by NATHANIEL NELSON
With less than two months left until superintendent Rich Dahman leaves his position, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) has taken the next step in securing a new leader –– on Tuesday evening, the WAPS Board selected six superintendent candidates to move forward to its first round of interviews. The candidates, all current superintendents across three states, were selected from a pool of 11 applicants, and will come before the board this weekend to be questioned about their work as superintendents and how they might lead District 861.
The six first-round selections include Michelle Mortensen, the superintendent of Renville County West in Renville., Minn.; Randi Anderson, superintendent of Pelican Rapids Public Schools in Pelican Rapids, Minn.; Annette Freiheit, superintendent of Pine City Area Schools in Pine City, Minn.; Greg Nyen, superintendent the School District of Waupaca, Wis.; Robert Smudde, superintendent of Prairie Du Chien Area School District in Prairie Du Chien, Wis.; and James Wagner, superintendent of Johnson County School District in Wyoming.
The WAPS Board will interview the six initial selections on Friday and Saturday, interviewing three each day, before narrowing down the list to three finalists for a second round of interviews next week. The second interviews will take place on May 14, 15, and 16 at the Winona Senior High School’s Learning Commons, with question and answer sessions with the community starting at 5 p.m. on each day. All interviews are open to the public.
Mortenson, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational administration and leadership at St. Cloud State University, was the recipient of the Richard Green Scholars Program Award from the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. In addition to serving as the superintendent of Renville County West since 2013, she also served as the superintendent of Ivanhoe Public Schools from 2011 through 2013, as well as a principal and elementary teacher in Nebraska. Mortenson was selected by the Jackson County Central School District as a finalist for its superintendent job earlier this year, but was not chosen for the role.
Freiheit received her Bachelor’s degrees in recreational therapy and elementary education, as well as her Master’s in educational leadership, from Winona State University. For her Doctorate in education, Freiheit attended Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. She went on to teach in Kenyon, Minn., as an elementary teacher for nine years before taking on other positions in various Minnesota school districts, including as a graduation standards director, curriculum and testing director, and an elementary principal. Freiheit was previously a superintendent finalist in Cannon Falls, Minn.
Wagner hails from the farthest away, out of the Midwest and from Wyoming. Wagner received his Bachelor’s degree in biology from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and later received a Master’s in Education at St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minn. During his time as the superintendent of Kimball Area Schools (KAS) in Kimball, Minn., from 2014 through 2018, the district reversed a trend of declining enrollment to four consecutive years of increased student population. He also helped maneuver KAS out of statutory operating debt “two years ahead of schedule.” Much of his work history is from Minnesota, however, having served as a teacher or principal in several districts in the state, as well as at fellow Big Nine school district Albert Lea. Last month, Wagner was a candidate for the superintendent of Mankato Public Schools, and in 2017, he was offered the job in Stewartville, Minn., but turned the position down.
Anderson has been superintendent of Pelican Rapids Schools since 2017, and previously served as the director of personalized learning and instruction at Eden Prairie Schools –– the same district where former WAPS Superintendent Stephen West worked as executive director of educational services. As superintendent, Anderson created a strategic plan titled “Portrait of Graduate 2036” to ensure students were college and career ready, and is a member of several Pelican Rapids organizations. Anderson received both her Bachelor’s degrees in elementary education and mathematics and her Master’s degree in education administration from the University of North Dakota. She was previously one of two finalists for a superintendent position in West Fargo, N.D., in 2018.
Nyen currently works as district administrator and superintendent in Waupaca, but announced his resignation in February to “pursue other interests.” Nyen holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and English from the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire, a Master’s in school psychology from the University of Wisconsin - Stout, and a Doctorate in educational leadership and policy from the University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh. In the past, Nyen was the director of student services at Stevens Point Area Public School District for nine years, an adjunct professor at the universities of Wisconsin in Eau Claire and Oshkosh, and served as a school psychologist at six different school districts. In January, Nyen was one of two finalists for superintendent in Great Falls, Mont., but withdrew his name from consideration.
Smudde shares Nyen’s history as a school psychologist, working for five years in the role in Janesville, Wis. He later served as a principal and director of special education at Ithaca School District in Richland Center, Wis., before becoming the district’s superintendent in 2014. He later moved to Prairie du Chien to lead the district in 2017. Smudde holds two Master’s degrees in school psychology and educational leadership received at Northland College and University of Wisconsin - Whitewater, respectively, in addition to superintendent licensure in Wisconsin.
WAPS officials announced last week that the district had received 15 completed applications for the position, of which four were rescinded prior to Tuesday’s board meeting. Board members debated the 11 candidates in depth, using letters such as “candidate A” and “candidate M” for each candidate to keep their names confidential until selections were made and finalists were announced. While one candidate received unanimous approval and several others had six out of seven members supporting their application, board members were split on how to go forward with the overall process.
Representatives from the Minnesota School Board Association, who presented information on six recommended candidates, were questioned by board members about why the specific candidates were chosen and why others were left off. Board member Karl Sonneman explained that his one concern was going forward with candidates who were too similar to one another.
“We’re getting very conventional superintendents coming out of smaller districts and wanting to move up,” Sonneman said. “If we are going to get students back into Winona, we are not going to do that by acting conventionally.”
Despite some back and forth on the sixth finalist slot, in the end, the board voted to move forward with all six of MSBA’s recommended options. From there, the board will determine three candidates to move forward to the second round of interviews. The board is expected to have a candidate selected by the end of next week, and a contract signed by May 23 before the superintendent begins their role on July 1.