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A new era for South Washington County schools

Mark Porter's first day as superintendent for School District 833 was July 1. He replaces Tom Nelson who retired after a long career in the school district.

As director of District 833 legal services and human resources, Mark Porter made no secret that he was applying for superintendent jobs in other districts.

After being a finalist several times, he finally reached the top in his home district and officially took over the job from retiring Tom Nelson on July 1.

"It feels awfully right," he said in an interview July 1. "In many ways, it's my dream job and the one that makes the most sense."

Porter said he could see himself in the job until he retires even though he knows unforseen factors could intervene.

Having been an administrator for more than 10 years, Porter is acutely aware that he works for the school board.

He has a high level of respect for the authority of the board. The current board wants the public to be involved in the decision process and that takes time.

"We need to allow for that," he said.

As attorney and head of human resources, he's been the district's representative in labor negotiations since he returned to the district.

Gone are the days of adversarial negotiations, Porter said.

Treating people with respect, listening and establishing trust lead to successful conclusions, he said.

"It takes a lot of effort on the part of many people," he said. "The interests of the district and unions are closely aligned" in the current environment.

Porter, in his new role, is backing off day-to-day negotiations and will rely on Denise Griffith, new human resources director, and Mike Vogel, assistant to the superintendent for operations, who is currently tracking construction projects.

Each superintendent brings their own management style to the job and most people who have worked with Porter already know that he doesn't rely on e-mail to communicate.

"There's real value in face-to-face communication," he said. "It's not always possible to judge emotional reactions with electronic messages."

While meetings are important, he said he doesn't want them clogged up with day-to-day decisions.

"We have some great people here," Porter said. "I look forward to having dynamic exchanges and dialogue that can lead to solutions that no one in the room thought of when the discussion started."

It's not something he learned from working for three superintendents. Perhaps it comes from coaching athletic teams. As the district "coach," he'll continue to strive for environments where employees and teachers thrive.

"I take greater satisfaction in what others do rather than what I do," Porter said.

Although he wasn't at the helm when students took Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests this spring, recent results received are encouraging, but also leave the district with the same challenges it had in the past with minorities and students not proficient in English.

"There are things to celebrate," he said. "We are doing a better job of recognizing achievement gaps but we need to keep up intentional efforts to close them. We're not making excuses."

When Porter looks to the future, he'll strive to maintain the "high quality of education" with up and down state funding, he said.

He's also determined to find ways to keep students, about 600 this past year, from going to schools outside the district.

"I want to make that the hardest decision parents have to make," he said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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