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District 833 School Board rejects new contract for superintendent (w/VIDEO)

A split District 833 School Board voted not to renew Superintendent Mark Porter's contract Thursday. Pictured (from left) is board member Marsha Adou, Porter and board chair Leslee Boyd. Adou and Boyd were among five members who voted against renewal. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente1 / 2
Mark Porter's term as South Washington County schools superintendent ends in June, after the School Board voted Thursday not to extend his contract. Bulletin photo by Scott Wente2 / 2

A divided South Washington County School Board on Thursday voted against extending Superintendent Mark Porter's contract.

The sudden move came toward the close of a meeting Thursday when board members were expected to take up the approval of a contract renewal for Porter. In a statement Friday morning, Porter called the decision "unfortunate" and confusing.

Those who voted to end his tenure when his current term ends in June said little publicly about the move. One board member who supported Porter called it a bad decision that could hamper the recruitment of a high-caliber replacement.

Porter, who has led District 833 for the past two and a half years and has held a number of positions over more than two decades, said he was surprised by the vote. He wanted to serve another three years.

"That was certainly my intent," Porter said in a brief interview after the meeting. He declined to discuss the move in detail, only saying he was surprised that the decision was made even though the board had not given him a formal performance evaluation.

"It is unfortunate, in light of the excellence taking place across the district in terms of student achievement, financial stability, enrollment growth, labor relations and future planning, that a change in leadership is perceived as necessary at this time," Porter wrote in part to reporter. "While I have great respect for the school board and their authority, I am confused by the decision in light of several missing steps in the process, including proper notice and evaluation. I also find a strong disconnect between the recent elections to re-elect incumbents who ran on a 'stay the course' platform and this abrupt leadership change."

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(Video courtesy of South Washington County School District)

Leslee Boyd, the board's chair, was among five members who voted against renewing Porter's contract. She was joined by Ron Kath, Marsha Adou, David Kemper and Tracy Brunnette on a roll-call vote.

Boyd did not say why she voted against renewal, citing state data privacy laws.

"It would be inappropriate to elaborate on personnel matters," Boyd said.

Kath read a prepared statement prior to the vote, thanking Porter for his service in the district but saying he wants a new leader.

"I feel the time is right to bring in a new voice to lead us," Kath said.

That is going to be difficult, predicted board member Jim Gelbmann, who with Laurie Johnson voted against the non-renewal.

Gelbmann has publicly disagreed with Porter's administrative recommendations more than any other board member. 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," said Gelbmann, a 16-year veteran. He said the board's action will be a concern for highly qualified superintendent candidates who may be interested in the position but want to know about the board's dynamics.

Gelbmann said the board's work moving forward will be to "find the best person possible - who will agree to take the job."

Porter has been at the district's helm during a series of major - and sometimes controversial - changes in the district. In the past few years the district redrew its 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.

The board's action came after members voted Thursday for new contracts for a number of employee unions, including one representing District 833 teachers. A majority of board members also agreed to move forward with the estimated $4.5 million purchase of a vacant commercial building across the street from Liberty Ridge Elementary School in Woodbury to be used as overflow for the crowding grade school.

Porter's first three-year contract is set to expire June 30 and were required to give him six months' notice if they were not going to renew.

Porter has served in a number of positions within the school district and was assistant superintendent handling human resources and legal service prior to getting the top position, which paid him $159,900 when the contract began.

The vote Thursday followed more than a week of board activity. The three-member personnel committee met in recent weeks and then sent out a performance evaluation for each board member to complete, Gelbmann said. Those were discussed at a closed meeting prior to Thursday night's regular public meeting. Personnel information about Porter was given to board members prior to the vote - as is allowed under state law - but even knowing that data did not change Gelbmann's mind to support Porter, he said.

Asked about the board's plans moving forward, Boyd said: "We will be discussing that."

Check back for updates to this story.

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.

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