School Board hopefuls vie to lead district in flux

Five candidates running in two races say leadership, community input key at time of turnover in administrators
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Five candidates are running in two races for a Port Washington-Saukville School Board that will be tasked with overseeing a district in the midst of an unprecedented change in leadership.

Karen Krainz and Johnny Lanser, who are both making their first bids for elected office, and Brian Stevens, a veteran of the board who serves as its vice president, are running in the April 5 general election for two seats on the School Board representing the City of Port Washington.

In the other race, one-term incumbent Yvonne Klotz and Richard Sternhagen, who is running for his first elected office, are vying for the at-large seat on the board. Both Klotz and Sternhagen live in the City of Port Washington.

The winners of those three seats will join a board that must manage a new administrative team, the senior member of which will be Director of Business Services Mel Nettesheim, who began work in the district in January 2021. Supt. Dave Watkins is in his first school year and the two others members of the central office leadership team — the director of special education and curriculum director — will be new to the district in July, as will the Port Washington High School principal. 

That turnover puts a premium on School Board leadership, Stevens, 53, said. 

“With the district office leadership team that we have, which only has basically less than a year to a year on our staff, I think making sure they are collectively focused and headed in the right direction as desired by our community is one of the top priorities,” Stevens, who was appointed to the board in 2014 and elected the following year, said during an online candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Ozaukee County and the Niederkorn Library. 

When asked during an interview if the board is doing a good job of overseeing administrators and scrutinizing recommendations from them, Stevens said, “We’re getting better, but we still have room for improvement.”

Stevens was the only board member to vote against a recommendation from administrators in December to end the district’s 13-year partnership with the five private institutions that host its 4-year-old kindergarten classes and instead teach those students in district schools next year.

Although the recommendation generated relatively little discussion by the board, it sparked controversy in the community in large part because the decision blindsided the district’s 4-K partners who, despite hosting the program for years, were not told of the recommendation prior to the board’s decision. 

One of those partners, Port Pre-School, announced in February that it will close at the end of the school year after 56 years of educating children primarily because of the 4-K decision. Some of the other institutions that hosted the public school classes are now scrambling to create 4-K programs of their own. 

Stevens said administrators should have solicited community input, particularly from parents, and discussed the plan to bring the 4-K program in-house with its partners prior to making a recommendation to the board.

“It kind of shocked me that this wasn’t something that was discussed with our partners prior to bringing it to the School Board,” he said. “To spring something like this on your partners doesn’t sound like much of a partnership to me.”

Lanser, 35, a Port High graduate and real estate agent, said too often the board avoids making tough decisions that are needed.

“It seems that they choose to take the easy way out,” he said. 

Lanser, who is a member of the finance committee of St. John XXIII Catholic School, one of the district’s 4-year-old kindergarten partners, was also critical of the 4-K decision.

“It was a big move that affected a lot of people,” he said. “To me, it wasn’t done the right way, and it wasn’t the right thing to do.”

Krainz, 58, a retired actuary who graduated from Port High, said the board has made progress by improving the process by which it hires and evaluates administrators, but the 4-K decision was a symptom of communication problems in the district.

“Communication seemed to be the big issue, and that’s not good,” she said. “If the communication was better, we’d be in a better place.”

Klotz, 58, who was elected to the board in 2019, said the board does a good job of vetting recommendations from administrators.

“You can’t just be a rubber stamp,” Klotz, a retired teacher who now works for the Port Washington Parks and Recreation Department, said. “You have to do your homework.”

She said that while the turnover of administrators may make some people nervous, she believes it’s an opportunity for improvement.

“With a whole new slate of administrators in the district, I know staff may be nervous because they’re looking for consistency, but at the same time they can help the new administration and we can build on what we have now,” Klotz said.

Sternhagen, 64, who held leadership positions in consumer products companies until retiring in 2019, said he has no basis on which to judge the board’s performance but said that collaboration between it and administrators is key to the district’s success.

The election also comes at a time when parents say they want more input in how their children are educated, a movement fueled in part by the board’s decisions about how to educate students during the pandemic, in particular the decision to begin the 2020-21 school year with what was referred to as a hybrid model in which most students attended in-person classes two days a week and learned online three days a week. Amid protests from parents, the board decided to resume full-time, in-person education at the start of the second semester.

Lanser noted that the district surveyed parents before deciding on the hybrid approach but said it ignored the fact that a significant number of them wanted the district to return to full-time, in-person instruction as other area school district did. That, he said, was one of the reasons he and his wife decided to pull their four children out of the district and enroll them in St. John XXIII Catholic School.

“We didn’t feel like the School Board was listening,” he said. “They sent out surveys, the surveys came back and nobody got to see the results. And the results didn’t necessary go along with the decisions that were made.”

That has made communication and transparency buzz words in the election and fueled questions about what role the district’s stakeholders — residents, parents, students, teachers and administrators — should play in education.

When it comes to the board’s role in setting curriculum, most candidates said that while the board should provide oversight, they would rely on the curriculum experts hired by the district to determine what children are taught in school.

“I believe we have experts that are responsible for setting curriculum,” Krainz said. “We (board members) would be there to review it.”

Sternhagen, however, said all “stakeholders” in the district should have input in the curriculum.

“I think the experts are everybody involved,” he said. “The stakeholders are experts in this particular conversation because it really comes down to how are we providing an excellent education for our kids. Any curriculum we use should go through that initial filter.”

When asked during the forum about “parental control” of education, the candidates agreed that it is important to solicit input from constituents and balance competing interests when making decisions.

“We have many competing needs and only so many resources available,” Stevens said. “I believe we need to collect feedback from all the parties involved and have multiple perspectives from which to view an issue.”

Klotz said the board has made strides in being more inclusive in its decision-making process.

“I do believe community engagement has increased in the last year,” she said.

Sternhagen said the term parental control denotes a flaw in the system.

“I believe the parental control label is part of a breakdown in change management,” he said. “It starts at the data collection point and getting all people involved in that all the way through the development of the policy and ultimately the execution and communication of it. Once you go through that process, you talk less about control and more about participation.”

Krainz, who grew up in Port Washington and, after working in the Chicago area, returned to the city in 2006, said she wants to help the district build on its successes and continue to improve its processes.

“I’m committed to working together with our community to help provide a high-quality education for students in an environment that is safe and supportive for both our kids and their educators,” she said.

Lanser, a life-long resident of Port Washington, said he will work diligently to keep “leftist” and “right-wing” views out of schools.

“Students should not be taught what to think. They should be taught how to think,” he said. “Teachers and administrators have no place in pushing their personal beliefs and views on students.

“I’m hopeful that with a few new members on the board as well as a new superintendent that we will be able to come together to create a world-class environment for our students.”

Stevens, an 18-year resident of the district whose two daughters graduated from Port High, said he first ran for the board because of a desire to help improve the community.

“I’m passionate about Port Washington and about improving educational outcomes for all students,” he said. “I think there’s room for improvement, and I want to be part of that improvement process.”

Klotz, a 34-year resident of the district whose two children graduated from Port High, said she is “passionate about public education” and one of her priorities is to maintain the comprehensive programming the district offers to prepare students for a wide variety of careers.

“Another priority for me is retaining our staff and attracting new staff,” she said.

Sternhagen, who has lived in the district for just more than eight years and has three adult children, said that as the district emerges from the pandemic it must adjust its expectations and make changes to become an elite school system.

“I believe we have an opportunity to leap out of the pandemic, leverage what we have learned, build on our strengths and eliminate our weaknesses,” he said. “We need to reset our expectations and take bold, innovative action to become the premiere school district in southeastern Wisconsin.”

One of the City of Port seats on the ballot is currently held by Kelly O’Connell-Perket, who with 24 years in office is one of the board’s three senior members. She is not seeking re-election.

The Port Washington-Saukville School Board consists of five members from the City of Port Washington, two from the Village of Saukville, one from the Town of Port Washington and one at-large member who can reside anywhere in the district. All voters in the districts can vote for all members of the board.

Board members serve three-year terms.

The Port Washington-Saukville School Board candidate forum can be seen on the Niederkorn Library’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ST6FEiQerEg.

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