Educator retiring after 40 years with Albert Lea school district

Published 2:43 pm Monday, April 10, 2023

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After almost four decades of service, Kathy Niebuhr is retiring June 30.

Niebuhr, executive director of administrative services, started within Albert Lea Area Schools in August 1986.

Being involved in education was a natural career for her.

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“My dad was a teacher for the city of St. Paul Public Schools,” she said.

Several of her brothers and sisters-in-law were teachers as well.

When she got to the University of Minnesota, she worked within the College of Education and studied business education after enjoying the business courses she took in high school.

After graduation, teacher hires were scarce, and she said out of her 16-person class, she was the only one who took a teaching position.

Before working at the district, she worked in Freeborn for two years at a K-12 school.

“The people there were awesome, very wonderful to work with, very welcoming,” she said. “There was quite a few younger teachers there and quite a few more senior teachers.”

Niebuhr also knew Freeborn was consolidating coursework with Alden-Conger and believed positions would be eliminated.

And she knew about an opening in Albert Lea after she received a call from Dennis Sullivan, the high school principal at the time, asking if she would be interested in a business teacher and work-based learning coordinator position. She held the role for over half a decade and originally started teaching accounting and placing students within the business community.

“[Students] were released to work and so they had all the business and office skills,” she said. “[They] worked for banks, insurance companies, worked in the schools and our libraries.”

Niebuhr moved to Brookside when it opened as a middle school, where she served as dean of students.

“I was the human rights coordinator for the district — did that for about 11 years,” she said.

She stayed at Brookside until 1999 before returning to the high school to help select and bring materials from every department to the new high school, and then moved to the elementary schools to serve as the library media specialist at Lakeview and Sibley.

Niebuhr helped write the Alternative Teacher Professional Pay System or Quality Compensation program, something the district still uses to this day to help fund Wednesday morning collaborative team work.

In 2014, she returned to the high school, where she worked under Jeff Halverson, executive director of careers, technology and innovation, as secondary programs coordinator. She worked as a technology integrationist for a year and as the high school media specialist.

She also led the Area Learning Center before taking some time off. She returned as secondary programs coordinator until 2018, and has served in her current capacities since then.

As executive director of administrative services, her job involves human resources, doing everything from working on teacher licensure, creating job descriptions for job postings and any personnel issue.

“We might have a teacher who has some needs or a staff member who has needs under … American Disability Act, anything under Family Medical Leave Act, deal with approving staff attendance and absences, prepare for negotiations,” she said. “It is a wide variety of things HR-related.”

Along with Superintendent Ron Wagner, she’ll also meet with teacher unions every other week.

One of her proudest accomplishments was being able to work with children and then watch those children become adults and then work with her.

“One of the high school business teachers is a former student of mine, one of the principals is a former student of mine,” she said, adding that many of the employees-of-the-month were her former students.

Niebuhr was also proud of the teacher leadership in the district, as well as her work with diverse communities, noting the unique programming being implemented, including the recent Larry Yazzie performances at the elementary schools. She also worked with Linda Cruz Lares, ​​a community figure involved with a lot of things in and around Albert Lea. Cruz Lares currently works at SEMCAC — which formerly stood for Southeastern Minnesota Community Action Council.

Working in education for almost 40 years has taught her that every day had unique challenges and having patience — along with high expectations — was important. It was particularly important not to dehumanize people.

“As things have become more difficult in the last few years, whether it be the pandemic or other issues in the community, I think people need to remember that … people see the institution of schools without understanding there’s people behind that, and that we’re all human and we’re all trying to take all that information in and make the best decisions we can,” she said.

She also thanked her colleagues, noting none of the work in schools was done in isolation, and she was thankful for the people she worked with past and present, particularly former superintendents Mike Funk and Dave Prescott, former Assistant Superintendent Jim Wold and Linda Plante.

Before retiring, she plans to help transition whoever takes her role.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” she said. “The community of Albert Lea has been very good to me. The school district and the superintendents have been very good to me to give me different opportunities.”

Niebuhr has three grandchildren and plans to spend time with them. She and her husband also plan to travel and camp.