On a vote of five to two, Dr. Stephen West was named Thursday by the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board as the district’s next superintendent. The board’s approval of West, who most recently served as executive director of educational services at Eden Prairie School District (EPSD), signifies that the only thing left to do in the superintendent search process is work out a contract with West.
“I am truly humbled,” West said after his confirmation. “I am very emotional. I want to do right by the district and I want to come in and bring people together. I’m going to be Winona’s biggest cheerleader. I can’t wait to really get my hands in there, and roll up my sleeves and work with the teachers and administrators. I want to show people who they voted for. I’m going to show the community, the board, teachers, and students that I’m the right choice, no doubt about it. I can’t wait to get to Winona.”
After listening to a report prepared by WAPS director of human resources Pat Blaisdell, along with board members Jeanne Nelson and Tina Lehnertz, about their recent site visit to West’s current district, board members were allowed to make statements about choosing West as the next superintendent.
Ben Baratto, who voted for another superintendent candidate last month, was the first board member to take his turn addressing his fellow members, and voiced his reservations over West’s confirmation.
“Mr. Chair, with your indulgence I would like to say a few things,” Baratto said. “I know my vote will be in the minority tonight, but Dr. West talked about integrity and I would also like to think that I have integrity. I voted a certain way before and I will probably vote that way tonight.”
Baratto went on to say that he wanted what was best for WAPS and claimed that he had “a folder with a lot of negative things” about West, but declined to discuss it. He also reminded his fellow board members that while BKB Consultants “laid the groundwork” for the search process, it was West who provided the list of professional references, and that he didn’t “pay much attention to the references because they were all good.” The board used a process in which candidates themselves provided references, and when those references were called, board members attempted to obtain the names of additional references they should speak with. In West's case, board members were unable to reach those references not listed by West himself.
“Let’s be very clear. I’m not saying that Dr. West will do a bad job, just that in my opinion, there was a stronger candidate,” Baratto said, before adding, “Dr. West, when you arrive here I am going to be the first one to greet you; I’ll work with you. I’ll support you.”
Steve Schild, the only other board member beside Baratto to vote against the motion to approve West, also expressed some hesitation about the choice. “I won’t be voting against anybody tonight. My vote will be on behalf of the party that I think is the strongest candidate,” he said.
Schild went on to mention that he was a bit troubled that West did not disclose his resignation from EPSD at the end of this year with the board until the second round of interviews. But after a phone conversation with West, Schild said that he understood that there was not an opportune time to talk about the employment situation until the semifinal round of interviews.
“Like I said before, this is the hardest decision I’ve participated in while on the board,” Schild acknowledged.
After Baratto and Schild took their turns to speak, board member Brian Zeller took to the microphone and firmly spoke in support of West as well as the superintendent search process as a whole.
“I just want to say that I think the board did its due diligence with this whole process,” Zeller said. “We had a lot of background, we talked to tons of people as a group, we talked to tons of people as individuals, and I think we have a tremendous, tremendous candidate.”
Board member Jay Kohner agreed with Zeller, and said that while he respected Baratto for expressing his opinion, he urged the board to support West.
“I feel like we are making the right decision,” Kohner assured the board. “I want to move forward with 100 percent support for our new superintendent.”
Nelson, who had originally voted for Patrick Sweeney in the semifinal round, told her fellow board members that after her site visit, she endorsed West because of her conversations with 29 individuals throughout Eden Prairie and Richfield.
Lehnertz, who also went on the site visit with Nelson and Blaisdell, said that she accepted that there would be some people unhappy with the decision, but ultimately believed that voting for West was the best for the district and students.
“I appreciate this process. I’ve learned a lot and I, too, feel that Dr. West will be a good candidate,” Lehnertz said. “I know that will make some not happy with the choice, [but] I’ve listened to a lot of people and I think he will do a good job with our district and for our kids, and that’s what it’s all about.”
After the motion to approve West was passed five to two, board chairperson Mohamed Elhindi made sure to acknowledge outgoing superintendent Scott Hannon, who plans to retire this year.
“The man sitting next to me here,” Elhindi said, motioning towards Hannon, “has forty years [with WAPS]. Dr. West will have big shoes to fill.”