School chief hired last year to call it quits

PW-S board that picked Watkins to lead district accepts his resignation effective June 30, gears up for another search

AS A FINALIST for superintendent, Dave Watkins introduced himself during a May 2021 forum at Port Washington High School. Press file photo
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

A Port Washington-Saukville School Board that after a four-month, $16,000 search hired Dave Watkins as superintendent last year on Monday accepted his resignation effective June 30.

Watkins, hired in June 2021 and paid $185,000 a year, stunned school officials by telling them ahead of Monday’s meeting that he will retire at the end of the school year.

While the resignation of a top administrator is consequential in any district, it is particularly so in the Port Washington-Saukville school system where, after only 14 months on the job, Watkins is the second longest-serving of its four top district office administrators.

“I was very surprised and saddened,” School Board President Brenda Fritsch, who praised Watkins’ performance during his short tenure, said.

“We’ll miss him, but the board is very happy for him.”

Watkins’ brief stint in the district is particularly jarring because he succeeded Michael Weber, who held the superintendent’s position for more than two decades.

“We were very fortunate to have someone here for 21 years, which is atypical in this day and age,” Fritsch said. “We weren’t counting on someone serving another 21 years, but we were certainly hoping for more.”

As a finalist for the superintendent’s job, Watkins, a top administrator in the St. Paul, Minn., school system at the time, said in May 2021 when asked what attracted him to the Port Washington-Saukville School District that it would bring him closer to relatives in Milwaukee at a time when the pandemic reminded him of how important family is.

“I love what I’m doing,” he said at the time, referring to his job in St. Paul. “Then in March 2020 something happened that reminded us of the importance of family. We want to be closer to the Milwaukee area because of family.”

On Monday, Watkins reiterated that the job of Port Washington-Saukville school superintendent was an opportunity to be closer to relatives, noting that his father-in-law died within days of he and his wife moving to Wisconsin and his father passed away in October 2021.

“Those losses have provided us with an opportunity to reflect and prioritize our thoughts around the future,” he said.

Watkins described his decision to retire as strictly personal and difficult.

“I want to be clear, this has nothing to do with our School District,” he said. “Decisions like this don’t come easily.”

Before accepting what was described as both Watkins’ resignation and retirement, the board met in closed session for 48 minutes to, according to the meeting agenda, consider the possible reassignment or transfer of specific administrators and contract changes, although it has yet to decide how it will replace Watkins.

One option is to hire a consulting firm to conduct a regional search for a superintendent as it did last year, but some board members clearly don’t favor that approach.

“I don’t think we need to spend money again on a consultant,” Sara McCutcheon said. “I think we can do this on our own.”

Board member Yvonne Klotz said, “I concur.”

Another option, as McCutcheon suggested, is to have the district human resources department conduct the superintendent search for the board, which could use information its consultants compiled from meetings it held with various groups in the district and community last year to select a new school chief.

And Fritsch on Tuesday did not rule out the possibility of hiring from within the district, although it is unclear who on staff is licensed to be a superintendent and interested in the position.

“The board needs to think about whether anyone currently in the district could be named to this position, even as an interim superintendent, or do we need to look outside,” Fritsch said.

Ironically, the district lost two principals to superintendent jobs elsewhere just a year before Weber retired. Longtime Port Washington High School Principal Eric Burke left to lead the Rhinelander School District and Saukville Elementary School Principal Chad Brakke resigned to become superintendent of the Cedar Grove-Belgium School District.

With the loss of those two administrators, it was clear the board would look outside the district for Weber’s successor, but the process got off to an uncertain start and ended in controversy.

Shortly after Weber announced his retirement in February 2021, then-Director of Special Education Duane Woelfel offered, then rescinded his offer, to serve as interim superintendent.

The board then decided to contract with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which conducted the search that resulted in the hiring of Weber 21 years ago, to lead the latest search for a fee not to exceed $10,400.

But just a week later, the board changed its mind because WASB refused to hold in-person meetings with district and community groups because of Covid-19 protocols and instead hired the Oak Park, Ill., firm School Exec Connect for $16,800.

The company’s consultants met with district and community groups to develop a superintendent profile that was used to select two finalists — Watkins and Joe Koch, deputy superintendent of the Waukesha School District and a 1997 Port High grad who, like his parents Mary and the late Fran Koch, taught at the school.

In June, after deliberating for hours during three closed meetings, a divided board voted 6-3 to offer a contract to Watkins.

Board Vice President Brian Stevens, who voted against hiring Watkins, said at the time he thought Koch better matched the superintendent profile created by School Exec Connect.

Matthew Uselding, who has since stepped down from the board because he moved out of the district, and Danielle Bartlein said at the time they voted against offering the contract to Watkins because they objected to the way in which the board conducted the hiring process, although neither would elaborate on their criticisms because they did not want to divulge closed-session proceedings.

“For me, this was kind of a protest vote,” Uselding said in June 2021. “I was frustrated with the process and disappointed with the way the board conducted itself over the last month. I thought we just didn’t do our best work during our closed-session meetings.”

Bartlein echoed those comments at the time but on Tuesday praised Watkins.

“He has done wonderful things for this district and we’re happy for him,” she said.

Fritsch also praised Watkins, saying, “As superintendent, David has implemented initiatives for PWSSD that have been student centered and have moved the district forward in the right direction.”

Fritsch noted that during Watkins’ tenure the district has established a human resources department, created an executive committee, overhauled the employee handbook, improved the policy update procedure, created a new hiring process and launched a strategic planning process.

“The board not only appreciates David’s leadership during (these) initiatives, we also appreciate his vision to include all stakeholders in these processes, to utilize data to assist in direction and decisions and to have provided the district a solid foundation and positive direction for our staff, students and the community as we move forward,” she said.

Watkins, who is retiring after 30 years in education, wrote in a letter addressed to the school board, staff members and community, “I want to thank the PWSSD community for making my professional time here a highlight during a very difficult personal time.”

Watkins said he is grateful for a supportive School Board, “wonderful staff” and “a larger PWSSD community that puts the needs of our students first and shows their support and pride in PWSSD in so many ways.”

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