Left: MDE Commissioner Jett
Right: DEED Commissioner Varilek

Can you name an organization from which a board member was chosen to direct a State of Minnesota department? Actually, you can name an organization with two such recent board members: the Greater St. Cloud Development Corporation!

In February, the former superintendent of St. Cloud Area School District 742 became Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) Commissioner Willie Jett. Then in June, the title of the Initiative Foundation’s president changed to Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Commissioner Matt Varilek.

We checked in with both leaders to learn about their new roles and to see what advice they had for how Greater St. Cloud can best interact with their departments.

Has the job been what you expected?

Willie Jett – I’ve learned a lot during this time. While I continue to learn each day, what I know is that it’s an honor to serve as Commissioner of Education under the Walz-Flanagan Administration. They’ve provided us with the tools we’ve long needed to change outcomes for every Minnesota student, and I’m grateful to help lead this work alongside our educators across the state.

Matt Varilek – I had a preconception coming in about the strength of the DEED team due to my Initiative Foundation role, where we partnered on many projects to direct funds to our area. So I had a good idea of their talents, and now that I’m on the inside I see the talent of the staff is even deeper than I thought. I had also heard it was a highly collaborative cabinet I’d be joining, led by Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan, and I’m happy to say that has proven to be the case.

What’s a typical day like for you as Commissioner?

WJ – Anyone who has worked in education knows there’s no such thing as a typical day and it’s no different as the Commissioner. During the course of a day, I might partner with a superintendent to resolve a concern, work on policy issues with stakeholders, or meet with legislators, families or other constituents. On really good days, I get to visit schools to talk with students and see first-hand the great learning and teaching being done in classrooms in every corner of Minnesota.

MV – There’s a lot of inside work where we collaborate with other departments, balanced by being the external face of DEED with the public and our partners. For example, one day recently I met in St. Cloud with CareerForce representatives and then some Unemployment Insurance team members. Later in the day, I met with leaders at CentraCare, then I got on the road to Onamia to participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a childcare center. The day ended with several internal conversations with staff.

What things do you find most rewarding in your work?

WJ – I love working hand-in-hand with other educators, students, families, community organizations and elected officials to improve access and opportunity for every student. The work I do helps make students’ school experiences even better, and this is what motivates and inspires me.

MV – DEED’s mission is to empower the growth of the Minnesota economy, for everyone. That’s a two-part mission about which I’m passionate: helping create growth and enhancing opportunities for more Minnesotans. Just knowing that’s what I get up to work on every day is gratifying.

What measurements do you use to determine if your department is succeeding in its work?

WJ – We look at important metrics like graduation rates, attendance and assessment outcomes. It’s imperative that every student graduates with a clear plan for life after high school.

It’s also critical to take a holistic view of how our students are doing, particularly knowing the data show a rise in anxiety and mental health concerns among young people across the nation. We look at the data from the Minnesota Student Surveys to understand how students feel about their schools and better understand the support they need.

MV – Going back to that high-level mission we have, we want to know the overall growth success of Minnesota’s economy, if we are being successful in reaching more Minnesotans, and if we are addressing disparities. There are a lot of statistics we review.

The workforce challenge is real. There’s more and more demand for goods and services, but businesses can’t find enough employees. But things are improving. We’ve seen positive growth in the size of the labor force last five months and we have many new, high-impact programs launching soon to help even more Minnesotans enter the workforce.

Have you and the Administration set goals for where you want your department to be?

WJ – Governor Walz and Lieutenant Governor Flanagan want Minnesota’s education system to be the best in the country. I am confident that with the legislative changes such as the Read Act and the influx of school funding, we can turn that hope into reality. MDE plays an important role in leading these efforts, and we take this responsibility seriously. The Governor provided additional support for oversight efforts, and I restructured MDE to aid in accountability, efficiency and effectiveness.

MV – At the level of the Walz-Flanagan Administration, we have “One Minnesota” goals, which are around topics related to workforce, childcare and others in which DEED has significant roles. Our 2023-2024 objectives are to empower Minnesota to create an economy rooted in equity, across every race, identity and ability; to drive growth that puts the state at the forefront of innovation in technology, high-tech manufacturing, and health & wellness; and to meet the moment for Minnesota’s historic workforce shortages, with collaborative efforts toward high-wage jobs with strong growth potential.

Do you have advice about ways the GSDC and its investor members can best engage with your department?

WJ – GSDC is a vital partner in improving education by providing access and opportunity beyond the school setting and working with elected officials to support school districts. I value your perspectives and am grateful for the relationships established while I was superintendent of St. Cloud Area Schools. It’s important to me to keep our lines of communication open and work collaboratively to benefit central Minnesota.

Certainly, your engagement in policy issues that impact our workforce is critical. We’ve recently opened a Workforce Development Center at MDE and welcome your expertise as we develop in this area. I’d also ask that you continue to support local school districts and school leaders. Your support is critical.

MV – The GSDC is very well plugged in and has been a very good partner of ours. You’ve often had (DEED Regional Analyst for Central and Southwestern Minnesota) Luke Greiner there, and that’s valuable. We collaborate with St. Cloud Technical and Community College and the GSDC on CareerForce, and the GSDC serves as a regional hub of our Launch Minnesota program to assist innovators and entrepreneurs. The GSDC is comprised of many large employers, who are also good partners of DEED.

The breadth of all that DEED offers can sometimes seem overwhelming. One bit of advice would be to find partners who already know how to access a particular program. Of course, we invite you to reach out directly to DEED, too. We have staff nearby, as well as useful online services.

Any final thoughts for readers of Developing News?

WJ – First, thank you for the many ways you support the young people, families and educators in the Greater St. Cloud area. Second, please know that I have fond memories of, and respect for, each of you and the people in the community. I am always available to assist you and your efforts in any way possible. Finally, please know that we at MDE are here to serve you. We need and want your ideas, questions and input so that we can continue to grow our partnerships to best serve students.

MV – As I travel around Minnesota, I see good things happening in places where people and organizations come together across government jurisdictions, political divides, and so on. The GSDC does an excellent job of this, and I encourage continuation of that collaborative approach.



An impressive lineup of topics and presenters awaits those who attend the 3rd Annual St. Cloud Development Summit, from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 15, at the River’s Edge Convention Center.

GSDC Board members Lori Kloos and Robbyn Wacker, along with our CEO & President, NeTia Bauman, will be among a dozen experts sharing their knowledge during this informative event.

Cost is $129, or $148 the day of the event. Lunch will be included. Find all the details here.



Thinking about life after high school is scary. Leaving home, living in an unknown place, surrounded by unfamiliar faces – it’s a lot to take in.  Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Minnesota is currently recruiting mentors for its Bigs on Campus initiative at all three local colleges, to help make that major leap from high school to college less intimidating for local youth.

In the spring of 2016, BBBS Executive Director Jackie Johnson approached former St. Cloud State University President Earl Potter with a proposal – an initiative that paired local students with faculty and staff at SCSU, and then brought them together each month on St. Cloud State’s campus.  Potter loved the idea, and signed the agreement starting the Dr. Potter Bigs on Campus Mentoring Initiative before he passed away in June 2016. The initiative kicked off that fall, and has continued ever since, pairing SCSU faculty, staff, graduate students and alumni with South Junior High students.

Last year, the initiative grew as students from Kennedy Community School were paired with faculty and staff from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, and in Fall 2023, students from Sauk Rapids-Rice will get the chance to spend time on the St. Cloud Technical & Community College campus with their faculty, staff, and alumni mentors.

Many youth in the Bigs on Campus initiative are from the BIPOC community, from low-income households, and would be first-generation college students. Intentionally getting them on a college campus helps them picture themselves at college – maybe even a college in Central Minnesota. It gives them a tie to the community they may not have had before, as well as the opportunity to learn about resumes, college applications, FAFSA and financial aid, and more.

While the initiative is beneficial to local youth, it’s also beneficial for local businesses. When faculty and staff take the time to work one-on-one with youth, they’re preparing the future workforce, and helping them to learn job skills that will benefit both the students and employers down the road. Helping familiarize youth with local businesses and opportunities opens up doors for those same kids to apply for internships and jobs, ensuring the next generation of workers stays in Central Minnesota.  Not only does the mentoring initiative provide important skills and information on life post-high school to local youth and provide resources to the future workforce of Central Minnesota, it’s also extremely rewarding for the mentors.

“Being a Big Sister give me a sense of purpose as I am able to see through the lens of what a current teenager’s life is like,” said Michelle Schmitz, a staff member at SCSU and mentor to Maria for more than five years. “As the years go by, the fundamental need to feel needed and connected never goes away, and being a Big Sister allows me to be an ear and a mentor to the youth as they navigate the unknown road ahead.”

Contact Emmitt Edwards at for more information or to participate.



K. Johnson Construction’s concrete and masonry teams worked over 52,000 job hours on the Sartell High School.

Many of us remember how great it felt when the Twins won their first World Series in 1987. Kevin Johnson took that excitement a step further, founding K Johnson Construction in Sauk Rapids that same year.

Since then, Kevin has started a few other companies, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

Learn more about this local entrepreneur in this recent feature from the GSDC’s website.


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Contact Our Staff Team

NeTia Bauman, CEcD, CEO & President | 320.437.1430

Leslie Dingmann, CecD, EDFP, Business Development Director | 320.493.9003

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Tammy Campion, Communications & Program Specialist | 320.252.5185