by NATHANIEL NELSON
The Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board has called for a special election to be held on Tuesday, November 5, to fill the District Four vacancy left by former board member Jeanne Nelson. While candidate filings will take place between August 13 and August 27, board member Jim Schul, who was appointed by the School Board earlier this year to fill the place, is expected to run again to finish out the rest of Nelson’s term.
Nelson was initially elected to the board in 2012, running unopposed for the District Four seat. In 2016, Nelson ran against Karl Sonneman and won, cementing her spot at the table until January 2021. Sonneman won an at-largest position last November.
In a surprise announcement in March, Nelson resigned from the School Board less than two years from the end of her term, citing her husband’s declining health and ongoing board conflicts.
A little over a month later, Schul, who had run for an At-Large seat in 2018, was appointed to the WAPS Board, taking his seat before the recent budget-reduction decisions landed on the voting table. In the short time since taking his seat, Schul has shown himself as a staunch advocate for teachers and equitable education, even going so far as to motion for a counselor position to be added back into the budget –– the only change to the reduction recommendations implemented by the board.
“After we had made the key budget decisions, that was a tough decision. That next Monday, I was in school for hours,” Shul said. “When I have to make a difficult decision that affects teachers, I need to be available to teachers and hear their concerns about the future. Leaders need to be mindful and compassionate and hopeful, and I need to be present to demonstrate those three things.”
In 2018, Schul ran a platform heavily focused on the importance of teachers, which he says are the “greatest asset for the district.” As a professor of education at Winona State University himself, Schul has long advocated for the agency of teachers within the district to be improved and more power put into the hands of staff than administrators.
Schul explained that he will be running in this fall’s special election, hoping to serve out the rest of Nelson’s term. He explained that while he has only just begun his work on the board, he has several focal points to continue to push for over the next few months –– and possibly through 2020.
The first of these points is what he called “collective teacher efficacy,” which involves increasing the power of teachers in the district. He explained that he would like to see teachers have more of a say in the district, and for the district to move away from centralized unilateral decision-making. Part of that comes from being supportive of administrators who put teachers first, and the rest comes from talking directly with teachers themselves.
“I want to build a relationship of trust with the teachers so if they have a concern, they can come and talk to me about that without waiting for a public session,” Schul said.
He also said he would like to see a more equitable educational environment for students that are often seen as “problem areas,” including special education students, low-income students and students of color.
“Those students come from communities that aren’t always politically mobilized. We need to have a concerted effort to lift up those populations instead of treating them as problems,” Schul said. “It’s about the social and emotional needs of our students, which is a challenge across the United States, as well for our district.”
“That’s been my most rewarding component, building these relationships and helping make real progress at a time that I think is very critical for this district right now,” Schul added.
The recent district developments are of concern for him, Schul said. With a new superintendent on the way and superintendent Rich Dahman on his way out, he explained that making sure there is trust across the board and support for the district’s new leader are paramount for the growth of WAPS.
Despite having only just begun his interim term on the WAPS Board, Schul explained that the work on the board has been positive thus far. The candidates for superintendent show promise, he explained, and combined with a more community-focused approach from the board and district, WAPS is well on its way to improving its status both in the community and across the state.
“I’m pretty happy with how things have been going. I’ve been practicing practical pragmatism, and focusing on the sorest needs in our district. I’d like to continue to build relationships with teachers and district administrators,” Schul said. “We are much closer to becoming an exemplary district than some might think.”
Applications for District Four candidacy open up on August 13, leading to an election held later this year. It’s unclear if any past candidates for the position will be available to run, but there is a chance new faces will come out of the woodwork and vie for the spot. However, Schul explained that he is ready to continue his work on the board and stay visible in the hallways, the classroom, and the community.
“It is my intent to complete this term. I want to provide stability, help out the superintendent, and support the district,” Schul said. “If I’m making decisions that are distant and I’m distant from the stakeholders, then I’m not doing my job.”