District finds PWHS principal finalists close to home

High school administrators from West Bend East, Sheboygan North picked as front-runners for vacancy
Ozaukee Press staff

The Port Washington-Saukville School District looked far and wide for its next high school principal but ended up finding its front-runners for the job close to home.

West Bend East High School Principal John Graf and Sheboygan North High School Assistant Principal Rachel Biertzer are the two finalists for Port Washington High School principal, Shelly Bugni, the district’s human resources coordinator, said Tuesday.

Graf and Biertzer went through a final round of interviews this week with a panel of administrators, a teacher and a member of the School Board.

The board on April 11 is expected to hire the next Port High principal, who presumably will begin work on July 1.

The district received 23 applications for the position, which were narrowed to 15 through an initial screening process.

Those 15 were narrowed to the finalists during multiple rounds of interviews conducted by panels of what the district calls its stakeholders — students, parents, community members, teachers and members of its support staff.

Graf has been principal of West Bend East High School since 2019. Prior to that, he was principal of the West Bend School District’s Green Tree Elementary School for three years, a principal in the Montello School District for two years and a fifth-grade teacher.

Biertzer has been an assistant principal at Sheboygan North High School since 2017. Prior to that she was an English teacher in the Oshkosh Area School District.

Either Graf or Biertzer will succeed Port High Principal Thad Gabrielse, who was placed on administrative leave on Dec. 29 and resigned on Jan. 24 after being arrested for drunken driving on Dec. 23.

Gabrielse has pleaded not guilty to traffic citations for first-offense drunken driving and deviating from his lane. His case is pending in Ozaukee County Circuit Court.

The School Board agreed in January to continue to pay Gabrielse his $128,562 salary, as well as offer him health, dental and life insurance benefits through June 30, according to a severance agreement released by the district in response to an open records request by Ozaukee Press. 

In addition, the district essentially agreed to allow him to retire by waiving the minimum age requirement and making him eligible to receive an additional 10 years of health insurance benefits. At the time of his resignation, he was 54, one year short of the minimum retirement age of 55.

Gabrielse had been principal of Port High since 2020 and served as athletic director and assistant principal before that.

Assistant principals Dan Solorano and Nate Hinze, who also serves as athletic director, have been in charge of the school since Gabrielse’s departure. Director of Special Services Duane Woelfel, a former Port High principal, is assisting them.

The hiring of a new principal comes at a time of remarkable turnover in the ranks of  Port Washington-Saukville School District administrators, and whoever is chosen for the job will be the third new administrator beginning work in the district next school year.

Last month, the board hired Tammy Thompson Kapp, who is the director of teaching and learning in the Baraboo School District, to succeed Chris Surfus as the district’s director of instruction. 

Brian Sutton, director of student services in the Marinette School District, was hired as  director of special education and pupil services to succeed Woelfel.

Surfus, who has been an administrator in the district for more than 19 years, and Woelfel, who has worked in the district for more than 31 years, will both retire on June 30.

Supt. Dave Watkins has been on the job for nine months following the retirement at the end of last school year of Mike Weber, who led the district for 21 years.

And Director of Business Services Mel Nettesheim began work in the district on Jan. 1, 2021. She succeeded Jim Froemming, who held that position for 18 years.


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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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