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The DeBerg challenge

1018 DeBerg

Del DeBerg may have retired, but he leaves a lasting legacy of challenging staff to take control of their financial future.

Del DeBerg ended his 31-year career in education in June when he retired from Melrose-Mindoro School District (or Mel-Min, as the locals call it) where he was the superintendent.

He has served his district well and has been called: Educator. Leader. Visionary. Collaborator. Mentor.

For Del, it’s about helping people— whether it’s a student, a parent, a member of the staff, or the community as a whole. It’s just who he is.

Del is known among Mel-Min staff as a champion for financial literacy and for the “financial challenges” he used to promote financial literacy in the district. He has been nominated and received numerous times over the years (including this year) the WEA Member Benefits Financial Mentor Award—an award that acknowledges those who give their time and talents to mentor others on the benefits of good financial planning and saving for retirement.

Del gets schooled

“When I started my teaching career in Three Lakes 31 years ago, I wasn’t that financially literate in my personal life,” admits Del.

He recalls a conversation early on at Three Lakes with the administrative secretary, Janine McCray. “I remember it like it was yesterday. She said, ‘What are you doing with all your money?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Are you saving it?’ I said, ‘No. I have a brand new car and I have rent. I don’t have money to save.’ And she said, ‘You should be paying yourself first.’ Now keep in mind, I am a business ed teacher and I should be in the know. And she is giving me this mini lesson on paying yourself first.

“She introduced me to the 403(b) with WEA Member Benefits. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘you can automatically deduct it, and you won’t miss it.’”

That got Del thinking. Not long after that, he sat in on Member Benefits’ “Planning for Retirement” seminar at the state teacher’s convention.

“The presenter said the short answer is 70-20-10—70% of your income should go toward living expenses, 20% should go to your rainy day fund, and 10% should go toward long-term retirement where you can’t get at it.” It all started to sink in—this on top of his conversation with Janine.

“When I got back to my district, I filled out the paperwork and started saving for my retirement. That was 27 years ago. It was an important ‘aha’ moment,” he reflects. “If not for that conversation with Janine, I may not have been able to retire. She did me a big favor.” Del saw the value in the financial mentoring and he developed a passion for it as a business ed teacher and later as a principal and superintendent.

Financial literacy: Good for all

In the classroom, he saw an opportunity. “Students need to know how to balance a check book and understand the stock market and investing,” Del says. “So, as a business ed teacher, I always tried to incorporate financial literacy into my lesson plans in addition to marketing, accounting, and keyboarding.”

Del also saw the need among his colleagues. “As education professionals, we didn’t have a lot of financial literacy. So, as principal and superintendent, I took it on as a professional development opportunity that was important to the health of our staff.”

It sounded simple, but like any noble cause, there are obstacles. Del found that the biggest challenge was also the most critical. “Finances are very private and people don’t want to talk about them. They tend to keep it close to the vest and don’t ask for help. But if we can educate staff as well as our students, there will be a domino effect that is good for everyone.”

While money may be a personal matter, it is also the leading cause of stress for most Americans, impacting our work lives and general happiness. “Once people have the information and are aware of their options and the impact of their choices, they can make decisions that will benefit them through their career and into retirement,” he said with conviction.

Fortunately, the superintendent he worked with while he was the Mel-Min high school principal—Ron Perry—gave Del the latitude he needed to advance his cause. “Ron and I thought the same. He let me bring in Member Benefits to provide financial education to the staff.”

The seminar offerings—which covered topics from WRS, saving and investment options, and planning for retirement—were well received, and Del brought Member Benefits back every few years as a refresher and to make sure new staff got the information. It was a good partnership and provided a foundation for Del to build on.

The ‘hokey’ binder challenges

“One day Marty Richards from Member Benefits brought in six binders—financial organizers—with tabs for things like auto, home and life insurance, WRS, Social Security, etc. I thought they were great.”

The idea of these binders struck a chord with Del and were the impetus for the financial challenges Del pushed out to staff.

“When my dad passed away, my three brothers and I got together to go through the finances and we were like, ‘Where the heck is everything?’ It was kind of a mess and a lot of work. I don’t want that to happen to my family. So I loved the idea of the binders. I passed them out right away and I bugged Marty for more.”

When talking with his staff, Del used his dad as an example of what can happen if we don’t have our finances in order. Then he showed them his binder with all his stuff. “‘If something happens to me, Karen knows where everything is,’ I’d tell them. I began pushing out financial literacy challenges to our staff. The first challenge: Get a financial binder from me and I’ll put your name in a drawing for a $25 gift card. Then, I’d challenge them to go online and get their Social Security statement, print it, and put it in their binder. Same with their WRS statements, their 403(b) statements—put them in the binder. It’s kind of hokey but I think the staff liked it.”

And there’s more!

Del was an early adopter of new ideas, tools, and resources to help staff. In fact, Mel-Min was the first district (2001) to sign on to Member Benefits’ TrustAdvantage™ program that allows staff contributions to IRAs and personal insurance premiums to be payroll deducted. He already knew how easy and painless it was to pay yourself first using payroll deduction for 403(b) contributions, so why not for IRA and insurance—it’s like built-in budgeting. Today, 215 districts provide this voluntary no-cost benefit to their staff.

Del also provided employees the opportunity to sign up for 30-minute individual consultations with a Member Benefits Consultant (MBC). MBCs are retired educators who are licensed and work part-time for Member Benefits. They meet with employees on site to review retirement savings accounts, answer financial questions, or help with enrollment. “The staff loves it. I’ve taken advantage of it myself, as well as the free one-hour consultation with one of their full-time financial planners.”

More recently, Del and Karen had a Retirement Income Analysis with Andrea Hartwig at the Madison office. “It’s a very thorough, in-depth, and beneficial retirement plan. We wanted to know when we could retire. Andrea ran scenarios that indicated with 99% confidence, based on the info we gave, we were good to go.”

When asked by staff if they should spend the $950 on the plan, Del says, “Don’t think of it as an expense but as an investment. Because if you do the analysis and it comes back you can’t retire, you need to make adjustments before you retire. Don’t jump into it blind and find out after the fact that you weren’t financially ready. You need confirmation ahead of time that you’ll be fine.”

Leaving a legacy

Providing tools and resources to improve staff financial literacy has many benefits, and as Del found, the district doesn’t need to have the expertise or do all the work.

“The school district needs the ability to promote financial education and make it available,” explains Del. He also makes a point to touch base with staff, particularly young staff, to reinforce it.

To his credit, Mel-Min has a solid financial wellness program for staff. “I like to think I helped (or challenged) others to do well while doing good. And maybe I’ve inspired others to take up the challenge as well.”

A vision fulfilled for Melrose-Mindoro School District

1018 school planThe mostly new campus of the Mel-Min school district is half-way between the villages of Melrose and Mindoro and nestled on the edge of a pine forest that backs up to the Black River. This building project fulfills a 53-year-old vision for the district.

Del built on a solid foundation established by his predecessors, and he was able to carry that through to completion. “Del devoted years to leading the charge and formulating a fiscally responsible plan that the district and community could support,” says Connie Craig, long-time coworker.

“Melrose-Mindoro is a very proud community. They believe in education and support their schools 100%,” explains Del—most recently to the tune of $24.7 million. While this is his legacy, he is the first to say the ground was laid by those who came before him. “And, without parent and community support, nothing gets done,” he adds.

Del’s pride in the new facility is evident in the enthusiastic tour and explanation of the improvements and problems that were solved—like boilers too old to get parts for, entrances that didn’t provide adequate safety controls, and bathrooms that wasted water. But above all, it’s the consolidation of campuses at the heart of it. “We had kindergartens in both villages, elementary in Melrose, middle school in Mindoro, and high school where the campus is now. The vision in 1965 when they bought this land was one campus to serve our communities

“This is our YMCA, our community theatre, our Boys and Girls club. There is something going on out here almost every night.”

But it’s more than just the building, says Connie. “Hands down it is the standard of education we have been able to provide in such a small district. It’s superb. We have always been a great district but decisions made during Del’s tenure reflect his vision and commitment for our students and community, and his fiscal oversight has taken us to the next step. The education has been there and now our facilities match it.”

Del’s “why”

“I love that my career was really about helping people, whether it was kids, staff, or community members. I am reminded of why I went into education when I get a phone call or an e-mail from a former student who says, ‘Thank you, Coach’ or ‘Thank you, Mr. DeBerg. Thanks for making me work hard or for not giving up on me.’ Those thank yous mean everything to me.” 

Member profile

Del DeBerg

1018 del and karen“I’m the youngest of four boys. My parents taught us to work hard, be honest, and live a good healthy life.“

Education: Northern Iowa, Business Education. Masters Degree, Winona State University.

First teaching job: Three Lakes, Wisconsin. “My principal said you might want to stay for a year or two and move on to someplace larger, but I fell in love with it and stayed for six years.”

Love: “I met my wife, Karen, on a blind date. She’s been my partner and co-pilot throughout my entire career. She teaches in Black River Falls. We have two great kids, Chandler and Drew.

Administrative roles: Principal and Athletic Director in La Farge for Grades 7–12. “This was my first administrative position. It’s just a beautiful area with great people. I was there for three years and then the high school principal position opened in Mel-Min. Twenty-one years later...well, it’s been a great career.”