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District 833 Superintendent Mark Porter

Porter: School Board decision 'unfortunate,' confusing

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South Washington County Schools will be in the market for a new superintendent after a split School Board voted against extending Mark Porter's contract next year.

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The surprise move came as Porter was nearing the three-year expiration of his first contract as superintendent and it suggested that he did not fulfill expectations or qualifications of the five board members who voted him out.

Porter, who had about 30 years of experience in the district, called the decision "unfortunate" and confusing, but also said in an interview that he knew in the days leading up to last Thursday's vote that he could be out of the job at the end of June.

"When I look at many of the results we've been able to attain, those apparently weren't sufficient to meet all of their expectations," Porter said.

Most of the five board members who voted to end Porter's tenure did not comment about the decision, which was dealt with in five minutes near the end of the board meeting. The meeting agenda item was listed as "approval of superintendent contract renewal."

Board Chairwoman Leslee Boyd and members Marsha Adou, Ron Kath, Tracy Brunnette and David Kemper voted against a contract renewal. Laurie Johnson and Jim Gelbmann opposed the move.

Boyd refused to discuss her vote, saying data privacy laws forbid public discussion of personnel matters.

"Mark Porter is a very nice man but we need to look at what we need in the future and what's the best for students, and this is how five of seven of us decided to proceed," Adou said later in an interview.

Kath thanked Porter for his service in a pre-written statement he read just before the vote.

"I feel the time is right to bring a new voice to lead us," Kath added, later refusing to elaborate on his decision.

Gelbmann called the non-renewal a bad move that could hamper the recruitment of a high-caliber replacement because candidates will wonder how the board operates.

Long tenure

With the exception of a brief stint, Porter has worked in District 833 since 1980. He started as a math and physical education teacher and Woodbury High School's head football coach. He then served as district activities director before leaving to work in a private law practice. During that time he was elected to the District 833 School Board.

He returned to district employment in April 2000, when he was hired as legal services director. That position grew into a role as assistant superintendent, which he held until he took over as schools chief in July 2009. He is paid $159,900 annually as superintendent.

"I've invested nearly 32 years of my life in this school district," Porter said in an interview, adding that he plans no legal action over how or why his contract was not extended.

Porter said it was "certainly my intent" to serve another three years, a standard contract term for superintendents.

It was not immediately clear when the board would start the superintendent search process. Boyd only would say that is something the board will be looking at.

The board's three-member personnel committee - comprised of Boyd, Adou and Johnson - met in recent weeks to discuss Porter's contract. The committee then asked all seven board members to complete a performance evaluation of Porter.

The full board met in closed session prior to the public meeting last Thursday night. There were personnel-related matters brought forward at that meeting, Gelbmann said. No information he was given changed his view that Porter deserves credit for the district's successes and good standing in the community and deserved another contract, Gelbmann said.

'Short list of concerns'

Porter said he met with the personnel committee ahead of Thursday's meeting and was given a "short list of concerns" board members had. Some of them dealt with results that did not occur under his tenure, while others were related to how he carried out his duties, he said.

"Those were shared in an informal manner," he said, declining to provide more details.

While his contract called for them, never in the past two and a half years did Porter receive a formal performance evaluation, he claims. Porter himself took part of the blame, calling it "an oversight on my part" for not seeking a formal annual evaluation by the board.

Adou said that while there was no formal review, "you always want to try to work with people" and provide constant feedback.

"You always review when their contract is up," she said.

No specific reason for the board's action has been made public, but Adou cited a couple of areas of concern for her. She said the district continues to maintain "a big difference" in student achievement between Caucasian students and minority students. She also said the district has not been doing as much as it should to improve teacher evaluations.

Asked what she will look for in the next superintendent in order to improve in those two areas, Adou said: "The qualities of a superintendent that would achieve that."

Pressed to elaborate, she said those qualities include leadership and mentoring.

Porter has been at the district's helm following a series of major - and sometimes controversial - changes in the district. In the past few years the district has adjusted to redrawn attendance boundaries, opened East Ridge High School, changed its grade configuration, watched its Spanish immersion-language program grow, weathered a difficult budget climate and was beginning to plan for the expiration of property tax levy measures in the coming years.

Gelbmann has publicly disagreed with Porter's administrative recommendations from time to time. Still he defended the superintendent, saying the district is doing well and Porter deserves credit for that.

"It's one of the worst decisions the board has ever made," Gelbmann said.

Johnson said she has not heard any complaints from district teachers or staff about Porter's leadership. She called him a "good strategist" for the district and that under his guidance "all systems look like they're pointing in a good direction."

"It quite frankly mystifies me why others feel different about it," she said of her board colleagues.

Adou acknowledged that the public may question the board's tight-lipped decision.

"I know this puts us in a bad light," she said, "but this is the way legally we have to do it."

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Scott Wente
Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
(651) 459-7600
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