District 833 School Board emails signaled Superintendent Mark Porter's ousterSupport for Superintendent Mark Porter among District 833 School Board members was quietly eroding long before they surprised many school staff and district residents by not renewing his contract.
By: Scott Wente, South Washington County Bulletin
Support for Superintendent Mark Porter among District 833 School Board members was quietly eroding long before they surprised many school staff and district residents by not renewing his contract.
While no board members had publicly suggested they wanted a new superintendent, they privately acknowledged to one another a lack of support for Porter in the weeks leading up to the Dec. 15 vote. And three board members emailed among themselves shortly before the vote to discuss how the procedure would play out, according to interviews and a series of board member emails reviewed by the Bulletin.
The Bulletin submitted a Data Practices Act request to all seven board members shortly after the vote, and the newspaper recently reviewed the 93 pages of email records. (Emails sent among elected officials are public, though private data was redacted by a school district attorney prior to the records release.)
The information showed that some board members believed well ahead of the vote that Porter would not continue as superintendent. Also, recent interviews conducted with Porter and board members exposed multiple disagreements related to his contract renewal and how a closed meeting to discuss his performance was handled.
Board Chairwoman Leslee Boyd recently defended the board’s handling of the issue.
“There are prescribed steps that you go through, and I feel that we followed those steps,” said Boyd, who was among those voting to end Porter’s tenure. “I of course wish that there weren’t hurt feelings over it, but I don’t know that that could have been avoided.”
Board member Jim Gelbmann said the process has hurt the board’s reputation: “I think the board is not looking very good right now in the public eye.”
Discussed in board emails
Porter’s three-year contract expires June 30. The board needed to act on his contract by the end of December if it was not going to be renewed. A three-member board personnel committee met with Porter weeks ahead of the vote. All seven board members then filled out a performance evaluation the week before they met as a group in closed session to discuss Porter’s performance. That session, required by law to be private, occurred immediately before the Dec. 15 regular board meeting when the vote was taken.
The outcome appeared clear to some board members prior to that meeting.
Email records show Boyd attempted to reach out to Gelbmann a week before the vote, telling him it did not appear Porter had a majority of the board’s support and asking to sit down with Gelbmann before the vote.
Gelbmann replied that he was available but saw little to discuss: “If any board member believes Mark should not continue as superintendent, there is absolutely no way that person is going to convince me that such an outcome is anything short of a cataclysmic failure of our board. I can’t even believe we are having the discussion…”
Boyd and Gelbmann did not meet. Boyd later said in an interview that she was only asking to sit down with Gelbmann to see if he had any questions about the process.
The records review also showed that Boyd, Ron Kath and Marsha Adou exchanged emails on the eve of the vote. Kath emailed Adou and Boyd to say that he would make the motion to not renew Porter’s contract. In the message, he asked Boyd how she planned to call for a vote and included a prepared statement that he then read just before the vote. In the statement, Kath thanked Porter for his service but said “I feel the time is right to bring a new voice to lead us.”
Adou responded that same night in an email to Kath and Boyd: “Sounds good. Hopefully this will go as well as can be expected. It will be a tough night.”
Boyd replied to the others the morning of the vote, laying out how she would present the contract issue and adding: “By the way Ron, your comments are great and very similar to mine.”
In an interview, Boyd said Kath had initiated the discussion and that it is not uncommon for board members to contact her ahead of a vote to let her know they planned to offer a motion.
The emails do not appear to violate the Open Meeting Law because they did not include an exchange among at least four of the seven board members.
It was not an unusual exchange, Boyd said.
Like Boyd, Kath and Adou were among the five who voted to not renew Porter’s contract. Kath said he emailed them because Boyd runs the meetings and he had previously talked to Adou about the vote. He said he did not email the entire board of his plan to offer the motion because he wants to avoid the potential of an open meeting violation.
Still, the board has a policy that encourages “no surprises” in meetings, and Gelbmann said everyone should have known of Kath’s planned motion. He did not know of the three members’ email exchange until notified.
“I really think you have a problem factionalizing the board,” Gelbmann said. “Information that’s available to one or two board members should have been made available to everyone.”
Adou did not return a call seeking comment.
There also are questions about the handling of the closed session to discuss Porter’s performance review, which immediately preceded the board’s regular meeting Dec.15.
The state Open Meeting Law requires that an employee evaluation conducted in closed session must be summarized at the next open board meeting.
There was no summary offered at the Dec. 15 regular meeting. Gelbmann said he was told by a Minnesota School Boards Association representative that the summary should have been announced at that meeting last month. Gelbmann said he is “uncomfortable” with what occurred.
But Boyd said she was advised that a summary should be made at the board’s next regular meeting, Jan. 26.
“It would have been very difficult to have an adequate summary prepared for (Dec. 15) since there was no time between the closed session and the scheduled regular meeting,” she told the Bulletin.
There is an open meeting before Jan. 26, however. The board has a special meeting Thursday, Jan. 12, which is open to the public.
Survey or evaluation?
Porter’s contract required that he receive an annual performance evaluation. He said that never occurred, with the exception of the evaluation conducted shortly before his contract was not renewed.
Boyd cited a “360-degree evaluation” of Porter involving feedback from various district staff and board members in April of 2011.
“It was the beginning of our efforts to make improvements in our evaluation process,” Boyd said of that project, acknowledging she had not been aware of the required annual performance review. “I had previously not reviewed his contract, and he had not asked for it.”
Porter has said in retrospect he would have pushed for a formal evaluation every year. But he said the 360-degree review is a survey and “is never intended to stand alone as an evaluation instrument.”
Porter claimed, however, that overall scores he received from the School Board in that process were higher than the scores he gave himself.
Kath said it became apparent through that exercise, however, that district staff had concerns with Porter. Among concerns Kath said he had were how the district handled the Spanish immersion expansion debate in late 2010 and early last year, and the sudden loss of a couple of key administrators last year.
“This is not about Mark’s character,” Kath said. “Mark is an upstanding character person.”
Boyd said board members had shared with her concerns they had with Porter “months prior” to their vote to end his tenure, and that as chairwoman she often receives comments and concerns from board members about various issues.
Board member Laurie Johnson, who supported keeping Porter, has said she was not aware of significant concerns about his leadership.
Kath said board members routinely had met with Porter in small groups or individually to discuss district issues. Porter said he heard no negative feedback from board members.
“I don’t know if there were signals that I was missing in that process, but (there was) certainly no direct communication that would give me that idea,” Porter said.
A conversation between Porter and Boyd last summer did surprise Porter, he said. He informally asked Boyd about the status of his contract. Porter said Boyd told him that should wait until after the School Board elections that took place in November. Boyd confirmed the conversation.
Boyd was running for re-election, along with Kath and Gelbmann, and all won. No candidate during the campaign publicly raised concerns about the district’s leadership.
Kath said action on the contract did not occur until after the election in order “to see how the board shakes out.” If the incumbents had not been re-elected, the sentiment of the incoming board toward Porter’s status may have been different, he said.
Boyd said in an interview that she “did not think it was in the best interest of the district” to discuss the superintendent’s contract during an election. Boyd said she was unsure during the election whether she wanted Porter to stay on.
“I knew there were concerns; I did not know where I stood yet,” she said.