Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The door revolves at Blaine School Board

Trustees new and old share kids as core committment


By TERRY SMITH
Express Staff Writer

Paul Bates and Alexandra Sundali shared a committee table for a public forum on the upcoming election back in May. The forum was sponsored by the Idaho Mountain Express. Photo by David N. Seelig

School trustee-elect Paul Bates said "they can double my salary next year and I'll still be making the same money."

Two times zero still equals zero, after all. That's how much school board members are paid for their service to the public.

There are some perks: travel to state and national meetings, an occasional free dinner at a school board meeting and a free Blaine County School District activity card.

But trustees don't do it for the money. So why are they willing to spend 20-40 hours a month studying, sitting in long meetings, making difficult decisions for the school district and exposing themselves to public criticism?

"We don't get anything like city councils. We don't get health insurance, we get nothing," said Board Chairwoman Alexandra Sundali. "We do it because we have a big commitment to the kids. I really think public service is something everyone should be involved in sometime in life."

Sundali leaves public service reluctantly, having been defeated May 19 in the Zone 4, west Ketchum area, school board election. She's refused to sit quietly by as a lame duck trustee until she must relinquish her board seat on July 14, having quarterbacked the school board in June for approval of a new district superintendent, a $74 million budget and district-wide, all-day kindergarten.

Waiting in the wings is Bates, who defeated Sundali 256 votes to 214 votes, in what was the largest voter turnout in a school board election that anyone in the district office can remember or that written records can show.

Bates billed himself as a "candidate for change." He campaigned for more public involvement in school board decisions and for more money spent in the classroom instead of on construction.

While Bates and Sundali may not agree on some things, they both said they do it for the kids.

Similar sentiments were expressed by the three candidates for the Zone 2 trustee race in south Hailey. Steve Guthrie, a PTA president, won that election with 131 votes. Attorney Jim Laski received 88 votes and incumbent Kim Nilsen 27.

Nilsen, who served on the board for seven years, was in Ecuador for several weeks just prior to the election. He'd planned the trip for nearly a year, not necessarily expecting opposition to his reelection.

This year's school board election was the first in Blaine County since 2003. By state law, if only one person files for a position, then the election can be cancelled. Such was the case for six years as incumbents stepped back into office with nary a murmur from the electorate.

"I was frankly surprised that I got 27 votes," Nilsen said. "I was out of the country and didn't do any campaigning. I had considered not running at all. What I've gained is about 200 hours of my life back."

Nilsen and Sundali are part of a tightly knit board that includes Julie Dahlgren, representing the east Ketchum and Sun Valley area, Daniel Parke from Bellevue and south Blaine County, and Mari Beth Matthews from the north Hailey area. The board has typically been unanimous in its voting.

Nilsen, at his last school board meeting as a trustee on June 9, described his time served as "a life-changing experience."

A construction contractor, Nilsen acknowledged that he doesn't have a college education but said that as a board member he "never felt demeaned or any kind of slight from anyone who is well educated."

"I just want to say thank you to a lot of people," he said. "I have had a thoroughly enjoyable experience over the past several years. I'm sorry to get emotional, but you're like family."

Sundali, in an interview later, said she served on the school board because her father was an educator and she's always had a firm belief in the value of the public education system.

"You show me one other country in the world where the door is open to anyone who comes to the door," she said. "I'm very proud of that, and I wanted to be part of it. It's a tough job, but it's an honor to be able to serve.

"I know that I have contributed a small part in making the Blaine County schools better for the 3,400-some students, not for just a few, but for all of them."

The job has had its ups and downs, Sundali said.

She and her daughters were gathering up her campaign signs early that morning and they heard "boos" from a few cars that drove by. Sundali said the booing was upsetting to her, but even more so to her daughters.

"You just have to pick yourself up and go on," she said. "You just have to be above that."

Sundali said another reason she chose to serve as a trustee was as an example to her children.

"If you believe in something, you do it," she said.

Cathy Zaccardi, who now runs a ranch with her husband south of Bellevue, served as clerk to the school board for 20 years before retiring last year. She described school board service as "basically just a willingness to give and do something good for the community and the kids."

"You have to be motivated, because there is no compensation whatsoever," Zaccardi said. "There are professional development opportunities, but it's not a picnic, so to speak.

"I would say that our best school board members are lifetime learners. I think the new school board members will do fine if they take the time to learn the process, adhere to the confidentiality rules and learn as much as they can for the benefit of the kids.

Zaccardi said it takes a lot of time to get up to speed on the budgets, legal issues and legislative issues.

"Effective school board members don't become effective school board members until after their first term because it's such a learning curve," she said.

Bates and Guthrie will be sworn in as new school board members on July 14.

Terry Smith: tsmith@mtexpress.com




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