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Public office comes with a learning curve for new board members

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John Schmisek, a former Grand Forks School Board member, said it took him anywhere from six months to a year before he became comfortable on the board.

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Schmisek, a current member of the Grand Forks County Commission who has held positions on multiple boards, said the worst thing a new member can do is assume they know everything about anything. Even if a member has experience in, say, city government, it doesn’t mean that translates to the way the School Board works, he said.

“It just takes you that long to go through the cycle and understand the whole scope of the operation,” he said.

With the possibility of a nearly new Grand Forks School Board taking over in June, several former board members said newcomers need time to acclimate and had some advice, too.

Arguably the hottest race this election, 14 new candidates are running for seven open seats to be determined this Tuesday.

The recent Grand Forks teachers’ union endorsement of only three of seven incumbents — Tim Lamb, who is running for a two-year term, and Matt Spivey and Cynthia Shabb, who are running for four-year terms — could also increase the likelihood of a mostly new board.

The union also endorsed new candidates Ben Hoffman, Eric Burin, Joshua Brown and Meggen Sande, according to its website.

Advice

Former board members and other elected officials say new members must have initiative. Some referred to a phrase made famous by former President Ronald Reagan: Trust but verify.

Bruce Kopp, vice president at Ideal Aerosmith, suggested those elected should scrutinize information and be unafraid in their questioning. One of the biggest priorities for new members is to prepare for each meeting and study the information, he said. 

“I don’t know that you can overdo it,” said Kopp, who served on the board in the late 1990s. “The impact of the school system on taxpayers and the community is not one to be taken lightly.”

New members should keep the lines of communication open and also respect different opinions, former members said.

After he was elected to the Grand Forks City Council in 2000, current President Hal Gershman said he felt “very intimidated,” but that didn’t stop him from asking a lot of questions. It’s important to listen to other perspectives, even if you vehemently disagree, he said.

He described a collegiality among council members now that he feels is vital for any board to function. Reaching this point took several years of hard work, however. When he was elected, the board was pretty much “dysfunctional,” he said. The city was moving from 14 members to seven, meeting information was in disarray and some of those elected didn’t take it very seriously, he said.

But today, members can get into some very serious disagreements, but it’s never personal and that’s very important, he said.

“At the end of the meeting, we laugh, we shake hands, we say goodnight,” he said.  

Finding balance

The school board’s longtime critic, former member C.T. Marhula, had some pointers for newcomers, too.

Several of his editorials in the Herald have questioned School Board decisions, particularly about the budget. He suggested new members look at the big picture, review the last two audits and annual reports, and simplify financial problems as much as possible, he said.

“Financing is not as complicated as some would have you believe,” he said.

Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown said it can take six months or more before board members’ egos balance out and recognize where they stand. It also takes time for them to understand what their responsibilities are, he said. But the ones he’s seen running now appear dedicated to serve, especially for what can be a tough job, he said.

“It is thankless and time-consuming, but it’s terrifically rewarding, too,” he said.

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Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 
(701) 787-6736
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