by LAURA HAYES
Kind, humble, inclusive, supportive, and leader –– these were some of the words that Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board members and administrators used to describe Superintendent Stephen West. School Board members and administrators voiced their support for the work of West following his performance evaluation for the past year, commending him for his accomplishments and calling the district’s top administrator an “educational leader.”
Board members have met twice recently in closed sessions to discuss West’s performance, and state law requires the board to summarize the strengths and weaknesses discussed as part of his performance evaluation. During Thursday’s School Board meeting, Vice Chair Ben Baratto summarized the board’s "360" evaluation.
“Based on the 360 data, the feedback received from some of the district’s employees or members, and our own observation, we believe that Dr. West is an educational leader,” Baratto said. “He has a sound understanding of the learner’s needs and a vision for the 21st century educational system.”
He explained that the board has continued to be impressed with West, who they said has focused on creating an environment that welcomes all learners. According to Baratto, some of West’s accomplishments for the past year included creating a vision centered on professional development plans, implementing a security system for all of the district’s facilities, and creating a "culture of accountability," among others.
Board member Steve Schild said that West received a “very good report card” in his performance evaluation. “I want to be clear to everybody, he got very high marks in the 360 evaluation. And in my estimation, the list of documentable improvements and work that’s been done in the short time that he’s been here is very impressive,” Schild said.
Board members were not the only individuals to endorse West during the meeting. Eight members of West’s executive cabinet wrote and read a letter in support of their boss’ work in the district. The administrators said that they were proud to work for West, who they said hasn’t shied away from difficult decisions. All of his decisions are data-driven, well-thought out, and based on what’s best for the district, they said.
“Dr. West is smart, kind, invested, and demonstrates strong leadership in all that he does. He possesses a humbleness rarely seen in people in a position of power. He has strong morals, values, and ethics and expects the same from all those with whom he interacts, and he is truly a servant leader,” Director of Finance Sarah Slaby said.
Chairman Mohamed Elhindi, who was present at the meeting through video, thanked the administrators that sent the board their letters of support of West’s accomplishments. “As you can see, a successful leader, having all of these people behind him, speaks very highly of their accomplishments and speaks very highly of their leadership style,” Elhindi said. He continued that administrators were not under an obligation to say anything. “This is a very powerful thing what happened today.”
West thanked the board for the meeting during which he was evaluated, saying that all of the feedback wasn’t glowing. “I will continue to develop myself as I ask my staff to continue to improve. I do have passion, and that sometimes bubbles over into some other stuff,” West said. “I challenge myself and I challenge my staff to move forward. But I work hard for this community and I work hard for this district. I love this district.”
While many of West’s positive accomplishments and attributes were discussed during the meeting, no weaknesses were included in the summary. After stating that he would no longer speak to the Winona Post or grant the newspaper an interview earlier this month, West said during his performance summary that he would extend an "olive branch" and try to build a relationship with the local papers.
Filing for election ends
Eight total individuals have filed to run for the four open School Board seats after Winona County District Court Judge Jeffery Thompson re-opened the period for four-and-a-half days. The legal filing period for School Board was open from May 17-31, and during this time period, WAPS staff mistakenly believed that candidates would file instead in August, and turned inquiring or interested parties away.
In an interview earlier this month, West and Slaby explained that administrators believed that the district was not required to hold a primary election for the offices and could hold a later filing period in August, which is the correct filing time for districts without a primary. Following the mistake, the district hired attorney Christian Shafer of Ratwick, Roszak & Maloney for $205 an hour to help WAPS rectify the mistake. Shafer recommended that the board approve a petition that would allow the district to essentially restart the election process and re-open filing for office.
State law provides for a two-week long filing period. However, Winona County Auditor Sandra Suchla must send the primary ballots to be printed for absentee voters by Friday, June 17. When Judge Thompson approved the petition, would-be candidates were only allowed four-and-a-half days to file because of the absentee ballot deadline.
After Elhindi announced that he would resign from the board at the end of July, four seats were placed on the ballot –– Elhindi’s (district two), Brian Zeller’s (district three), Jeanne Nelson (district four), and Tina Lehnertz (district five). When filing closed on Friday, eight individuals planned to run for School Board. Winona State Professor of Sociology Karen Coleman filed to run for Elhindi’s district two seat. She will run against member of the Friends of Neighborhood Schools, an ad hoc group advocating to keep WAPS’ neighborhood schools open, Allen Hillery. Allison Quam, a Winona State University librarian and a member of the Friends of Winona Area Neighborhood Schools filed for board member Brian Zeller’s district three seat, and will run against Keith Larson. Zeller told the Post in an interview that he would not run for re-election. Attorney Karl Sonneman filed for the district four seat currently held by Nelson. Nelson, who initially said that she was 90 percent sure she would not run for re-election, has filed for another term on the board. Kenneth Kersting plans to run for the district five seat currently held by incumbent Lehnertz, who has also filed.