Board divided over filling vacant seat

ESCANABA – The Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate School District (DSISD) will decide who will fill a vacancy on the Escanaba School Board following a deadlock vote between two board candidates Monday night.

School board members met Monday night to interview four candidates for the remaining one-year term of former board member Nicole Dewar-Braun who resigned from her position last month.

The four candidates interviewed were Kathleen Jensen, Dean Peterson, Adam Lambert and Myra Croasdell.

Each candidate answered six questions pre-selected by the current board, along with some follow-up questions. The six board members then ranked each candidate for the position, resulting in a tie between Jensen and Peterson.

But when board members re-voted between the two candidates, the vote remained tied with Board President Cathy Wilson, Vice President Marilyn Noble, and Secretary Natalie Clouse in favor of Jensen’s appointment, while Board Treasurer Jed Gagnier and trustees Jim Hermans and Will Carne voted in favor of Peterson.

The board then proceeded to ask Jensen and Peterson two additional questions.

After another deadlock, where board members kept their votes the same, the board discussed each of the candidates, revoted, and faced yet another tie.

Since there was no clear consensus, the DSISD must make the final decision according to law, said Escanaba Superintendent Michele Lemire following the meeting; however, she noted this law is unclear as to whether the DSISD board or DSISD superintendent has the final say.

Lemire will contact the DSISD and Michigan Association of School Boards to ensure the vacancy gets filled by Jan. 30.

During discussion, Hermans said when going back 30 years on the board, he cannot recall board members being in such a predicament.

Noble, however, expressed her disappointment that the board did not make a clear choice.

“I think I’m a little disappointed in the board by not being able to make a decision tonight,” she said. “That just goes to show how important it is as a board that we really need to come together and make those decisions.”

But both Gagnier and Wilson agreed the tough decision reflected how good the candidates for the position were.

During their interviews both Jensen and Peterson highlighted their backgrounds and responded to several questions from the board.

Jensen, a retired school teacher, said she is active in the community and touted her background in education – holding a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and history, a minor in economics and political science, and a master’s degree in education. Though Escanaba was her hometown, she and her husband resided in Green Bay for 32 years, but moved back to Escanaba two years ago.

Jensen believes not having any long-standing friendships, business or school relationships gives her an advantage since she would be free to make objective decisions should she be appointed to the board.

When asked about the role of a school board member, Jensen said school boards exist primarily to look out for the well-being of children as well as the community since a community’s future is based on a highly educated population that can make good decisions.

“We also need to consider the community’s financial resources and how they can best be allocated,” she said. “We have to look out for the financial well-being of our populous – not to tax them into poverty – and we need to be careful that we spend the dollars that they give us to spend on their children wisely.”

Peterson, a retired pastor who has served on the school board in the past, said retirement gives a person a lot of liberty to decide what they want to do. He feels a board member’s key role is not to be the superintendent of the district themselves, but to provide support to the superintendent. The goal, he said, is not to run the school, but to be an understanding and aware board member to take action on the issues that come before them.

What he brings to the table are the relationships formed through his vocation, said Peterson, since he has been able to meet many parents, children, teachers, and school administrators over the years. These relationships would allow him to be open to a wide range of opinions and positions and look at the best strategy for the well-being of all of these groups, should he be appointed.

“I think one of the key decisions that any board makes is who they choose as the superintendent,” he said. “That person becomes the focal point, not only for staff, but also keeping the board aware of what kind of issues the school district will face.”

Peterson believes the greatest challenge the district faces is a change in how schools are financed.

“Mainly instead of going to the community for local millage elections, we’re dependent upon what representatives down in Lansing do with our education…” he said. “We roll the dice. We have no idea what they’re going to do downstate. Whatever they do, we have to compensate and adjust accordingly. On the one hand it might give us more security as far as finances, but I think secondly, it really diminishes the ability of the board to think too far ahead, because we have no control over those dollars that are going to come our way.”

Jensen echoed these financial concerns, noting three sources of funding – Title I, Title II, and 31a funding – that are strictly controlled.

“Each one of those things has really specific objectives that it goes to meet, and so, in terms of your total budget, what’s left to deal with changing educational responsibilities and objectives is really limited,” she said.

Jensen also commented that the district will face additional expenses to prepare for Common Core Standards.

Both Jensen and Peterson said they see the vacancy as an opportunity to determine if the school board is a good fit for them and that giving it a solid year of service would decide whether they would run for an extra term in the future.

The next scheduled board meeting of the Escanaba School Board is Monday, Jan. 20 at 6 p.m. at the Escanaba Upper Elementary Courtyard Room.