School Board meetings are typically held at Bliss Educational Services Center. (Metro Wire photo)

Column | Why you should be paying attention to the spring school board election

By Dan Kontos

In December of last year, Patricia Baker accepted a gubernatorial appointment to fill a vacancy as a Portage County circuit court judge. In so doing, she was required to relinquish her school board seat with the Stevens Point Area Public School District.

Her vacancy on the Board was filled with the appointment of Robert Manzke, who will serve until the spring 2022 election. Did you know that? Were you paying attention? You should be.

Speaking of elections, did you know that there will be three seats coming up for election on the School Board in April? Do you know that this happens every year? Hey, are you paying attention?

Sure, sure, we all know that there is a school district, and if we have children in school, we are familiar with parts of it – namely the schools that our children go to. But there is more, oh so much more. The District is probably the largest unit of local government that you know the least about—and what a mistake that is.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. In April you walk into your local polling place (assuming you even bother to vote.) Perhaps you have a few names that you want to support for one office or another. You really don’t have the time to get ready, so we’ll just see what is there when we get there. You are surprised to see that the ballot asks you to vote for members of the school board.

It shouldn’t be a surprise. Every year, at least three of the nine seats are up for a new three-year term. Yes, every year; and every year you are surprised to see this same choice. Few, if any, names are familiar.

Practically no research (or should I say “homework”) has been done. The ballot says to choose no more than three candidates, and for 2021 six candidates are presented. You may even recognize one or two names, and you choose them—because it’s just what you do. Then you see that you can make three choices, so you just pick one more name. Ummm, this one sounds good. After all, you don’t want to waste a vote. There, I’m done with that.

Now move on, move on. What’s next? Ugh, now I have to pick a… a what? What’s a State Superintendent of Public Instruction?

So, am I close? If so, you’re not alone. Sadly, we give the School Board no more forethought than this in many cases. You may be the rare voter who is totally prepared when you step up and mark your ballot, but you’d be the exception. With this, our School Board is selected, and the governing body of a huge part of our community is forgotten about again until next year. So what? Things seem to work pretty well. Why should I care?

Let me tell you why. To start with, the enormity of the District is underestimated by most. Did you know the District encompasses more than 450 square miles? That’s more than half the entire size of Portage County’s 823 square miles and dwarfs the City of Stevens Point at 18.4 square miles.

Its latest budget is over $153 million, while the whole County weighs in at $114 million, and the City at about $25 million. Portage County employs about 600 people, while the District not only employs in the neighborhood of 1100 folks, it also has almost 7000 students to educate and care for. Don’t forget the dozens of buildings to maintain, a large fleet to operate, and other services too numerous to mention here. 

Big deal; maybe you don’t have kids and really don’t care. Make no mistake, the District is a form of government, with the power to tax and spend to meet their obligations. Check out your next tax bill. By any accounting, the District is not only large, its importance should not be understated.

School districts are responsible for preparing our children to succeed in life, and in so doing preparing the next generation of people who will comprise our communities.

They also impact our neighborhoods by attracting families and businesses to the area, providing resources to the community and private schools, and influencing our kids on where they want to live – or come back to after they complete their obligatory flight from home to see the world.

The District is run by an administrator, locally referred to as the Superintendent. Craig Gerlach serves in that position now. He is a champion of education, an expert in organizational management, and a genuinely good and honest man. I had the opportunity to get to know him, and am happy to have had the chance. Who do you think hired him? This goes for all of the professionals and caring teachers and staff that round out the District. While I have had my professional differences on some issues, I never questioned the motivation and priorities of anyone I knew at the District. We are fortunate to have them all.

So, who makes these decisions? Well, we are the ones who vote for the members of the School Board. If you can name two, I am impressed.

The impact of their decisions is huge, so we need the best possible people on the Board. Do some research and get to know these candidates before the next April election. We need to elect the very best candidates we can. After all, you probably won’t think about the District again until the next election.

The School Board is responsible for governance and oversight of this large organization, but if you tell me that you have watched just one meeting (which are all open to the public, live broadcast, and archived on their web site), again I would be impressed. The Board members bring with them a wealth of diverse skills, from expertise in finances, business, education, and the law to name a few.

My hat goes off to these dedicated citizens and their commitment to the goals of the District. At $134.26 a paycheck, the board members certainly don’t run for office to get rich. Hmmm, who can we not say that about?

So you see, the School District is the largest form of local government that goes unnoticed for the most part.  Floating like a tremendous preverbal iceberg, with most of its mass hidden from casual observation, and it’s up to us to choose its leaders. We ignore it at our own peril.

I hope to see you at the primary and spring elections. Until then, God bless.

Dan Kontos is a paid columnist for the Metro Wire. He chooses his own topics and his opinions do not necessarily represent the staff of the Metro Wire. He lives with his family in Whiting.