Primary sets up Cira, Sternhagen race for PW-S School Board

Veteran teacher garners 48% of vote, retired sales director gets second shot at board seat
Ozaukee Press staff

Veteran teacher Kierstin Cira received 47.6% of the vote in Tuesday’s primary race for the Port Washington-Saukville School Board and along with runner up Richard Sternhagen will advance to the April 4 general election.

Cira, 54, received 1,521 votes in the race for a seat representing the City of Port Washington on the School Board, according to unofficial results from the Ozaukee County Clerk’s Office.

Sternhagen, 65, a retired director of sales and planning for Sargento Foods who is making his second bid for the board, received 1,159 votes (36.2%).

Douglas Rogahn, 45, an information security consultant who made his first run for elected office, received 483 votes (15%) and was eliminated from the contest.

About 30% of registered voters cast ballots in the School Board race.

Cira and Sternhagen are vying for a seat on the board currently held by Brian McCutcheon, who with more than 24 years in office is the second longest serving member of the current board. He is not running for re-election.

The race comes against a backdrop of sliding state report card scores and the unexpected retirement of the superintendent hired by the board just two years ago, and Cira and Sternhagen differ in their opinions about those issues.

When asked in a recent interview if the School District’s latest report card is acceptable, Sternhagen said, “It’s absolutely not acceptable. We should be leading school districts in southeastern Wisconsin, but if you compare us to our peers even outside Ozaukee County we’re in the bottom quarter.”

The Port Washington-Saukville School District earned an accountability score of 75 on its 2021-22 Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report card released in November, which falls into the state category of “exceeds expectations” but was the lowest score among school districts in Ozaukee County.

“Benchmarking against the state just covers up the reality of the score,” Sternhagen said. “You need to establish goals and hold people accountable. Any organization that doesn’t do that is willing to accept mediocrity.

“It’s really frustrating that we’re not considered one of the best.”

Cira, however, said the report card should not be looked at in terms of being acceptable or unacceptable because it is a single measure of academic achievement and, like grades, is not the most telling.

“The report card is just one measure of the success of our kids,” she said. “I’m constantly reminding people that students aren’t numbers. Grades are subjective.”

Cira noted that she completed a graduate program at Alverno College, which does not give letter grades, and said, “I never learned more than when I was not graded.”

“There should be more emphasis on what happens when our students leave the district,” Cira said. “Do they become productive members of the community? Ultimately the goal is to create learned people who have all the options they want available to them when they graduate and who contribute to our community.”

The board that emerges from the April election will oversee a new superintendent when Mel Nettesheim, the district’s current director of business services, assumes the district’s top job on July 1.

Stunned by the announcement in October by Supt. Dave Watkins that he will retire on June 30, just two years after coming to the district, the board worked quickly and almost exclusively in closed session to name Nettesheim his successor. It did not conduct an external search for candidates and interviewed only Nettesheim in contrast to the four-month, region-wide search, which included several opportunities for public input, that resulted in the hiring of Watkins, who was a top administrator in the St. Paul, Minn., school system.

Nettesheim will have the title of interim superintendent because she does not yet have a superintendent’s license.

Cira said she does not fault the board for the process it used to hire Nettesheim, noting that while it did not seek public input this time, the feedback it received when it hired Watkins is still relevant. She also did not fault the board for conducting much of the latest hiring process in closed session, saying it was obligated to do so because it was considering personnel matters.

But, Cira said, she wrestled with the fact the district’s next leader has no classroom teaching experience.

“I’ve had to think very hard about this — someone leading our school district who has never taught,” she said. “But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about the good things I’ve heard about Mel even before she was chosen to be superintendent.

“Would it be best if she had classroom teaching experience? Sure, but I’ve seen plenty of bad leaders who have teaching experience.

“I have nothing but positive thoughts about Mel leading the district.”

Sternhagen, however, said the School Board should have conducted a thorough search for the district’s next leader.

“Any internal candidates who want to step up should be considered, but they should be considered along with external candidates,” Sternhagen said. “Now we have what we have and I’d like to stick with it and do whatever we can to make it work.

“I want to make Mel as successful as possible.”

Cira, a 1986 graduate of Port Washington High School who teaches third-grade in the West Bend School District, said her passion for public education has driven her 32-year teaching career and has now prompted her  first bid for elected office.

“I’m pretty passionate about public education, and I’m extremely concerned with the direction public education in Wisconsin is going,” she said. “We keep stripping the resources from public education.”

The Port Washington-Saukville School District needs to invest its resources in the programs that matter most to students, and  improvement in that area is needed, she said. For example, Cira cited the district’s successful music programs, noting that the director of Port High’s extracurricular a cappella group FOCUS is not paid.

“Do we have a football coach on the sidelines who isn’t paid?” she asked. “My guess is no.”

Cira’s daughter is a freshman at Port High and she has two other children who  graduated from the school.

Sternhagen, who ran unsuccessfully for the School Board last year, said he is making another bid for the board because of his desire to be involved in the community and contribute his experience in corporate management to it.

“I think I can make a difference in the school district, which is an important part of the community, by using my past experience,” he said.

The board, Sternhagen said, needs to do a better job of involving the public in the process of deciding how students are educated.

“I’d like to see more transparency, more access to detailed information and more involvement by the public,” he said.

Sternhagen has three adult children and has lived in the district for more than 10 years.

Cira and Sternhagen will meet in a general election that includes other Port Washington-Saukville School Board races.

Dawn Brooks is challenging Sara McCutcheon, who with more than 25 years in office is the longest serving current board member, for a Village of Saukville seat on the board.

Justin Myers is challenging Melissa Alexander, who was appointed to fill the vacant Town of Port Washington seat on the board last year. Myers was also a finalist for that appointment, and after the board deadlocked, it drew Alexander’s name out of a box to put her on the board.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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