Should school board be smaller?

Shawano district officials talk reapportioning

The Shawano School Board could be downsized or reconfigured because of a vacant board seat in a community where nobody has stepped forward to serve.

Board members are considering creating a special committee to examine options for reapportioning the district and realigning elected representation that reaches into nine area municipalities.

Among the options that could come up for discussion are tweaking geographic boundaries within the district and reducing the size of the nine-member school board.

“It’s all on the table right now,” District Superintendent Gary Cumberland told board members at a meeting earlier this week.

Board members directed staff to assemble updated population statistics showing the current apportionment of the district’s residents in the city of Shawano and beyond. The district also includes all or part of the towns of Belle Plaine, Herman, Navarino, Pella, Richmond, Washington, Waukechon and Wescott.

The current school board includes three seats representing the city of Shawano, two seats representing Washington and Wescott, and four others scattered among the other geographic areas.

Any changes would have to be approved by residents at the district’s annual meeting in September.

Tom McCarthy, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction, said state law gives local school districts considerable autonomy in deciding how their districts are apportioned and how elected representatives are chosen. McCarthy said it is not unusual for districts to make adjustments because of difficulty recruiting board members.

“They can do as they see fit,” he said. “When issues pop up, they don’t have to go to the state.”

The situation driving reapportionment discussion in the Shawano School District centers on the town of Herman, where no residents are stepping forward to serve on the school board. An election held in April attracted no candidates, and the seat has been vacant ever since.

The same thing happened previously, prompting outgoing incumbent Jay Jones to remain in his board seat temporarily as an appointee at the time.

Herman Town President Joe DeBaker said the town’s 700 residents are divided among three school districts — including the Gresham and Marion districts — and the section of town within the Shawano School District is relatively rural and sparsely populated.

DeBaker said residents would likely agree with reapportioning the Shawano district so that Herman and the surrounding area would be represented in school district decisions.

“It’d be best to have somebody looking out for the interests of those folks,” he said.

At the board committee meeting earlier this week, board members briefly discussed the idea of reducing the board to seven members or perhaps five. They also talked about creating at-large board seats and also about ensuring fair representation for all geographic areas of the district.

The committee reached no conclusions and issued no recommendations.

Michael Sleeper, the board’s vice president, said the nine-member format allows for a robust committee structure that keeps the district operating efficiently.

“Nine is quite large,” Sleeper said, “but I like the way it works.”

Cumberland noted that the current nine-member board has been in place since before segments of the district broke away to form new school districts in Gresham and Menominee County.

“It’s been nine for a long time,” he said. “There’s been a huge change demographic-wise.”