Board taps Racine administrator living in Port for principal job

A former machinist, teacher and principal, DeBaker follows ‘non-traditional’ career path to Thomas Jefferson
Ozaukee Press staff

The Port Washington-Saukville School Board on Monday hired the executive director of leadership development for the Racine Unified School District to lead Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Nick DeBaker, a 39-year-old Town of Port Washington resident, will take over as principal of the Port Washington school from Steve Sukawaty on July 1.

Sukawaty is retiring on June 30 after seven years at the helm of the middle school and 35 in education.

DeBaker, who oversees professional development for 70 principals and runs courses for teachers who aspire to become principals in the Racine district, said the job as Thomas Jefferson Middle School principal gives him the opportunity to work more closely with students.

“I miss working with kids,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “When you don’t have that regular interaction with students, it’s tough.”

DeBaker grew up in the Racine area and “came to education in a non-traditional way,” he said.

He worked as a machinist in Racine for seven years before going to college.

“I got in to the trades through the youth apprenticeship program,” he said. “Then there was 9/11 and a brief recession and I saw guys with families getting laid off.

“That’s when I realized I wanted to go back to school.”

DeBaker earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and a master’s degree in education from Carthage College.

He worked as a social studies teacher and assistant principal for the Racine Unified School District before becoming a middle and high school directing principal for Kohler Public Schools.

“I always wanted to run my own school,” he said.

His leadership skills were put to the test during the height of the pandemic.

“Our superintendent walked away for personal reasons and three of us ran the district, which was a great learning experience,” he said. “Getting through Covid in a small district was a unique experience.”

While DeBaker was working in Kohler, he and his wife Emily, who worked in Oak Creek at the time and is now a chief of staff for the Racine Unified School District, found a “middle ground” living in the Town of Port Washington.

“We love it here, and now I can bike to work in 10 minutes,” he said.

DeBaker has three children, including a 14-month-old son.

“He’s a future TJ Jaguar,” he said, referring to the Port Washington school.

Port Washington-Saukville School District Director of Business Services Mel Nettesheim, who will become interim superintendent at the same time DeBaker takes the helm of the middle school and oversaw the hiring process, said DeBaker stood out among the 37 applicants for the job because of his leadership skills and “ability to connect with staff and the greater community.”

School Board members on Monday praised the process used to select DeBaker, which was the same used recently to hire Port Washington High School Principal Rachel Biertzer, Director of Instruction Tammy Thompson Kapp and Director of Special Services Brian Sutton.

Two panels consisting of staff members, administrators, School Board members, parents and district residents winnowed the field of candidates to three finalists.

A third panel consisting of a School Board member, teacher, Nettesheim, central office administrators and two principals recommended DeBaker for the job.

The district also surveyed staff members in the district about the attributes of a middle school principal and received 250 responses, Nettesheim said.

Under the contract approved by the board Monday, DeBaker will be paid $113,000 a year.


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