Johnny L. Veselka, executive director of TASA, retires after nearly 44 years of service

by Dacia Rivers

It’s impossible to get Johnny Veselka to brag on himself. As humble as the day is long, Veselka has served as executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators since January 1, 1986. In February, he’ll exit that post and head for retirement, not with a bang, not with a whisper, but with pride in the organization he dedicated nearly 44 years to molding, directing and supporting.

A storied career

In the summer of 1974, a young Veselka walked through the doors of the TASA offices (then housed inside the Texas State Teachers Association building in downtown Austin) as an intern. He was working on his master’s in education administration at The University of Texas, planning to do the internship for a year, then finish up his degree and look for a leadership position in a Texas public school district. Of course, things didn’t wind up quite that way.

TASA had two full-time employees back then, an executive director and one executive assistant, and at the time, they were working to hire a new director. In January 1976, Charles Mathews became executive director, and after Veselka’s one-year internship was up, Mathews asked him to stay on through the transition and help him grow the organization. Veselka gladly accepted.

“The opportunity to work for the association was intriguing, and it was an exciting opportunity for me, one I really enjoyed,” he says.

Veselka wound up working with Mathews at TASA for 10 years. When he retired in 1985, it was Veselka whom the TASA Executive Committee chose to fill the executive director role, a position he’s held ever since. In that 32-year timespan, TASA has grown to 20 full-time employees and moved to its own headquarters building near the Capitol, while continuing to uphold the group’s original mission of supporting and providing services for its members.

“I did not envision at the time that I might spend my entire career here,” Veselka says. “But it was a great opportunity to support Texas public schools and school leaders across the state, and work to benefit the children in our public schools.”

Veselka grew up in Schulenburg, a town you can’t miss when driving I-10 between Houston and San Antonio. While in high school, he was inspired by his own teachers to pursue a career in education.

“I saw [teaching] as an opportunity to help others,” he says.

After getting his bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University, Veselka spent five years as a classroom teacher in San Antonio at North East ISD, where he did his student teaching. There he taught middle school social studies and got the desire to earn his master’s and go into administration. That was the push that moved him to Austin, got him connected with TASA, and kicked off his career in association leadership, working to benefit Texas public schools.

A laundry list of accomplishments

The accomplishments Veselka has helped TASA achieve during his tenure as executive director are numerous. But chief among them for him is the design and creation of the Public Education Visioning Institute.

This work started in 2006, when a group of superintendents began brainstorming ways to take a more positive and proactive approach to public education in Texas, rather than one that largely reacted to whatever was going on in the Legislature at the time.

TASA stepped up and became engaged in that visioning work, facilitating the institute for two years. The result is a 2008 publication titled, “Creating a New Vision for Public Education,” a document that offered a new concept of public education in Texas — one that fosters a sense of community in its schools and best prepares students for an ever-changing world.

“That document really has become the framework for everything we’ve done at TASA since that time,” Veselka says. “We have focused on the principles in that vision as part of our legislative initiatives, and it has guided our work in developing professional learning opportunities for our members.”

The visioning document led to legislation requiring the creation of a Texas High Performance Schools Consortium. Though TEA was originally tasked with establishing this consortium, in 2012, TASA stepped in and took over facilitation because of the group’s successful experience with the visioning institute.

This past year, TASA also created the Texas Performance Assessment Consortium, which focuses on redesigning assessment in school districts, moving away from the high-stakes model and toward more meaningful assessment and accountability. The group is focused on community-based accountability, which allows districts to better respond to the needs and interests of their local communities.

“We are hopeful that we can offer recommendations when the Legislature convenes in 2019,” Veselka says. “But more importantly, we are creating a process through which school districts can become involved in collaborating with each other and in implementing better ways of measuring student performance that has more meaning for students, teachers and parents.”

Another TASA accomplishment of which Veselka is proud is what used to be known as the TEA Midwinter Conference, which dates back to the 1950s. In the 1990s, when then-commissioner of education Lionel Meno wanted to expand the conference, TASA stepped in to help. So in 2004, when TEA was struggling to continue the expanded conference, TASA was on hand to take the reins.

This month, the organization will host its 15th annual TASA Midwinter Conference in Austin. The gathering has grown to welcome more than 4,000 administrators annually, making it the biggest school administrators’ conference in the nation — even larger and more well-attended than AASA’s National Conference on Education.

“It’s wonderful to be able to see how school district leadership teams are coming together [at the conference] and collaborating and sharing programs that work in their district,” Veselka says. “The networking opportunities are significant, and the conference really gives them an opportunity to hear and learn from some of the best thought leaders in public education.”

Veselka is also proud of the collaboration with other associations and state agencies during his time in TASA’s top slot. TASA has a good working relationship with TEA, and often works closely with State Board of Education members on policy matters. The organization often partners with other education-related associations, especially the Texas Association of School Boards, with which it has held a joint annual convention since the early 1960s. The partnership that has evolved between TASA and TASB is unprecedented among similar associations across the country.

A commitment to collaboration

In his time as TASA executive director, Veselka has worked with 15 different commissioners, seven different governors and 33 TASA presidents. Day in and day out, he has embraced these changing collaborators, staying positive in a way that has allowed him to develop and continue a professional reputation as a dedicated, hard-working and supportive colleague — no small feat in any industry, but especially impressive when you’re dealing with government and the often hot topic of public education.

Veselka says the mindset that has kept him going through tough conversations on potentially volatile issues is keeping his eye on TASA’s purpose: benefitting the 5.3 million students currently enrolled in Texas public schools.

“It’s such an exciting opportunity to be able to work with such great leaders across the state,” he says. “I’ve always felt that it was important to focus attention on the elected leadership of the organization and give the presidents of our association an opportunity to be upfront in representing the profession.”

Working with other organizations and agencies is a big part of directing TASA, and one where Veselka excels. When building teams of TASA members for any purpose, from offering input on TEA programs to addressing the Legislature on funding challenges, Veselka is quick to assemble a diverse group of superintendents from the membership. On any TASA committee, you’ll find administrators from a wide range of Texas districts, large and small, urban and rural, which is especially important when representing such a large and varied state.

“We’ve always tried to make sure that individual members with diverse views have an opportunity to participate in developing our legislative priorities,” Veselka says. “We’ve had the greatest success when we can come together and represent all types of districts in advocating before the Legislature for proposals, primarily relating to school funding and formulas that will produce an adequate and equitable program across the state.”

Many of Veselka’s colleagues recognize his impressive ability to unite diverse groups in their work for the greater good of Texas public schools, facilitating conversations and bringing about a consensus calmly and tactfully, without ruffling feathers.

“I learned so much from Johnny, watching how he worked collaboratively with others, and his unique ability to bring people to a consensus,” says Tom Burnett, a retired Apple executive who served on a steering committee with Veselka. “There are so many memories I have. The one that stands out is when we were working on a legislative initiative that was stalled. Johnny took the reins of the effort, put his leadership and the power of TASA behind it, coordinated all the various business, education and civic groups, and got the bills passed.”

John Folks, also a longtime advocate of public education, having worked for 10 years as superintendent of Northside ISD after serving as Oklahoma’s state superintendent of public instruction, agrees with Burnett’s take on Veselka.

“Johnny’s kindness, patience and understanding were so important to school leaders,” Folks says. “He showed us ‘the way’ many times to have an influence on legislators, to adopt innovative programs, and provide a focus on the job superintendents were called upon to do. Johnny’s legacy will be the leadership he has provided for TASA for so many years.”

Veselka’s ability to unify folks toward a common goal is a large part of his legacy, and a trait that many career administrators admire, including John Horn, who served as superintendent of Mesquite ISD for 15 years.

“In tandem with his personal modeling of how great leaders lead by example, think divergently, create strategic alliances, and cultivate trusting relationships, Johnny Veselka’s more enduring legacy will be his role as the primary architect and builder of the nation’s premier professional association of school leaders,” Horn says. “Even-tempered but dynamic, resolute but open-minded, cautious but courageous, Johnny makes you to want to be on his team and want him on your team. He can stand up to opposition in ways that are sometimes disarming.”

In 2025, TASA will turn 100 years old. In one of his last acts as the association’s executive director, Veselka has been working on a blueprint for what the group will look like when its centennial rolls around. He and the TASA officers created the TASA 2025 Task Force, a group of TASA members that has been working to develop a strategic framework for the association that articulates what TASA aspires to be by 2025 and how it plans to get there.

“We focused on advocacy, member engagement and professional learning as the three core areas of our strategic framework, and we reorganized our committee structure so we have a committee assigned to each of those areas,” Veselka says. “I think it’s a blueprint for the future, but it also captures the work we’ve been doing over the last 10 years, particularly.”

Later this month at TASA Midwinter, the details of the strategic framework will be shared, including the long-term strategies that the association will use in the coming years. Veselka believes the plan will take what TASA has been doing to the next level, raising the bar in many areas, including offering networking opportunities and contributing to grassroots support for public education across the state.

“I hope that over the next few years, TASA can develop a strong relationship with business leaders and the state to really advance public education,” Veselka says. “I see us doing much more in the way of online learning and communicating with our members with new technologies. I see us building libraries, resources and archives of best practices and information that our members can share electronically.”

This long-term planning will carry Veselka’s work at TASA well into the future. It’s significant that the person who guided the organization for more than 30 years is on hand to oversee the creation of the plan that will direct TASA’s course as it heads into its 100th year and beyond.

It also serves as proof that Veselka’s commitment to TASA is deep. He isn’t one to step away and leave the group in the lurch, searching for direction. In the weeks before his retirement, he’s not gazing out his office window, dreaming of days on the golf course or walks in the woods. There will be plenty of time for planning his retirement after his job is done. Until then, TASA needs him, and it would never occur to him not to be there for the organization he’s been dedicated to for more than 40 years.

Veselka’s allegiance to TASA and to public education in Texas is rooted in history, and he leaves behind a legacy that is sure to be felt in the state for decades to come. Gracious as they come, Veselka is appreciative of his time at TASA’s helm, and is thankful to those he’s had the opportunity to work with for helping him achieve incredible success for the organization.

“I feel like I was very fortunate to have this opportunity,” he says of his time at TASA. “I’ve really had tremendous support from TASA members throughout my career here, and I had great support from the officers and Executive Committee members, as we have grown the organization to where we are today.”

Bio: Dacia Rivers is editorial director of Texas School Business.