September, October through December, January through March and April through June.
“I’ve taken over all the responsibilities, and the transition really helped,” Abrell said, noting the difficulties of a short transition when he took the position at Leland.
Abrell said the biggest challenges moving forward are keeping the district’s financials straight as state funding continues to be a shaky source of revenue and implementing the state’s Common Core standards.
“It’s hard for schools to plan things out when there are broken promises from the state,” Abrell said.
Bonuchi said he’s glad the district will have Abrell leading the district, especially with contract negotiations coming up.
“The thing that stands out is he’s a relationship builder,” Bonuchi said. “He’s very down to earth and reflects the kind of hometown atmosphere we’ve had in Plainfield for years.”