By Rosemary K. Otzman
It took about 40 minutes on Monday, Jan. 14, for the Van Buren Public Schools Board of Education to elect its officers for the year.
After two votes and lots of speeches, Brent Mikulski got the required 4 votes to be elected president. Former president Martha Toth received 3 votes.
Voting for Mikulski were Scott Russell, Kelly Owen, Sherry Frazier, and Mikulski. Voting for Toth were Kevin English, Kathy Kovach, and Toth.
Russell nominated Mikulski and Toth nominated herself and asked for the two candidates to be able to make statements.
Mikulski said he didn’t want to make this a “him vs. her situation” but he thinks the board needs a president that supports the staff and superintendent and in the past couple of years it hasn’t done so.
He said School Supt. Van Tassell has done a tremendous job of forming a team around himself. He said the board cannot continue to accept the status quo and needs to continue those changes being made. He said the president needs to unify the board.
He said they need to shift the focus from the board to what’s happening in the district and work on sharing the wonderful things that are going on in the classrooms.
Mikulski said they have to stop having to explain the actions at the board table.
Toth spelled out her 35 years of background in education and said the board members need discourse and don’t have to agree on every action they take.
She said providing quality education for the students is her top goal, followed by being a good steward and being helpful to the staff.
Toth has been board president since January 2011, after former president David Peer lost his re-election bid.
Supt. Van Tassel said it has been proposed to have paper ballots for voting for the officers, but Trustee Russell noted the board has never voted by paper ballots and the Open Meetings Act doesn’t support that.
Van Tassel said he would read the votes and who cast each vote for the public record.
“That doesn’t put pressure on the last person to vote,” Toth explained.
But, when the first ballot was cast, Van Tassel found only six ballots of the seven board members who should be voting. Frazier decided to abstain and the vote turned out a 3-3 tie.
Russell told Frasier she has an obligation to vote.
Van Tassel said he had no power to make her vote.
Russell said if the board is unable to come to a majority decision it should go into recess and have the board attorney review the situation within 36 hours. No board business could be taken until this is straightened out.
Frasier then gave a lengthy explanation of her unwillingness to vote, stating they had one candidate with a lot of experience who has done a great job and another individual who has been on the board for just one year, but has good qualities.
“I didn’t want to come. I shouldn’t have come,” Frasier said concerning attendance at that night’s meeting. “I felt the angst we had before … It’s not good. It’s not good. It’s not healthy… that’s why I chose to abstain… We’re at a difficult point in our board juncture and we need to feel a part of the process…”
English said the board has an obligation to their 5,000 students and the community and it has the responsibility to elect a leader and the obligation to elect a leader who knows education.
He said they shouldn’t put ambition over the best interests of the students, warning the school board’s job isn’t going to get any easier with all the things going on at the state level.
“We must take this responsibility very seriously,” English concluded.
Russell pointed out Van Tassel is the most talented and the leader in the field of education and the school board’s job is to provide policy, discipline, and, “Our responsibility as a board is quite limited.”
He said the board’s responsibility is for public relations whether they like it or not and they should remain professional in their conduct to serve the district well and should conduct themselves in a civil manner.
Russell said the board president is the public face of the board, manages the meetings, and should reach out to all board members to make them feel included.
“I applaud the leadership over the last few years,” Russell said, adding there have been employee concessions, closing of two school sites, building a beautiful new $79 million high school, and appointing a new superintendent. He praised Toth for her efforts.
“But, we’re at a crossroads now,” Russell said. “We are, as a board, where we can implement real change.”
The second ballot brought Frasier’s vote for Mikulski that gave him the 4-3 tally he needed for election.
Toth then was elected vice president, English secretary, and Frasier treasurer – all by unanimous votes.
The board also approved regular meetings for the year at 7 p.m. on the second and fourth Mondays of the month and worth-study meetings at 7 p.m. on the third Mondays of the month.
Deposits were approved for PNC Bank and investments authorized.
By Rosemary K. Otzman