Janesville School Board leader has been controversial

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Sunday, May 16, 2010
— The Janesville School Board had just elected Bill Sodemann its new president April 27 when Sodemann made it known he would be running things differently.

Keith Pennington, the school district’s chief financial officer, had just started to speak.

As usual, Pennington said good evening to the board “and board President Sodemann.”

Sodemann interrupted, tapping his gavel.

Sodemann said he, as one of nine co-equal members of the board, did not need to be singled out.

“I don’t like that extra attention,” Sodemann said.

A few minutes earlier, Sodemann had tweaked the citizen-comment portion of the meeting, saying that after each speaker’s three minutes, board members could ask questions, but they were not to argue with the speakers.

Sodemann is shaping board meetings to his liking, but the biggest change might be Sodemann himself. Sodemann is the board’s most conservative president in a long time. Consider:

-- Sodemann voted against the 2006 high school referendum, arguing for a less expensive project.

-- His remarks about limiting teacher salaries and benefits have alienated him from many teachers.

-- He questioned posters put up at Parker High School in 2008 by members of the Gay-Straight Alliance, including one that named famous people who are gay.

“Is the purpose to promote a lifestyle, or is it to work on the issues of bullying and harassment?” Sodemann said at the time.

Sodemann feels his positions deeply, but he rarely just lashes out. He notes that his objection to the posters included a call for all student groups to be able to promote their issues equally. He called for the alliance and other student groups to work together against bullying. He says it’s important to attract and retain good teachers.

“Yes, I’m passionate about the things I believe in, but I also think I’ve been very, very fair in treating people with respect. I think that’s why I was chosen president,” Sodemann said.

Board member Lori Stottler said Sodemann’s 2005 Gazette column, in which he compared teacher benefits to those of the employees of his business, “agitated the relationship” with teachers.

However, “since then, Bill has proved himself to be a very honest, respectful team player who has … given in to the board for the sake of what’s best for students or for the staff. Some of those concerns have gone by the wayside, and they aren’t as concerning to me.”

Stottler has reservations, however, and said she has talked to Sodemann about them.

“If the president were to suddenly take on issues that were very right or very left and make it appear that was will of board, that could be very damaging,” Stottler said.

Sodemann appears to understand that point. He often is conciliatory after ending up on the losing side of a board vote, as he often does. He even jokes about it.

Stottler tells about Sodemann joining her at a state school board convention, and when he found her in the large hall, he joked: “It figures I’d find you over here on the far left.”

Sodemann, a senior member of the board, having served since, 2005, often displays a firm grasp of district finances. He also has shown a good feel for public relations.

When Parker High School Principal Steve Schroeder recently pulled back all copies of the student newspaper for a mistake that was considered racially offensive, Superintendent Karen Schulte contacted Sodemann.

Sodemann counseled openness, advising Schulte to get in touch with the Gazette and explain, rather than waiting for the Gazette to find out.

Even teachers union President Dave Parr said after Sodemann’s election that he believes he can work with Sodemann and that he has a warm personal relationship with him, even though they won’t agree on the issues.

Board member Peter D. Severson was the only vote against Sodemann on April 27. He said it had nothing to do with ideology and that he and Sodemann get along fine.

“I was expecting some other discussion or expressions of views before the vote from some of the other commissioners. That did not happen, and the vote came quickly, so I did not feel like stopping the process to express the reason for my vote,” Severson said in an e-mail.

“I used my vote to show that there was not complete unanimity in the vote. I wanted to express a view that as the spokesman for the board, the president needs to represent the views of all the board members, even if the president does not agree with the majority view,” Severson wrote.

“There was no personal malice on my part,” Severson added.

Stottler has similar concerns about the president acting as the board’s spokesman. She has asked that the board discuss the duties of the president, and she points out that there is nothing in the law or board policy that makes the president the spokesman for the board.

Asked about Sodemann’s leadership after one month, Stottler said: “So far, so good,” but she said she has told him that if he uses his position for power and not leadership, she would let him know.

Stottler and Severson note that the board operates on a nonpartisan basis.

“I’m comfortable with us having personal opinions as long as we keep the personal stuff off the table, you know; you don’t go there,” Stottler said.

“I believe that President Sodemann has many qualities that will make him a quality leader for our board. I join with my fellow board members in giving him all the support that he needs in carrying out the mission of the board and the district,” Severson said.

“If you spend 10 minutes with Bill, you can’t help but like him because what you’re seeing is pure and honest, because what he believes, he really believes,” Stottler said, adding with a chuckle, “even though he’s wrong.”

Last updated: 1:50 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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