The Hermantown School Board narrowed its candidates for superintendent down to three Saturday afternoon.

The School Board interviewed three candidates Friday night and two more Saturday morning. After about an hour of deliberation, the board voted unanimously to bring back Centennial Schools elementary principal Wayne Whitwam, Duluth Public Schools’ Ordean East Middle School principal Gina Kleive and Prescott (Wisconsin) Public Schools elementary principal Donita Stepan for second interviews.

With a handful of community members present, the School Board asked each candidate 18 questions and then left time for each candidate to ask questions of the board. After the last interview Saturday morning, the board went one-by-one and talked about who they would want to see back for the second round of interviews.

The School Board all seemed in agreement that they would like to see Whitwam come back for the second round.

Centennial Schools elementary principal Wayne Whitwam interviews with the Hermantown School Board Friday, Jan. 31 for the open superintendent position.  Adelle Whitefoot / awhitefoot@duluthnews.com
Centennial Schools elementary principal Wayne Whitwam interviews with the Hermantown School Board Friday, Jan. 31 for the open superintendent position. Adelle Whitefoot / awhitefoot@duluthnews.com

“I felt he was really nervous, but his energy and passion was really great,” said board member Karly Madill. “I sensed he was here for the right reason.”

Board member Gary Kneisl said he also got the feeling Whitwam was nervous, but nervous for the right reason.

“I really like what he had to say. I feel like his nervousness was about him really wanting this job,” Kneisl said. “He was laying everything out on the line and he was very honest.”

Whitwam, who has served in many principal roles as well as a middle and high school counselor, said during his interview Friday night that he was looking for his next challenge.

“I’ve been at small schools and large schools and Hermantown has the small-town feel but is close enough to Duluth to really have everything,” he said.

When asked about how he would become involved with both the district and community as well as be visible and accessible to all, Whitwam spoke about what he’s done in the past, from having breakfast or lunch with state legislators or going to the local city council and giving members an update about the district.

“I’m an empty-nester now so I feel like I can be as visible as possible and be very involved,” he said.

The board was somewhat split between Kleive and Stepan, which is why it agreed to bring both back for a second round of interviews.

“It was very clear that Kleive was most prepared,” said board member Jonathan Thornton.

Ordean East Middle School principal Gina Kleive interviews with the Hermantown School Board Friday, Jan. 31 for the open superintendent position.  Adelle Whitefoot / awhitefoot@duluthnews.com
Ordean East Middle School principal Gina Kleive interviews with the Hermantown School Board Friday, Jan. 31 for the open superintendent position. Adelle Whitefoot / awhitefoot@duluthnews.com

During her interview, Kleive, who has spent her entire educational career in the Northland, showed her knowledge of Hermantown and the area. She said Friday night during her interview, being a superintendent is the next step she wants to take.

“It’s been my passion to have an impact on kids and their education knowing someday being a superintendent would be the way to have one of the greatest impacts,” she said. “Hermantown would be great because it’s very close to home.”

Stepan said she applied to be the superintendent specifically in Hermantown because she loves the area.

“I have family down in Willow River and a cabin in Sturgeon Lake, so I spend a lot of time in the area and would love to live here full-time,” she said. “I’m excited about Hermantown schools.”

Prescott (Wisconsin) Public Schools elementary principal Donita Stepan interviews with the Hermantown School Board Saturday, Feb. 1 for the open superintendent position.  Adelle Whitefoot / awhitefoot@duluthnews.com
Prescott (Wisconsin) Public Schools elementary principal Donita Stepan interviews with the Hermantown School Board Saturday, Feb. 1 for the open superintendent position. Adelle Whitefoot / awhitefoot@duluthnews.com

Stepan has worked as a teacher, principal and director of curriculum for Byron (Minnesota) Public Schools, which was a new position.

“I like (Stepan’s) broad background and it’s something I would like to learn more about,” board chair Dianne Mathews said.

Whitwam, Kleive and Stepan will interview a second time on Thursday starting at 4 p.m. The three will rotate between three rooms at the Hermantown Middle-High Schools, where they will be interviewed by staff members, community members and the School Board.

All interviews are open to the public, meaning community members can decide whether to attend the open forum to ask the candidates questions themselves or sit in and listen to the School Board ask questions.

Staff and community members will be able to give written feedback about each candidate, which will be read aloud to the School Board before they begin deliberations Thursday night on who to extend an offer to.

“We had a good pool of candidates and I think we’ll definitely find somebody out of this pool to be our next superintendent,” said board member Aaron Salmela.

The School Board also interviewed Michelle Mortensen, superintendent and community education director at Renville County West (Minnesota) Public Schools, Friday night and Todd Felhofer, district administrator and principal at Greenwood (Wisconsin) School District, Saturday morning. The sixth candidate, James Wagner from Wyoming, did not interview with the School Board.

This story was updated at 3:55 p.m. with quotes from the candidates and School Board members. It was originally posted at 2:01 p.m.