Tuesday, January 15, 2008

And . . . They're Off!

Last night, Monday January 14th, was the organizational meeting of the Swanton School Board. Mona Dyke and I, the two "newbies" were a little nervous, as we saw the gallery filling up with people. We were duly sworn in by treasurer, Cheryl Swisher, and away we went!

First item of business was to elect a board president. I spoke first - I mentioned that all 3 gentlemen on the board had about the same level of experience, which was far more than either Mona or myself, so I had gone back and looked over the vote numbers from their respective elections. Jeff Michael had received over 1600 votes ((1623, to be exact); Mike Wiederman had received 1488, and Dennis Heban had received 1369. Therefore, I nominated Jeff Michael as board president.

As I was speaking, Mr. Wiederman was nodding, as though in agreement. However, when I was finished speaking, he then said, "I have been asked to nominate Dennis Heban for board president.", which was an odd way to put it . . .

Superintendent Neil Weber suggested a "secret ballot" as opposed to an oral vote, so we each wrote our vote on a little piece of paper and Cheryl then declared Dennis Heban the "winner"with 3 votes to Jeff Michael's 2 votes.

At the break between the organizational meeting and the regular meeting, Wiederman went to Michael and said he hoped Jeff wouldn't take it personally, but that he (Wiederman) and Heban had talked about it ahead of time, and they "had a strategic plan" that involved Heban being board president now, and Michael being board president the following year when "they would really need (him) to help get the levy passed".


I do not know either Mr. Heban or Mr. Michael well enough to offer an opinion as to which of the two men would make the best board president this year. That said, I am uncomfortable with any "behind the scenes" machinations taking place outside of the open meeting forum that determine the outcome beforehand. It is exactly that kind of thing that angers people, and from my experience, angry people vote "no" on levies.

I hope this board, made up of fairly new people (no one with more than 3 years board experience) will be able to re-gain the public trust. I sincerely hope that the president election behind-the-scenes process was an isolated incident, never to be repeated.

Beyond that, I think it was a productive meeting. The Park and Recreation Board has decided to pursue becoming a park district which will add around $60,000 to the school district coffers annually. THAT is a good thing.

A new contract for treasurer, Cheryl Swisher, was negotiated and agreed upon. This poor woman had been trying to get a new contract since last October, and her existing contract expired at the end of December 2007. I am thankful we were able to hammer out an agreement that was fair to both sides of the table.

In addition, the Board has agreed to digitally record their meetings for podcasting online; public presentations and reports by the principals are to be placed at the beginning of the agenda from now on, so we don't hold those poor people hostage until the end of a meeting. We also decided to do a board newsletter to our residents, to keep folks informed on what their school board is doing. Neil Weber will put something together as a suggested format, and I will work with Mona to get mailing cost options available for this purpose. Although our bulk mailing rate is around $0.17 per piece, we think we can get the job done much cheaper by using the Key Shoppers' News instead. These items will be brought to our next board meeting.

We also changed the meeting dates from the third Monday of each month to the third Tuesday instead. Looking at the school calendar of 2007-'08, and also the 2006-'07 showed that there are many third Tuesdays where no other school function is scheduled. All third Mondays had other functions scheduled, and some third Tuesdays also have other things as well. It was decided that, if the third Tuesday scenario ends up not working so well, we will make a change at that time.

Speaking of meeting changes, the board also decided that contract issues needed to have their own separate meeting on a date separate from the regular scheduled meeting so that board members could avoid what has been done in the past; namely, waiting until the end of a regular meeting and then going into executive session to hash out contracts. The former system always resulted in very late nights for board members, and tired people are not able to think as clearly and do the best job. By holding a special meeting for contract issues, the board will be fresh and a lengthy meeting will still allow everyone to be home at a decent time of night.

So! All in all, I think things went rather well for our first meeting of the year. Our school board has a great opportunity to lift our district to higher levels than in the past, providing we don't allow former bad habits to sabotage our efforts.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Seminar Report

This past weekend, new Board member Mona Dyke and I drove down to Findlay to attend a seminar for new school board members, put on by the Ohio School Board Association (OSBA). It was a 2-day affair, and I was only able to attend the Saturday sessions, while Mona went both days.

From 9 a.m. until 3:45 p.m., we sat in a small room with 90+ other new school board members and learned some basic information about the position to which we were all recently elected.

On the ride home, Mona and I talked about our opinion of the whole affair. We were pretty much agreed that there wasn't much detail given - although some of the questions from the floor provided some interesting tidbits.

Especially in the financial area, we were disappointed. Our "facilitator" for that portion of the day was a lobbyist for the OSBA, who was entertaining but gave too broad an overview of how state legislative decisions have already affected school funding. We would have benefited from some hard facts here, but he spoke as though all of use were intimately aware of the facts already. He did emphasize the importance of knowing and contacting state representatives and senators who have a personal hand in legislative issues, to give them our opinions and desires with regard to school funding options. At one point, he introduced state representative Cliff Hite to us, who encouraged us to contact him with school funding concerns at any time.

The Sunday session was to include information on the Sunshine Law and other legal issues. I haven't had a chance to ask Mona about any of it yet, but I hope she gleaned more information than we got on Saturday.

Tonight - January 14th - will be the school board's organizational meeting, beginning at 6:30 p.m. I am hoping that the other board members will consider changing our meeting dates to Tuesdays, as I have discovered far fewer conflicts on those nights (according to the school calendar for the past two years).

In addition, I plan to ask about recording the meetings themselves, and then podcasting them so that our district residents may have access at any time. One thing mentioned at the Saturday seminar was the importance of communication with residents - newsletters, weekly or monthly articles in local papers, etc. were some of the ways suggested to keep residents informed. We have a district website now, and many of our manuals and the five-year budget forecast is already online. I think podcasting the actual meetings and maybe creating a newsletter would go a long way to keep folks apprised of what is happening at the board level.

We'll see what happens!