School board members offer advice for those seeking office

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Monday, November 17, 2008
— Listen up, folks. Your school district needs you.

Janesville public schools are at a crossroads. They face probable budget cuts, a new superintendent next summer and an experimental quality-improvement process that is just getting off the ground.

The school board is in charge as these changes occur, and the board may be in for big changes, as well. Five seats on the nine-member school board will be decided April 7.

Three seats normally are contested each year, but 2009 will be different.

Two school board members resigned in midterm this year. The board appointed two men to take their places. The law requires that voters decide who fills those seats at the next election.

So, a majority of the school board could be determined in one election, something that hasn't happened in recent memory, if ever. That means the Janesville School District needs dedicated people to step up.

It may seem early to be thinking about an election in April.

It's not.

Candidates may begin circulating nominating petitions Monday, Dec. 1, and must file them by Tuesday, Jan. 6.

The Janesville Gazette asked some board members whose seats are not up for re-election and some former board members for advice to those considering a run. Here are some of their responses:

Don't sell yourself short: Most decisions come down to common sense, and that's something people from all walks of life possess, said board member Tim Cullen.

"I think people from a variety of different backgrounds can bring that commons sense,"

Cullen said. "… I don't think a lot of these issues require some kind of background in education."

That said, recent boards have tended to be dominated by professionals in health care, government and education, and business people. The youngest have been in their 30s, even though the minimum age is 18.

"I think it would be wonderful to have nine members with very different backgrounds in terms of employment, career, background," said Superintendent Tom Evert. "Diversity should be encouraged."

One qualification every candidate should have is an interest in education and in improving the community, said Virginia Wyss, a former board member.

Prepare for homework: Your first assignment is to understand the board's role, powers and procedures. Talk to Evert or a board member about it, Wyss suggested.

"One of best ways is to attend some board meetings," Cullen said. "Watch and listen."

Some candidates in the past have made a point of attending most if not all board meetings leading up to the election.

Once you're on the board, be ready to spend hours of preparation for each board meeting, reading background materials and asking questions of the administration, Wyss said.

Inevitably, you'll face an issue you have never encountered before.

"Ask people," said board member Peggy Sheridan. "I've called a lot of people since I've been elected, asking for their advice, and citizens really appreciate that."

"It's important for them to know that it is time consuming," Wyss said, adding that board members who don't do their homework and ask questions ahead of time will end up wasting a lot of time at meetings.

Talk to your family and your boss: Tell them about the time commitment. Tell them about night meetings, at minimum two a month. Consider that you might miss your daughter's volleyball game on occasion, said Tom Wolfe, another former board member.

And consider that you might have to make a decision that your boss doesn't agree with.

"You've really got to want to do this, because there is a time commitment," Wolfe said. "It is rewarding. It is satisfying, so I'd encourage anyone who wants to."

Follow the money: Finances will be the biggest issue for the new board, and any other issue will be a distant second in terms of importance, Cullen said.

The administration has warned that the 2009-10 budget will involve cuts, an unpleasant task for board members. Sometimes, angry employees show up to argue that their positions are vital.

"I think the biggest thing they're going to have to face is the economic crisis, along with everybody else," agreed board member Debra Kolste. "We have to have sympathy for the taxpayer, and yet we don't want to lose the educational programming that we've developed."

Finances can be complicated, but "I don't think you have to have a degree in finance to get the concept of balancing the income versus expenses," Kolste said.

Don't take it personally: Board members will disagree, sometimes passionately, but they might find a former opponent on their side for the next issue.

"I think it's important that you always keep the concept in mind that most of our decisions are based on the opinions of nine people, Kolste said. "… You can fight forever, but in the end, it's just an opinion. There are very few right and wrong answers."

Be ready to listen to your constituents: "My father told me, "take the cotton out of your ears, and put it in your mouth," said board member Kevin Murray.

"Listening and understanding are my best tools to use in communicating with anyone I meet. I try to listen, listen some more, ask questions, state my opinion, and many times find a compromise based on the new ideas and point of view of the constituents that have expressed their concern."

"It is important to be transparent and let the public know your position and point of view."

Consider the rewards: Board members say they've met people they never would have met and formed friendships during their time on the board.

One reward the board doesn't provide is pay. It's one of the few school boards in the state that receives no compensation, except for free passes to high school sporting events.

"It's just an opportunity for personal growth," Kolste said. "I have not begrudged any amount of time because I've just learned so much. … It's all been a learning experience."


A checklist for people considering a run for school board:

-- Talk to a school board member, or a former school board member. Ask about the time commitment, politics and time away from family.

-- Attend school board meetings. Meetings are on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month. The next regular meeting is at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 25, at the Janesville Academy for International Studies, 31 W. Milwaukee St.

-- Attend Forward Janesville's Campaign Management Institute, set for three Tuesdays in December—Dec. 2, 9 and 16. The institute would be a good step for anyone contemplating running for any local office. Tuition is $50 for Forward Janesville members or $75 for non-members. For more information or to register, call Dan Cunningham at (608) 757-3160.

-- Visit the Web site of the Wisconsin School Boards Association, www.wasb.org. Click on "governance."

-- Speak to Superintendent Tom Evert. His number is (608) 743-5050. Evert can make available district documents, including reports, the budget and school board agenda packets. Evert said he also could arrange meetings with other district administrators. "We're available. We'd love to help," he said.

-- Attend the school board's development sessions, at which current board members and anyone else attending will learn the basics of school board governance. The first session is 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Educational Services Center, 527 S. Franklin St. Future sessions are tentatively set for Dec. 2, Jan. 6, Feb. 3, March 3 and March 17.

-- Know your deadlines and procedures. To run for office, you must fill out a declaration of candidacy, a campaign registration statement and collect at least 100 valid signatures on nomination papers. You may begin collecting signatures Monday, Dec. 1. Papers must be filed by Tuesday, Jan. 6. The election is April 7. To get your forms, visit assistant board clerk Nancy Hewes at the Educational Services Center or call her for more information at (608) 743-5056.

-- Read The Janesville Gazette. No one interviewed for this story suggested this, but news articles often include background on issues that are not evident at a board meeting or in district documents. Articles also will help you keep track of your opponents, whose backgrounds will be scrutinized, as will yours.


It's early, but we already know that the Janesville School Board's most experienced member, Debra Kolste, will not run in the spring elections. Those holding the other four seats are undecided. They are the board's current president, DuWayne Severson; Lori Stottler whose day job is Rock County clerk; and two whom the board appointed to fill vacated seats last summer, Greg Ardrey and Peter Severson. The Seversons, by the way, are not related.

Stottler said she might not run. She plans to take a look at the field of candidates in January, and if she likes what she sees, she might not file her candidacy papers.

So it's certain the board will have at least one new member in April. Incumbents often have the upper hand because of name recognition, but in a five-way race in an election with traditionally low turnout, a small number of votes could make a difference.

Last updated: 10:53 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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