Contrasts clear in school board raceChallengers say board is rubber stamp; incumbents deny charges.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
The challengers, Ed Potzler and Craig Guymon, want a more independent-minded school board, one that will not “rubber stamp” recommendations from Superintendent Joe Graves.
The incumbents, Neil Putnam and Theresa Kriese, think the school district is doing well and should stay the course.
That’s the choice facing Mitchell School District voters in Tuesday’s four-way race for two school board seats. The top two vote-getters will win.
Following are summaries of recent Daily Republic interviews with the candidates.
Putnam, 46, who is seeking his fifth three-year term on the board, says he brings experienced leadership, a passion for public service and an appreciation for education to the board.
“I’ve always had the belief that education is the foundation for our society’s economic survival, but the longer I’m involved in education, the more that belief is reinforced,” he said.
He offers no apologies for Mitchell’s new school buildings, which he finds some of the city’s strongest selling points for families considering a move to the city.
“One thing I try to do as a member of the board and my leadership positions outside the board is to be an ambassador and advocate for our kids and the school district. It’s easy to brag about how well our kids do. Our test scores typically exceed state averages and our state averages typically exceed national averages.”
If he’s re-elected, Putnam said his focus will “continue to be on student achievement and what’s best for our kids and that we’re investing our precious resources where we can best accomplish those goals.”
Putnam, who works as a planner for the city of Mitchell, attended Northern State University where he had dual majors in political science and sociology and a minor in history.
He serves on the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee as well as the Mitchell Advisory Council for People with Disabilities. He is the president of the South Dakota Planners Association and is a past president of Associated School Boards of South Dakota.
“I like to get involved,” he said.
Putnam believes the school board has received undeserved criticism for being a group that rubber stamps the recommendations of Superintendent Joe Graves.
The board regularly reviews school policies and works to represent the concerns of constituents, he said. Items brought before the board are at the board’s directive.
He also believes the board has used the district’s $700,000 opt-out responsibly. An “opt-out” is an action taken by a governing body to collect more taxes annually than stateimposed limits on tax increases would otherwise allow. Mitchell’s opt-out was approved years ago by voters.
“We’ve tried the best we could. We pledged that we would use the opt-out money only when necessary, and for three years in a row we used no opt-out funds.”
Why use the funds at all?
“Property taxes are only collected twice a year,” he said, and reserves are required for steady cash flow and also to take care of any contingencies that may arise.
“It pays to be conservative,” he added, which means that occasionally some opt-out money must be used.
He said the board is trying harder, during regular meetings, to recognize the accomplishments of teachers and students.
Recognition events are largely ceremonial in nature, but he agrees they also give the board insight into what’s going on in the classroom and put a face to projects, helping the board make wiser decisions come budget time.
Regardless of how people feel about HB1234 — which provides money to reward top teachers and extra pay to attract teachers in shortage areas like math and science — and a measure that would provide an extra sales tax penny for education and Medicaid, Putnam said, the bills have been important because they’ve elevated to public discourse the crucial issue of education funding in South Dakota.
Kriese, 49, vice president for business and institutional advancement at Dakota Wesleyan University, is seeking her second three-year term on the board.
Prior to joining DWU, Kriese worked as the chief financial officer at Mitchell Technical Institute for 15 years. Kriese earned a bachelor of science degree at Northern State University and an MBA from the University of Sioux Falls.
“One of the things I’d like to emphasize is that I’m not running on a single issue,” she said. “I’m running on the fact that I believe that the education of our youth is very important, and I’d like to be a part of what it takes to provide a good quality education for our students.”
In her first run for the office, Kriese worried about the transitory nature of stimulus funding. That money is now gone, she said, and school leaders must get creative.
“I don’t know that there was ever a time, or ever will be a time, when public education isn’t tight for money,” said Kriese, but she believes the Mitchell district has positioned itself well.
“We’ve recognized the fact that we don’t have unlimited resources. We’re running lean, but we’re still producing a great product. We’re still getting students out with great success,” she said.
Kriese believes money provided by the Legislature this year in a bill to boost some teachers’ pay should remain in local control, because local school districts have the clearest picture on who should be rewarded.
“But what happens between now and when the program is implemented in 2014 remains to be seen,” she said.
An additional penny in state sales tax, if approved by voters in November, could provide some funding relief for schools by offering opportunities for curriculum expansion and better teacher pay, Kriese said. The money would be earmarked by the state for education and Medicaid, with half of the revenue for each.
There’s no perfect merit pay system, she said, responding to candidate Ed Potzler’s position that such pay systems can be demoralizing. A system in which everyone is paid the same can also have a demoralizing effect, Kriese said.
“A merit pay system does not mean that somebody gets everything and somebody else gets nothing. It’s just a system that allows you to reward somebody with something additional.”
That the Mitchell board is considered by some a “rubber stamp” operation is inaccurate, Kriese said.
Superintendent Graves is not above questioning, according to Kriese, but it is the board who gives him direction, not vice versa.
“He’s done what we as a board have told him we want to accomplish as a school district.”
The board’s acquiescence with Graves’ recommendations only means “that he knows the guidelines and he’s following them,” she said.
Ed Potzler, 63, a former Illinois software engineer who decided to retire in Mitchell, said he’s running to give the public a choice, and because he has the time and education to dedicate to the job.
“My father always told me don’t criticize someone unless you’re willing to do the job yourself,” he said.
A National Honor Society member in high school, Potzler has no college degree, but he has a diverse background. He has been a master machinist, certified welder, paramedic and software development engineer and team leader. His resume cites a patent for word processing and microfiche software. He is also the president of the Davison Shooting Club. His wife Valerie works as Certified Nursing Assistant at Rosewood Court Living Center.
Potzler said his goals are to bring accountability to the superintendent’s position; to evaluate technology classroom practices; to make the school board accountable to taxpayers by removing the $700,000 opt-out; and to make Mitchell students more globally employable.
He believes the school district needs to do a better job preparing students for jobs in the global marketplace.
“The children we’re raising today are the future of the United States, and I don’t think we’re taking that seriously enough.”
“I don’t like the voting record of this board,” said Potzler, who described the school panel as “reactive” in that he believes it largely responds to direction from school Superintendent Joe Graves rather than being “proactive” and setting its own agenda.
“I have nothing against the current board members,” said Potzler, but he believes the board should question the feasibility of some issues that are presented by Graves and ask for more alternatives.
He also thinks the district needs to tighten its financial ship.
“I didn’t like the cavalier answer I received in the past when I asked about the district’s opt-out. I asked why we need an opt-out when have reserves of $7 million.”
Potzler believes district reserves are sufficient to cover expenses and contingencies.
“The assumption is being made that opt-out money is better off in the school district’s pocket rather than in the pockets of the district’s taxpayers,” he said.
“Dr. Graves gets upset when I call the district’s reserves a ‘slush fund,’ but money that’s put aside with no specific purpose in mind is exactly that — a slush fund.”
Potzler said as a board member he would like to meet with parents and find out what they really want, and take a closer look at whether $900,000 spent on sports and extracurricular activities annually is adequately preparing students for life after school.
Potzler said he has asked parents what they expect of their children, and some don’t expect much.
“Some parents seem more concerned that their children have a safe and secure place to go for eight to 10 hours rather than developing the tools they need to compete in the world —and I find that concerning.”
It also concerns Potzler that kids, despite required courses in financial literacy, have little understanding of the ramifications of debt. He and his wife have taught classes for their church on budgeting and money management.
“Some of these kids will be graduating (college) with $180,000 to $200,000 in debt. That means some will be paying $10,000 a year in payments, and they can’t even make a decision if that debt is worthwhile. It scares me and it makes me wonder if kids understand what debt is.”
Craig Guymon’s agenda as a candidate for the Mitchell Board of Education is straightforward and basic, he said.
“Anyone who wants to vote for Guymon is voting to fire Graves.”
It’s a message Guymon has hammered since his first run for the board in 2004.
“The problem in our school district isn’t in the classroom with the teachers,” Guymon said. “The problem is with the administration.”
Getting help to accomplish his “fire Graves” agenda could be a problem, however, since Guymon has regularly criticized the board for taking the superintendent’s recommendations.
His most recent appraisal: “All five of them need to be turned out on grass like calves.”
Guymon, 53, is a third-generation Mitchell resident who is the owner of The Guymon Agency, a Mitchell-based independent insurance agency. He and wife Ronette have two children. He holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of South Dakota, and he has 17 years’ enlisted and commissioned service with the South Dakota Army National Guard. He has not previously held public office
The board, he believes, is led too easily.
“They do not know that it’s their job to set the policies and pull the reins back on that superintendent. They’re just bowing to his wishes,” Guymon said. “Anything he tells them — ‘Yep, we’ll do it.’ It’s their job to set the policies and it’s their job to pull in the reins.”
In general mailings to Mitchell residents and in pages-long rants on his “Book of Guymon” website, Guymon catalogs personal complaints against Graves going back nearly a decade.
“If you want to put it in a nutshell, the biggest problem facing the district is dealing with honesty, integrity, with honor and character. It’s about having all the options evaluated — not just what the little clique in power wants to do.
“It used to be ‘What do the people want?’ now it’s about ‘What do I want?’ and that’s the problem not only in Mitchell, but throughout the whole country. People have forgotten how to be honest.”
Guymon has consistently claimed the district’s $700,000 opt-out, which became law in July 2002, was sold under false pretenses by Graves and the school board at that time.
“They said it had a time period limitation and they lied. The opt-out had no end date. It’s in the minutes. I tried to get a petition together to recall it, but I couldn’t get it.”
Guymon also believes the district should have considered cheaper options before building a new stadium at Joe Quintal Field.
“They could have gotten a good fix for a half-million dollars cash; instead, they’ve got $3 million debt on it. They never went and got one bid to refurbish that thing.”
During the May 15 candidate forum, Guymon said the money spent on the stadium could have been used for a down payment on a new high school.
Guymon has also criticized Graves, who is a deacon in the Catholic Church, complaining that much of the administration he hires is Catholic. Guymon also notes that of the four school board members, only Putnam is not Catholic.
Guymon, a Lutheran, insists he has no problem with the Catholic religion, especially since he was married in a Catholic church and his oldest son attended the former Holy Family Catholic school.
So why is Catholicism in the district’s board and administration a problem for Guymon?
“Because you get this little clique from one part of the town and you only get a voter turnout of 13 percent. With 8 or 9 percent of the voter turnout coming from one church, you get the values of that church, the values of that group and everything else dictating what’s going on in a public school system being funded with public dollars,” he said.