Plenty of issues in play in primary race for PW-S School Board

District report card, school chief hiring at issue in three-candidate contest
Ozaukee Press staff

Three candidates vying for a seat on a Port Washington-Saukville School Board that has had to face sliding state report card scores and the unexpected retirement of the superintendent it hired just two years ago will face off in the Tuesday, Feb. 21, primary election.

Kierstin Cira, a veteran teacher; Douglas Rogahn, an information security consultant; and Richard Sternhagen, who was the director of sales and strategic planning for Sargento Foods before retiring; are running for a City of Port Washington seat on the School Board currently held by Brian McCutcheon.

McCutcheon, who with more than 24 years in office is the second longest serving member of the current board, is not running for re-election.

In interviews last week, Sternhagen and Rogahn said the School District’s latest report card is unacceptable.

“It’s absolutely not acceptable,” Sternhagen, 65, said. “We should be leading school districts in southeastern Wisconsin, but if you compare us to our peers even outside Ozaukee County we’re in the bottom quarter.”

The Port Washington-Saukville School District earned an accountability score of 75 on its 2021-22 Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report card released in November, which falls into the state category of “exceeds expectations” but was the lowest score among school districts in Ozaukee County.

“Benchmarking against the state just covers up the reality of the score,” Sternhagen said. “You need to establish goals and hold people accountable. Any organization that doesn’t do that is willing to accept mediocrity.

‘It’s really frustrating that we’re not considered one of the best.”

Rogahn, 45, said the report card indicates that improvement is needed but he is confident the district is working to improve its score.

“I think we’re seeing some of the effects of the Covid shutdown, which may explain some of it,” he said. “I wouldn’t say this is something I’m super concerned about, but I want to make sure we’re working to improve.

“I fully expect the scores on the next report card to be higher.”

Cira, 54, said the report card should not be looked at in terms of being acceptable or unacceptable because it is a single measure of academic achievement and, like grades, is not the most telling.

“The report card is just one measure of the success of our kids,” she said. “I’m constantly reminding people that students aren’t numbers. Grades are subjective.”

Cira noted that she completed a graduate program at Alverno College, which does not give letter grades, and said, “I never learned more than when I was not graded.”

“There should be more emphasis on what happens when our students leave the district,” Cira said. “Do they become productive members of the community? Ultimately the goal is to create learned people who have all the options they want available to them when they graduate and who contribute to our community.”

The board that emerges from the April election will oversee a new superintendent when Mel Nettesheim, the district’s current director of business services, assumes the district’s top job on July 1.

Stunned by the announcement in October by Dave Watkins that he will retire on June 30, just two years after coming to the district, the board worked quickly and almost exclusively in closed session to name Nettesheim his successor. It did not conduct an external search for candidates and interviewed only Nettesheim in contrast to the four-month, region-wide search, which included several opportunities for pubic input, that resulted in the hiring of Watkins, who was a top administrator in the St. Paul, Minn., school system.

Nettesheim will have the title of interim superintendent because she does not yet have a superintendent’s license.

Cira said she does not fault the board for the process it used to hire Nettesheim, noting that while it did not seek public input this time, the feedback it received when it hired Watkins is still relevant. She also did not fault the board for conducting much of the latest hiring process in closed session, saying it was obligated to do so because it was considering personnel matters.

But, Cira said, she wrestled with the fact the district’s next leader has no classroom teaching experience.

“I’ve had to think very hard about this — someone leading our school district who has never taught,” she said. “But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about the good things I’ve heard about Mel even before she was chosen to be superintendent.

“Would it be best if she had classroom teaching experience? Sure, but I’ve seen plenty of bad leaders who have teaching experience.

“I have nothing but positive thoughts about Mel leading the district.”

Rogahn said the board should have conducted an external search for its next superintendent.

“I know the other process was long and probably expensive, but I think it would have benefited the district to conduct a search,” he said, adding, “I’m not a fan of closed-door meetings.

“If Mel Nettesheim was the best candidate out of a number of candidates, then great.”

Sternhagen agreed that a superintendent search should have been conducted.

“Any internal candidates who want to step up should be considered, but they should be considered along with external candidates,” Sternhagen said. “Now we have what we have and I’d like to stick with it and do whatever we can to make it work.

“I want to make Mel as successful as possible.”

The board will also continue to oversee a strategic planning process started by Watkins shortly after he came to the district.

It’s a process that, led by the administration, has gone on for too long, Sternhagen said.

“Quite honestly, I’m not overly thrilled with the process,” he said. “It’s just dragged on for way too long, and I really believe it’s the board that should be establishing the guidelines and driving this. The board should have taken control of this process.”

Cira said strategic plans have value but don’t necessarily translate well into the challenges teachers face in the classroom.

“Things look very different on paper than they do in a classroom,” she said. “Having a strategic plan is good, but it seems like there’s always a strategic planning process going on. Then when you have a plan, a new superintendent comes along and rewrites it.”

Rogahn said it’s difficult for the public to stay abreast of district processes like the one being used to draft the strategic plan, and in that regard it would be useful if the district would make more School Board documents available to the public.

“When it comes to the School Board minutes and agendas, I’d like to see more detail and information available to the public,” he said.

Rogahn, whose son is in second grade at Lincoln Elementary School in Port Washington, said he is making his first run for elected office because he wants to be involved in the community and lend his expertise in information security to the district.

He also said he is running in the hope of preventing the School Board from being co-oped by members with personal agendas as has happened elsewhere in the state and country.

“Throughout the nation, we see a lot of politicization of school boards, and I don’t want to see that in the Port-Saukville District,” he said. “When school boards get filled with people who have very strong opinions and refuse to listen to the other side, that’s not good for education.

“We need to talk with each other, listen to each other and stop screaming at each other,” he said.

Rogahn, who has lived in the district for 15 years, graduated from Nicolet High School and has a degree in computer science with a minor in criminal justice from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Cira, who teaches third-grade in the West Bend School District, said her passion for public education has driven her 32-year teaching career and has now prompted her  first bid for elected office.

“I’m pretty passionate about public education, and I’m extremely concerned with the direction public education in Wisconsin is going,” she said. “We keep stripping the resources from public education.”

The Port Washington-Saukville School District needs to invest its resources in the programs that matter most to students, and  improvement in that area is needed, she said. For example, Cira cited the district’s successful music programs, noting that the director of Port High’s extracurricular a cappella group FOCUS is not paid.

“Do we have a football coach on the sidelines who isn’t paid?” she asked. “My guess is no.”

Cira, a 1986 graduate of Port High whose daughter is a freshman at the school and two older children graduated from it, called herself “uniquely qualified” to serve on the board.

“Not only am I a product of public schools and a teacher in public schools, my children attend public schools,” she said. “I would bring first-hand experience to the board.”

Cira has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from UW-Milwaukee. She holds both a state principal and director of instruction license.

Sternhagen, who ran unsuccessfully for the School Board last year, said he is making another bid for the board because of his desire to be involved in the community and contribute his experience in corporate management to it.

“I think I can make a difference in the school district, which is an important part of the community, by using my past experience,” he said.

The board, Sternhagen said, needs to do a better job of involving the public in the process of deciding how students are educated.

“I’d like to see more transparency, more access to detailed information and more involvement by the public,” he said.

Sternhagen, who has three adult children, has lived in the district for more than 10 years and holds a degree in economics from UW-Milwaukee.

The two candidates who receive the highest number of votes in next week’s primary will advance to the April 4 general election.

That ballot will also include other Port Washington-Saukville School Board races.

Dawn Brooks is challenging Sara McCutcheon, who with more than 25 years in office is the longest serving current board member, for a Village of Saukville seat on the board.

Justin Myers is challenging Melissa Alexander, who was appointed to fill the vacant Town of Port Washington seat on the board last year. Myers was also a finalist for that appointment, and after the board deadlocked, it drew Alexander’s name out of a box to put her on the board.

Although board members represent specific areas of the district, with the exception of the person who holds the at-large seat, all residents vote for all candidates.


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Ozaukee Press

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.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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