Jeff Presley Runs For School Board
Left, County Board Supervisor Jeff Presley at the Isaak Walton League Jamboree in early February. (City-Times photo)
Jeff Presley, 45, currently serves as a County Board Supervisor and sits on the Parks Commission and Sentry Credit Union Board of Directors. He served on term on the school board previously and graduated from Illinois State. Presley has lived in Stevens Point for nine years.
Questions by Brandi Makuski
BM: Why are you running for school board?
JP: “At the end of the day I think it’s important that the board consists of members who are willing to put forth an effort to move the Stevens Point School District forward, and that takes a special person. And as far as that, I think I have those qualifications to meet those challenges.”
BM: Are we not moving forward now?
JP: “I would say we are moving forward, but the thing is, yes, the district is moving forward, but is the board moving forward? I think the district is moving forward, but I don’t know what the deal is with the board.”
BM: Do you feel the board is stagnate, or focusing on the wrong things, or what?
JP: “I think they’re focused on the wrong things. It would be interesting to see how many hours have been wasted on a two dollar cup of tea. I mean, honestly, I would like to see how many hours of the board’s time has been wasted in discussing the superintendent’s expenses. Because here’s the thing; they only meet once a month. So if you only meet once a month and 30 or 40 percent of your time is spent talking about that, how are you doing the business of the board? How is that doing the business of taking care of our children? We’re talking about a two dollar cup of tea!”
BM: The board has spent a lot of time talking about various areas of the (employee) handbook regarding board communication, board behavior, and the behavior of residents who attend the meetings. Is that also a waste of time, or is that appropriate?
JP: “I think that topic has become necessary because of the distractions the board as a whole has faced. There’s a good analogy with this, with the state supreme court, and they have their own rules to self- regulate. I find it quite interesting that number one, as a board they have to go to setting a policy because they felt they’ve gotten so far out of the norm, and secondly, what’s wrong with the policy sitting there saying, here’s your duties, here’s your responsibilities, here’s how far you can go as a board member. Because one of the challenges new board members face is they don’t really know what the boundaries are. Some come in with the notion that, ‘my boundaries are whatever my constituents think they are, and if they don’t like it, don’t vote for me’. That’s the attitude that’s been consistent with some members of this board. Whereas some board members realize they’re a group of nine and we govern only as nine, and only when we are together as nine can we make those decisions. So where’s the happy medium between the two extremes? And that’s why- and I’m kind of reading between the lines- this whole issue of talking about board policy has come up. In all honesty we should be talking about children and policies to move our district forward, and in reality, the board can’t get to that point because now we have to worry about regulating ourselves.”
BM: You bring up an interesting point about the board having other things to deal with; are there an specific areas you would want to address?
JP: “I would say with the most recent superintendent, we have really done a lot of good things in this district. One of those things that is interesting they brought up at the last board meeting, and it’s something I talked about when I was on the board previously is this technology element, and building relationships within our district with other entities such as UWSP and Mid-State. We’ve got the 1-on-1 Initiative with the grant from the Sentry Foundation, and with that we would distract this influx of capitol and hardware, but at the upper end of our grades. What about 6, 7, 8, 9 or even 5 grades? We need to focus on the bottom (lower grades). That was one of my concerns, and now we’re starting to address the needs of those lower grades. Unfortunately with technology, as soon as you buy that iPad, it’s out of date in six months. So if you’re not constantly looking at those elements when you’re putting together you’re program, you’re missing two years of funding for those lower grades and you’re stuck again. That’s one thing I’d like to see again, having a strong relationship with those (educational) entities. It’s got to be more than just setting a bunch of computers in a room and say, ‘here, go use this’, it’s got to the integrated with even stronger relationships with UWSP and Mid-State. There’s only a finite pool of dollars. And I have to give kudos to Dr. Weninger who has really built a strong relationship with Mid-State and UWSP, now let’s take it to the next level and build even bigger programs together.”
BM: How would that kind of technology benefit say, a sixth grader?
JP: ” Well, case in point I have a 19 month- old child. She has an iPad. She’s more proficient at that iPad than I am. I mean, she can whip through those screens alot faster than me. Getting that technology into the hands of kids, just having that technology there is important. We need to make sure every one of those children have the opportunity have that technology. How many 19 month- olds have access to that kind of technology? There’s some that do, but there’s a lot that don’t. It’s more readily available, but we want to make sure each one has access to it. If you think about foreign language, kids at younger ages learn at a lot faster rate- faster than kids in high school. Wouldn’t it be great if a third- grader knew how to do an Excel spreadsheet? They’d be better than me, they’d catch on faster than you or I. We have a tremendous opportunity here.”
BM: But if we stay with the single vendor plan, and we have to spend that $400k to switch over (to Infinite Campus), will we still have money to implement a program that brings that widespread technology?
JP: “Where would the money come from? Well, that’s where those partnerships would come in. Partnerships within the community- the fact that Sentry Foundation is willing to put in 4 point some odd million that the district would otherwise have had to spend on technology, first of all. Secondly, if you think about it, the other advantage of working with Mid-State and UWSP, they have their own dollars too. They have the authority to tax just like the school district down. Imagine if Mid-State had one dollar to contribute, UWSP had one dollar and the school district had one dollar. Instead of just one dollar from the district, now I have three dollars, that’s kind of the concept. We can talk to our partners to find out how we can help each other. We don’t just want to have our heads above water as far as technology goes, we want to be actually swimming.”
BM: What is it about school funding you would change?
JP: “Well as an individual I wouldn’t have the ability to do that. That’s really up to our representatives. That’s been an issue they have not addressed, or been willing to address, for years because it’s a hot potato. They don’t want to be brave about making some realistic changes that allow districts to quit talking about money.”
BM: What would be one of those brave changes you would like to see? I mean, we’re looking at $13k per pupil expenditure in this district and our test scores barely beat Rhinelander’s. So if elected, what might you want to see changed about local funding?
JP: “Well, the board has the ability to see the (tax) rate, but at the end of the day we can’t set the reimbursement from the state. When I was on the board prior, we had to make some significant cuts to balance our budget- over $7 million in cuts. That was difficult in itself, and I don’t want to go through it again. We had to cut programs that, in all honesty, affected by own child. That was tough and I don’t want to go back to those years of essentially diminish our programs just to make sure we had our balanced budget. You have to be pretty frugal with your dollars to make sure you have all the programs. But as a board we have three essential functions: we hire the superintendent, we set policy and create a budget. So, as a board member I would question the programs we have to see what’s mandated and what’s not. Do an inventory of our programs, and I think they’re starting to do that now. Some people say we should just stick with the basics, teaching reading, arithmetic, science. But we have to teach to a diverse body of students, with programs that will enrich them and keep them relevant to the times we’re in, to technology and the world around them. But it’s important we’re sure we can afford those programs. As a board member, it’s your responsibility to question, always question. But when the questioning is done, make a decision and move on. And that’s a program with this board; they don’t question up front, they have buyer’s remorse, and then they question. It’s like they’re doing it backwards.”
BM: So right now, what hasn’t been questioned up front before it was voted on?
JP: (laughing) “Well, talk to me about the Life Skills Center. Let’s talk about it. I’m just shocked at how our current board responds to some of these things. They only have one employee- one- that responds to them directly. And they can’t even get- look, if you have questions about the Life Skills Center, they should have asked them seven months ago.”
BM: Were you at those board meetings when the LSC first came up over the summer?
JP: “No, I don’t think so.”
BM: That’s an interesting point- how many questions were raised when this topic first came up? But in retrospect, with all these questions coming up now, you have to wonder if any were asked initially.
JP: “But they had an official vote at the school board meeting. And that’s one of the things I would bring to the board; it’s not the only board I’ve been on. I’ve been on the county board, I sit on the board for Sentry Credit Union, for my association, I’ve got plenty of experience seeing what’s good for a board and bad for a board. The buyer’s remorse isn’t good for a board because you’ve already made the decision. You waste time, resources and dollars in making decisions that way. I don’t know where the dysfunction is as to why those things weren’t questioned by the various committees. And you’ve seen that before at city or county meetings- things get worked out at various committee meetings and sometimes when it comes to the board or the city council, it gets kicked back to that committee to be reworked.”
BM: This very project was kicked back by the city council because of incomplete information that one would think should have been dealt with on the school board level.
JP: “Yes, I would agree with that. But I’m just reading between the lines, I’m not at those meetings when they discussed this. This very thing about the Life Skills Center is, why were we paying rent across the street? Why weren’t we looking at our own facility, and I’m glad to see we’re finally moving forward with this project. Because this is being reimbursed by Medicaid money, which I’m assuming has been earmarked, so there’s only certain things you can spend that money on. I think it’s a great project, but as far as the planning goes…I can see both sides. It’s hard to retrofit a structure like our school and add something on to it. There’s all kinds of structural issues. I’m good with the idea of keeping the program separate from the rest of the school. It’s probably going to be cheaper building that facility as it’s own separate entity. Question is, placement- wise, there are issues of the parking lot, getting to and from. But then you had those issues before so nothing has changed. It’s a funny argument as far as I’m concerned. Take a look at the design of the parking lot, make a green space and make a safe walking path. Offer suggestions to the administration, but at the end of the day they need to make a plan. They’re the experts. But to say we’re going to stop the project, that’s crazy. It seems like the board is being reactive instead of proactive.”
BM: With reference to the school board, how important is transparency?
JP: “Oh, it’s huge. Huge. Because here’s the thing that’s unique to this current board; you have individuals on the board that have conflicts of interest. So, it’s not just a regular board, there are special circumstances within the board where conflicts arise, and the public should know. You always do your business above par and then some. Case in point, recording closed sessions. I find it ironic that those individuals that have those conflicts didn’t want any part of those closed sessions being recorded. That’s one thing I’ve always been very, very weary of: when I make a decision I ask myself, ‘is this in the best interest of the children of the district, or of a particular interest or individual?’ At the end of the day I need to sleep with myself and the decision I make.”
BM: Right now, would you say the board is transparent?
JP: “No. In some ways, no. You know, as far as how they conduct business, I would say yes they are transparent now that they’ve decided they’re at least going to record closed- sessions. But as far as perception, the perception isn’t there. It’s all about perception. I think the public thinks there’s a lot of dealings are not within the public’s eye.”
BM: How much public input is appropriate at school board meetings? The superintendent really took a verbal beating at a few recent meetings, so how vital is that input and where is the line drawn?
JP: “Input should always be welcome; it’s a public meeting. You can’t close the door. There should be some decorum that’s followed, we follow Robert’s Rules (of Order), but it’s up to the board president to allow public comment and set the agenda. I would say it sets the tone for how someone should treat the board, treat each other. There has to be some type of professionalism, but at the end of the day, it’s free speech. They can say whatever they want. But I think you have to use a little common sense when you’re allowing that type of thing, that it’s never a threatening environment we tolerate. But the board president controls the speaker, not the board. Even at the worst of times, I can think of my past time of the school board, we didn’t have those issues. Now we do. Why? Have the issues really changed? No. What has caused it to rise to a different level- I think we need to take a step back and look at that.”
BM: How important is it for the discussion of possible charter school implementation in this district?
JP: “We already have charter schools.”
BM: Ok, Jeff, explain to me how we have charter schools? We have charter programs, not charter schools.
JP: “What about Roosevelt IDEA?”
BM: Jeff, that’s a charter program. It doesn’t make Roosevelt a charter school.
JP: “Well, and that’s the thing. There are different degrees of charter schools. The method behind the madness, before the whole concept of charter schools came about, there were dollars attached to those programs. It was an alternative funding program that they went after, because we had two other schools that were charter that kind of faded away because from a funding standpoint, we got some funding, then made the decision to stop doing to charter thing. Because a true charter school is a separate entity in your district. They operate independent, literally, of the district. They have their own standards, curriculum, everything. I guess it would depend on what the charter school was for. What have we not done would be my question. So for a charter school- it would be technology. Have our own little MIT. In all honesty, it’s pure math, pure science. There are kids who totally excel in that. It may be something as a district might be a viable solution. But there are fixed costs to it, and also costs indirectly like transportation. The truest sense of a charter school is kids have to apply to live in. We have a very large district, 400 square miles. From a logistical standpoint, if you’ve got a kid from the other side of the district, you have to think about how you’re going to transport that student to the charter school, maybe Jackson (Elementary). We’ve watered down what a charter school is I think.”