THREE OAKS — The River Valley Board of Education voted 6-1 Monday, Sept. 16, to hire Ryan Portenga as Assistant Middle/High School Principal and Athletic Director.
"I'm excited to be a Mustang. This school district has a very proud tradition in academics, athletics and arts, and I'm excited to add to the next chapter," Portenga said following the meeting.
The lone no vote came from board member Jennifer Alderink, who said she was "not in full support" of the move, although she later said she had "no doubt" Portenga "can do the job."
"I've only been on the board since January of this year, and we've had a couple very significant things happen at our school related to people who are supposed to be mentors to our students making very, very bad choices," she said. "Given that Mr. Portenga is still trying to work through some of the things that led him to leave Mona Shores, it was just bad timing, wrong place."
Alderink also said she was "not comfortable with how the interview process went," noting that it seemed hurried and may have left some qualified people out.
According to media reports from June of 2018, Portenga resigned from the Mona Shores district on June 7 of that year after being suspended for 10 days due to an unspecified ethics violation.
Board member Phillip Bender said he saw the issues of "forgiveness" and "redemption" as important in this matter.
"Mr. Portenga's case requiring forgiveness comes from his family. He did no harm to River Valley students, he did no harm to River Valley teachers, administration, school board members or the district as a whole."
Bender went on to list what he called "classic examples" of being given the opportunity of redemption — the story of Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" being forgiven for theft and asked to use the silver he took to become a pious man; and the Bible passage where Jesus stops the stoning to death of a woman the Pharisees saw as an adulteress by saying "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her."
Board President David Whitlow said he has met with Portenga and received glowing recommendations from former colleagues filled with comments like "determined," "transformative," passionate," "hard-working" and "game-changer."
He said Portenga's track record shows he has both the vision and perseverance it takes to be the assistant principal and athletic director that River Valley is looking for.
The River Valley job was posted as either Athletic Director/Dean of Students or Athletic Director/Assistant Principal.
Superintendent Will Kearney said each position drew 19 applicants (a total of 38), adding that his preference was to maintain the assistant principal position because a dean of students has no supervisory authority over the teaching staff if the principal is out of the building.
He said an interview committee made up to staff, community members and a student selected nine candidates to interview. Three finalists (plus another who was interviewed via Skype upon Keanrey's request) were chosen.
He later said the final interviews were done by himself and Principal Patrick Breen. In the end, Portenga was the choice.
He replaces Jim Wiseley, who left in July to become a middle school principal in the Constantine district.
Kearney said Portenga "did great things at Mona Shores" where he turned the district's athletic program around.
Kearney said in retrospect he wishes he had pushed to have more assistant principal-qualified candidates make it to the finalist stage (only Portenga and the Skype interviewee were certified for the position).
During the public comment period of the meeting, Blane Hillman lamented that a River Valley graduate who was recognized as a Distinguished Alumni during the 2018 commencement ceremony was not chosen for the position.
"The individual who received that inaugural Mustang of Distinction recognition saw this as an opportunity to give back to the school that he came from ... In the end that individual was not selected for the position."
Hillman asked why the position was ever posted with Dean of Students being an option if ultimately the preference was for an assistant principal.
In another Sept. 16 matter, the board unanimously agreed to have the district's Michigan High School Athletic Association membership to include middle school sports.
Following the Sept. 16 special meeting, Kearney confirmed that the River Valley High School varsity football team was switched to a junior varsity only for the remainder of the 2019 season prior to the Sept. 13 contest that would have been played in Lawton.
He said a majority of the team boycotted practice on Sept. 9, a team meeting was held the next day, and it was decided to remove three players from the team (a few others were suspended for a week as well).
"Because that dropped our numbers down to 15, and we have a large number of freshmen and sophomores, we felt that we were not able to field a varsity team," Kearney said.
He said three JV contests have been scheduled, including an Oct. 18 homecoming game against White Cloud (also a JV-only program this season); a Sept. 26 trip to White Pigeon; and a home game against Berrien Springs in October. Kearney added that more games may be added to the schedule.