Two vie for Gold Beach superintendent job

By Randy Robbins, Pilot staff writer June 07, 2013 08:08 pm

Candidates Brian Mentke, left, and Dennis Johnson.
The two candidates, wearing business suits and ties, put on their best grins, shook hands, mugged for cameras and then tackled tough questions posed by audience members filling the Gold Beach High School library Wednesday.

The men — Dennis Johnson and Brian Mentke — were finalists vying for a chance to become the next superintendent for the Central Curry School District. The school board hopes to make a final decision soon.

The two candidates, wearing business suits and ties, put on their best grins, shook hands, mugged for cameras and then tackled tough questions posed by audience members filling the Gold Beach High School library Wednesday.

The men — Dennis Johnson and Brian Mentke — were finalists vying for a chance to become the next superintendent for the Central Curry School District. The school board hopes to make a final decision soon.

During Wednesday’s usual one-hour, town-hall style forum, the job candidates answer written and oral questions submitted by district officials, school staff and Gold Beach residents.

Normally, school districts interview job candidates in a private setting.

The  two finalists came as a result of a nationwide search by a blue ribbon panel the  district hired to find a replacement for retiring Superintendent Jeff Davis, who is heading to Onalaska, Washington, this fall.

As Wednesday’s forum progressed, it seemed that Johnson and Mentke differed greatly in terms of philosophies, demeanor and ideas.

Johnson came all the way from the Lake Placid area of New York. His resume lists him as working as a technology shop teacher, an athletic director and a high school principal.

Johnson gave an impassioned opening statement, quoting a verse from a favorite scripture 1Corinthians:13 — “When I was a child I spoke like a child I understood like a child I thought as a child; but when I was a man I put away childish things.” 

He teared up briefly and apologized to the audience for blinking back those tears. 

“I’m emotional. I get emotional at times,” he said concerning the responsibility of educating children.

Johnson pointed out that “even though I come from far away, the similarities are striking between rural Curry County and where I come from —  in those small wooded outlying areas near the Canadian border regions.”

He added, the residents there “will do anything to keep their schools going and I know you folks will too.” 

As he answered questions, Johnson repeatedly touched on the theme of cooperation and working together to get things done.

“It’s never going to be all your way, or my way, but perhaps we can get to 50/50.”

Whereas Johnson was emotional in his opening delivery statement, Mentke, who lives in Burns, spoke in a brisk, no-nonsense tone that attempted to outline his credentials and vision for the district.

“I am the last of the ‘old school’ headmasters; that is my approach and it has proven to work,” he said.

Mentke was a longtime teacher and administrator in Burns, and was an interim superintendant in John Day. In addition, he served for multiple years as superintendant of schools in Glendale.

When asked about the importance of the district’s Riley Creek Elementary School, Mentke said, “I know from experience where the skeleton and backbone of school systems reside —they are the elementary schools!” Jutting a finger skyward to make his point.

When quizzed by a teacher in the audience about state testing requirements and the difficultly in meeting them at times, Mentke was emphatic.

“I have a history of inspecting blue ribbon schools for the Department of Education, I know what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “I want Gold Beach schools to keep their independence from burdensome regulation; to do what works best for us here.” 

When the teacher asked if that meant ignoring the state, Mentke said, “No, not at all. But, we can satisfy both the state and our curriculum by being creative. Like possibly meeting some of those requirements in the seventh grade. If you do it on your terms and satisfy the state they’ll leave us alone.”

Forum highlights

Johnson was asked what his best day and worst day as a teacher were. 

“Look, your best day is like going to Hawaii. And as much fun as a Hawaiian trip is, you don’t get to go there every day,” he said.

He referenced a good day when, as a shop teacher, his class was motivated, working quietly and with diligence on their tasks. 

His worst day? 

“I was about 21 or 22. A new teacher. The class was pretty tough on me. I remember heading into the principal’s office and saying ‘If I quit today how much do I get?’”

Mentke was asked his biggest strength and weakness. 

“I would say my strength is my enthusiasm for my job. My weakness would be charging so hard forward that I need to look behind me to still make sure my troops are still in line behind me,” he said.

Johnson said he would like to publish news bulletins to keep staff and community up to date. 

Mentke says he buried a coin in the end zone of Jay Johnson stadium after a playoff game he was in when Gold Beach played Burns. “See, we already have a connection,” he said.

Johnson wants everyone’s ideas, no matter how unusual. “Let’s put them all on the table — even the crazy ones — and look at them all to make this district run better.”

When asked about the music program that was eliminated at Gold Beach High School because of budget cuts, Johnson said, “Art, music, performing arts make a school well rounded. I would look at anything it would take to bring them back, but I won’t slash other programs to do it. I would inspire the community to help us to do that.” 

Mentke said he sides with the community on the loss of timber revenue that have impacted Curry County schools, including those in Gold Beach.

“I will be a strong voice for you on that,” he said.

When the forum ended, the school board met in executive session to discuss the candidates. The public was not allowed to attend.

After the meeting,  Board Chairman Greg Marstall said the board was not ready to make a choice, but felt a decision would be made by mid-week.