Student rep: Parker student takes it to another level

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Sunday, May 1, 2011
— Jaimi Jensen is one of Parker High School's valedictorians this year.

She's taking four Advanced Placement courses.

She's vice president of student council.

She has a boyfriend and a great social life, too, she assured a Gazette reporter.

And yet, she has found time to attend nearly every Janesville School Board meeting since February—regular meetings and special meetings—not to mention the board's community listening sessions.

It's a remarkable accomplishment and one unmatched in recent memory, but Jensen doesn't stop at just going to meetings. She has waded into the murky sea that is the school district's budget crisis.

She has spent hours one-on-one with school board members and Superintendent Karen Schulte, learning more about how a school district operates than most of us will learn in a lifetime.

Jensen admits to being a political junkie, but she's not aiming for a career in it.

"I always wanted to be a doctor. Politics is kind of a hobby for me, not a career choice," she said. "But it's a deep passion that I feel strongly about. It's very important to me to be an active citizen and make a difference."

What's a nice future doctor like her getting mixed up in school board business?

Jensen was one of a group of students at Craig and Parker high schools who got involved last winter when it became clear that the school board would cut a large number of elective classes at the high schools. She attended group meetings with school board members and the superintendent.

But Jensen took it further, and she stuck with it longer than anyone could have imagined, except maybe Jensen herself.

She is no firebrand. She doesn't stridently demand that the school board do what she wants. She's quiet but cheerful, and she's almost always there when the decisions are being made.

In an interview before Tuesday's school board meeting, she expressed impatience with the school board for not moving to dip into its reserves to fill part of next year's budget deficit.

"I understand they want time to think it through, but action needs to be taken on some of these issues," she said, and a lack of decision leaves district employees "in limbo" about what they'll be doing next fall.

She respects the board, though: "All of them care deeply," she said. "Otherwise, they wouldn't be there."

The school board voted Tuesday night to use $3.4 million from the district's reserve fund to help plug the budget hole.

Like any good policy wonk, Jensen can see both sides of an issue. She feels for district employees who face a loss of income or the loss of co-workers to layoffs, or both.

"It's a double-edged sword," she said.

As for the district's fiscal crisis, Jensen knows that the board's job is not easy, so she hasn't come on strong with opinions about what should be done.

The board needs to find the middle ground between the need to maintain a quality education and to balance its budget, she said.

Jensen knows she's different from most of her peers.

"Young people, you can't expect them to become super involved with politics. I mean, we don't have the ability vote, yet. We don't really pay taxes. So there's not really that passion or desire to have any say in what goes on because it doesn't heavily affect us yet," she said.

"What really gets me, though, sometimes, is the ignorance of the young generation. There are so many opportunities to find out what's going on. People just need to make the effort, and I think you become such a better person for it."

So what does she thinks of Gov. Scott Walker's drive to balance the state budget by cutting local-government aid and forcing government workers to pay more for their benefits?

"I think that in hard economic times everyone has to do their fair share, but the concentration of where the money is coming from I don't think would be beneficial to our economy," she said.

The money would come mainly from the middle class, she said, but when asked whether the rich should contribute more than they've being asked to, Jensen showed she has learned diplomacy:

"Well, I think everyone needs to pitch in their fair share," she said.

Jensen will attend UW-La Crosse in the fall, and she said she'll probably get involved in local or campus politics there, too.

"I would miss it too much. It's sort of addicting—I'm not gonna lie," she said.

She's also looking forward to voting. She turns 18 in August.

Jensen becomes students' voice on the board

Jaimi Jensen goes where no one has gone before. She is the first person ever invited to pose questions during Janesville School Board meetings on a regular basis.

The situation makes some board members uncomfortable, but it's all by the book.

Jensen said members of the Parker Student Leadership Council were going over school board policies recently and looked at the policy that allows high school students to present monthly reports to the board.

Turns out, the policy allows more than that.

Policy 8390 states: "The student representatives shall represent the voice of the students … (They) shall serve in a non-voting capacity on the board but will be allowed to enter into discussion that may arise as the board addresses scheduled agenda items."

"Our adviser (teacher Chris Koeppen) was like, 'Holy cow, look at this,'" Jensen said.

The policy was on the books but apparently had never been used.

Jensen brought the policy to the board's attention, and President Bill Sodemann decided he had to allow it. Jensen has been politely raising her hand and asking questions at board meetings ever since.

That doesn't sit right with board member DuWayne Severson, who noted at a recent meeting that Jensen isn't elected, and what about taxpayers and employee groups who don't have the privilege?

Board member Kevin Murray agreed, saying that his 77-year-old mother, a lifelong Janesville resident, isn't allowed to speak up during meetings.

Murray suggested changing the policy so the board could ask questions of the student but not the other way around.

Severson notes that any student could take advantage of citizen-comment time at the regular board meetings.

Jensen points out that speakers are not allowed to quiz the board, so that's not the same as being able to engage in discussions.

Sodemann said he would assign the issue to a board committee. In the meantime, Jensen can continue asking questions. She sits near the front of the board room but not at the board table.

Jensen said students should have an advocate at the table, and she bristles ever so slightly at the suggestion that the policy be changed.

"I feel that the students have proven themselves to be able and involved enough to be an informed citizen and express their opinions effectively to the board," she said. "There's dozens of students who would make awesome candidates for student representative."

Last updated: 5:19 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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