Longtime PW-S school chief to retire

Superintendent credited with making district a destination for educators, creating positive culture, garnering support for referendum will step down after 21 years

PORT WASHINGTON-SAUKVILLE School Supt. Michael Weber stood in the new Port High commons shortly after work to rebuild and renovate the school was completed in 2018. Weber’s involvement in the community helped pave the way for approval of a $49.4 million referendum in 2015 that financed the high school project as well as an addition to Dunwiddie Elementary School. Press file photo
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Supt. Michael Weber, who is credited with making the Port Washington-Saukville School District a destination for teachers and administrators, creating a culture of positive thinking and establishing community relationships that paved the way for approval of a $49.4 million referendum in 2015, announced this week he will retire on June 30 after 21 years at the helm of the district.

During a special meeting Monday, the  School Board accepted his retirement before convening in closed session to discuss the qualifications of potential internal candidates for the district’s top administrative job, Weber said Tuesday. 

The board made no decisions, and it remains uncertain if it will tap an administrator within the district for the superintendent’s job or conduct an external search. The board plans to meet again in closed session on Monday, Feb. 8.

Director of Special Services Duane Woelfel is the only administrator in the district who has a superintendent license, although two principals are in the process of earning that license, Weber, who declined to name the principals because he has not asked them if he can divulge that information, said.

Just a year ago, the district lost Port Washington High School Principal Eric Burke and Saukville Elementary School Principal Chad Brakke to superintendent jobs in the Rhinelander and Cedar Grove-Belgium school districts, respectively. 

Weber’s announcement comes a month after Director of Business Services Jim Froemming, who was essentially the district’s second in charge, retired after 18 years on the job. He was replaced by Mel Nettesheim, the former director of operations and facilities in the Wauwatosa School District. 

If Weber is replaced with an external candidate, half of the four-person central office administrative team will be new to the district. That possibility, Weber said, makes this a good time for the board to give serious consideration to an internal candidate.

“The district has had a very successful history of promoting from within,” he said. “I would think they (board members) would want to take a look at doing that again in this case.”

But when asked if board members share that view, board President Brenda Fritsch said during an interview Tuesday, “I’ve found that our board is very diverse in terms of opinions.

“Mike and the board have hired some very good people and we believe we have a valuable culture here, but we have hired from outside the district as much as we’ve hired from within with good results.”

Weber’s successor will take the reins of a district that is much different than it was in 2000 when Weber inherited a deeply fractured relationship between teachers and the administration. Not long before Weber’s arrival in the district, when it was led by Supt. Jim Badertscher, teachers angered by failed contract negotiations protested outside of schools.

“When these types of things happen, they take energy away from the education in the classroom and we’re not being as effective as we should be,” Weber said during a 2000 interview shortly after he was hired. “A difference of opinion can be good, but you can listen and work to find a solution or you can let it stand in the way of education. I believe people need to be treated with respect.”

Weber was hired in part because of that belief and in short order won the trust of teachers, Deb Dassow, who at the time was a Port High teacher and Port Washington-Saukville Education Association union official, said this week. 

“There was definitely a lot of healing that needed to be done post Jim Badertscher,” Dassow, who has since retired from the district, said, noting that teachers played a role in hiring Weber. “Dr. Weber used his personal skills to bring together the groups in the district. Because of that, to this day, teachers and administrators want to come to the district and they end up staying. That’s not the case in Cedarburg, where I live.”

Sandy Crain, a Thomas Jefferson Middle School teacher and president of the PWSEA, credits Weber for nurturing the relationship between teachers and administrators, having a vision that focuses ultimately on what is best for students and establishing a hiring process that has attracted qualified and motivated educators to the district.

“I’m so proud of the relationship teacher-leaders and administrators have developed,” she said. “It’s something most of us don’t take for granted because everybody is better for it.”

Crain said Weber has served as a mentor  to teachers.

“Personally, I was so young when I started teaching,” she said. “I feel like I grew up under Dr. Weber. I’ve learned so much from him.”

Weber’s retirement adds uncertainty to an already uncertain time during which the district has navigated the pandemic, Crain said, adding that she hopes teachers are included in the process of hiring Weber’s successor.

“There’s some nervousness about the unknown, especially since we’ve gone through so much this year,” she said. “I hope teacher-leaders will be at the table for this process, and I hope that by next week we’ll have a little more information about whatever the plan may be.”

Weber told the board Monday that he is proud of the people he has worked with in the district.

“So what am I proud of? The people we hired over the years and the board members I have worked with,” he said. “I’m so very proud of all our staff members.”

While Weber wasted no time mending the relationship between teachers and the administration, he also worked quickly to involve himself in the communities of Port Washington and Saukville. He said he considers community involvement a fundamental part of his job, one that helped pave the way for approval in 2015 of a $49.4 million referendum that financed the renovation and reconstruction of the high school and an addition to Dunwiddie Elementary School.

“Right after I was hired, I began reaching out to various organizations in both communities,” he said. “I joined many of them and assisted in the hiring of several of their directors.

“So when it came time for the referendum and we reached out to 22 groups to present our plans, they readily accepted the invitation. I think the relationships we built with these organizations really helped, and looking back, I think getting involved in the communities was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of my job.”

At the core of Weber’s relationship with the people he works with in schools as well as in the community is his devotion to the power of positive thinking and the belief that kindness and respect go a long way toward solving even the most challenging problems.

“I consider that to be the hallmark of my leadership and who I am as a person,” he said. “After all, students really don’t want grumps in the classroom.”

Weber’s belief in the power of positive thinking has set the tone for the district, and to make sure new employees understand that from day one, he meets with them individually and presents them with a gift — Keith Harrell’s book “Attitude is Everything.”

Weber said he is retiring because he has achieved his goal of working in education for 50 years.

“I almost stayed a couple more years because I wanted to get us through this pandemic, but I’m a goal-driven person and I’ve reached 50 years,” he said. 

It was not his goal, however, to work in the Port Washington-Saukville School District for 21 of those years. When he was hired, Weber said he planned to stay in the district for 10 years, but that was before he realized the potential of the school system and met the people of Port Washington and Saukville.

“This district was large enough that I knew we could accomplish great things, and then I kind of fell in love with Port and Saukville — the people, the atmosphere, the community pride.”

“When 10 years came up, I didn’t even think about leaving,” he said.

Weber and his wife Karen will remain in the area and he plans to continue his volunteer work with several local organizations and provide training on how to deal with negative people, adult bullying and non-defensive communication.

“A wise person told me you don’t retire from something; you retire to something,” he said, “and that’s what I plan to do.”

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