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West is top superintendent pick (02/24/2014)
By Amelia Wedemeyer
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board came to an agreement Wednesday night to nominate Dr. Stephen West as the sole finalist for the position of WAPS superintendent. Dr. West, who recently submitted his intent to resign as executive director of educational services at Eden Prairie Schools, was selected by the board over two other candidates: Stephen Flisk, of Minneapolis Public Schools, and Patrick Sweeney, of Arizona’s Paradise Valley Unified School District.

The board plans to send two members for a site visit to West's current school district next week, and barring any surprises there, will offer West the position at its March meeting.

During his final interview before the board made its decision, West touched on prominent issues such as the upcoming Spanish immersion program at Madison Elementary, the use of technology in the classroom, and the age of facilities within the district.

“For me, what I’ve seen and what I’ve felt is the biggest [challenge] that we’re going to have to address is facilities,” West said. “That’s a concern; that makes people nervous when you talk about it.”

Budget reductions should be transparent, and should include conversations among parents and stakeholders to determine what programs are too important to cut, he told the board when asked about how he would lead a budget reduction process. Once parents and community members have worked to help define what the district must protect from budget cuts, they will be more understanding of the process, and the district's financial position, he said.

When asked what he would do if he and School Board members disagreed on an issue, West said it was natural to disagree, but important for voices to be heard and for the board and superintendent to work closely together. "I think we have to be a team," he said. "I work for you, but I want us to be on the same page."

A tough decision

“We have three very highly-qualified candidates,” board member Jay Kohner said as the board discussed each of the three candidates. “I also believe any one of them will take the district where we want to go. [I was] very impressed with West from the letters we received and the [reference checks] that we made. He is so incredibly personable.”

The board came to an agreement, selecting West after four members — Mohamed Elhindi, Jay Kohner, Tina Lehnertz, and Brian Zeller — said he was their first choice for superintendent. The remaining three members — Ben Baratto, Jeanne Nelson, and Steve Schild — designated their first-place vote to Sweeney, but quickly added they were pleased with each finalist and it was a close call.

“Anyone we choose, we are 100 percent behind them,” Chairman Elhindi said of the decision. “This board is united behind whatever superintendent we are going to hire.”

All three candidates invited back for the second round went through an interview process that included a 90-minute question and answer session with the board, a tour of a few schools within the WAPS district, a luncheon with district and community leaders, and a meet and greet with Chamber of Commerce members. Board members also read various letters of recommendation and conducted phone conversations with references provided by each candidate. It was a process that proved fruitful, but also difficult, with each member of the board agreeing that it was a tough decision to select one finalist from among three highly-qualified candidates.

“I changed my mind a couple of times,” Baratto admitted, before adding that he chose Sweeney because he had “a little more experience than the others.”

“I would support any one of these candidates,” Tina Lehnertz said with her final vote. “Each one could support and run our district — our administrators and teachers would be able to work with any one of those. I keep going back and forth between two, but my gut is telling me to go with Stephen West and I am going to keep it that simple.”

After selecting West, the board discussed plans to visit Eden Prairie sometime within the next week to observe him in his current community. While several board members said the visit would not likely yield any new information, Nelson said she wanted to finish the process, and Lehnertz agreed to accompany her on the visit.

“You had excellent candidates,” WAPS director of human resources Pat Blaisdell reassured the board. “I don’t think you can go wrong with the choice you made tonight.”  


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