Tight-lipped board to look internally for school chief

PW-S officials who have yet to discuss hiring plans publicly will look within for interim leader, president says
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington-Saukville School Board members who emerged tight-lipped from a 90-minute closed session Monday did not discuss their plan to replace the superintendent they hired just last year but apparently intend to consider internal candidates before looking outside of the district.

After board President Brenda Fritsch reconvened the open session of the meeting and paused briefly for board discussion, of which there was none, member Sara McCutcheon made a motion to authorize Fritsch to contact the “administrators discussed in closed session” to determine if they are interested in applying for the job Supt. Dave Watkins will leave on June 30.

The board approved the motion by a 7-2 vote, with Brian Stevens, who is vice president of the board, and Doug Mueller voting against it.

In an interview Tuesday, Fritsch said the board has identified four district employees who are or will soon be certified to work as school superintendents. She said she will contact those employees to see if they’re interested in applying for the superintendent job.

Stevens said in an interview Tuesday that he voted against the motion because he believes the board should consider both external and internal applicants at the same time to ensure it’s considering “the best candidates for the district.”

Since accepting what was described as both Watkins’ resignation and retirement on Oct. 3, the board has yet to publicly discuss in any detail how it plans to replace him.

The agenda for Monday’s meeting called for the board to consider in open session several issues related to the hiring process, including filling the vacancy internally or with an outside candidate, recruitment options including the use of a consultant, the interview process and ways to receive public input. It discussed none of those items publicly and, in fact, adjourned immediately after voting on McCutcheon’s motion.

Stevens said board members discussed many of those issues in closed session.

“This is maybe not the best way to go about this process,” he said. “We probably could be doing this a little smoother. It’s just that Dave’s resignation was so unexpected. I think we’re all a little shell-shocked.”

Mueller did not respond to messages.

Fritsch said during an interview that if the board hires an internal candidate, it will be as an interim superintendent. She said the title would not reflect an intention to necessarily replace the person with a permanent superintendent at some point but rather to denote a trial period during which the performance of the candidate selected for the position would be evaluated.

Of concern to the board is that the next superintendent continues the initiatives started under the new administration, in particular the district’s strategic planning process, Fritsch said.

“The board feels strongly that we’ve made a lot of progress recently, especially in the strategic planning process, which is really still in its infancy,” she said. “We really want to keep the continuity going in the district.”

The board is working quickly, Fritsch said, to determine if there are internal candidates to consider because if there are not, it will look outside the district for the next superintendent and will want to begin advertising in December.

But Stevens said the board doesn’t have a clear plan in place.

“We really don’t know what the next step will be,” he said.

It remains unclear if the board would hire a consultant to conduct the search as it did last year when it hired Watkins, although several members have already said they don’t believe the board should repeat the costly and time-consuming process.

Watkins, hired in June 2021 and paid $185,000 a year, stunned school officials by telling them ahead of the Oct. 3 board 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.

Upon submitting his resignation earlier this month, Watkins, a former top administrator in the St. Paul, Minn., school system, said accepting 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.”

Last year, when Mike Weber announced in January he was retiring after 21 years as superintendent, the board hired the Oak Park, Ill., firm School Exec Connect for $16,800 to conduct a search for the district’s next leader.

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 2021, after deliberating for hours during three closed meetings, a divided board voted 6-3 to offer a contract to Watkins.

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 earlier this month praised Watkins.

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


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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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