New school board members learn the ropes

Published 10:17 am Wednesday, January 9, 2013

New Austin Public Schools board members Mary Jane Kestner and Don Leathers review their oath of office Monday afternoon after being sworn in at the first school board meeting of 2013.

Two new faces have found their spots on Austin Public Schools board.

School board members Don Leathers and Mary Jane Kestner took their oaths of office and were sworn in at the beginning of Monday’s school board meeting. This year marks the beginning of their four-year terms.

“I’m looking forward to being a part of helping the other school board members,” Kestner said.

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One of her chief concerns is having enough space for the growing number of students in the district. While the I.J. Holton Intermediate School will alleviate concerns in the size of the student body for a while, the topic is one the board needs to keep on the forefront, she said.

Another area she intends to support is the district’s success coaches. Many students studying English as a second language benefit from the help of success coaches, who connect with them and their families.

As for a specific agenda, Kestner said she doesn’t have one, and is not targeting any new issues to address while on the board. Her time will instead be spent aiding the other board members.

“I ran with just a willingness to be helpful for four years,” Kestner said, adding her son would be a senior in high school by the end of her term. “That’s what I intend to do.”

Leathers shared her enthusiasm for joining the board.

“I’m real excited,” he said, adding introductions had already begun before Monday’s school board meeting. “We’ve met with various members of the central office.”

As he acclimates to his spot on the school board, Leathers hopes to spend time visiting the schools in the district and talking to students and staff.

He would also like to see the state consider ways to make K-12 education more equitable, citing the difficulty some schools have in adding a library or gymnasium.

Leathers also brought up the substantial achievement gap between white and non-white students in Minnesota as a cause for concern.

“From reports I’ve heard, it’s somewhat appalling,” he said. “That’s something that I’m interested in as well.”

While the new intermediate school is on its way to being complete, Leathers said the school board’s involvement in the project is far from over.

“One thing is building it,” he said. “The other thing is having it perform the way they’d like it to perform.”

Both Leathers and Kestner will attend the Minnesota State School Board Association annual meeting next week in Minneapolis. The trip will consist of breakout sessions, training and more. The move will be an opportunity for them to learn about their role as a school board member, which Leathers said will be a big job.

“Jeff [Kritzer] and Aaron [Keenan] were really outstanding board members,” Leathers said about the two board members he and Kestner have replaced. “They’ll be tough shoes to fill.”


Last thoughts from outgoing members

Kritzer and Keenan, who left their seats on the board at the end of 2012, reflect positively on their time there.

“I enjoyed my term,” Keenan said. “I learned a ton about the school system, and I became very proud of our school system.”

Kritzer, the board’s chairman last year, agreed with the sentiment.

“I’m very happy that I was on the board,” Kritzer said. “It was very satisfying to be able to play at least a small role in providing an education to our kids.”

While each of the men were only on the board for one term, that span of time led to a wealth of experience.

“There was a lot that happened in three years,” Kritzer said, alluding to construction starting on the new intermediate school, the year-round calendar beginning at Sumner and teachers finishing up their master’s degrees.

Kritzer acted on a long-standing goal when he first decided to get involved.

“I always planned to run for school board at some point,” he said.

The extra push he needed came three years ago, when the school board was dealing with many divisive issues and facing bad press. Kritzer said he decided it was a good time to help the board move past those issues and return their focus to the students.

“I think [Keenan] and I were able to help resolve those issues,” he said. “That was satisfying.”

Keenan said taking his seat on the board was tough at first, as he had to get to know all the policy that comes with the position as well as the other members on the board.

“As a board member, I tried to add value around trying to help foster a strategic learning process,” he said.

As for his final thoughts for the board going forward, Keenan suggests it continue to focus on its responsibilities of policy and strategy, and to work on connecting with the community. The board has initiatives in place right now to keep its members learning and improving and John Alberts, educational services director with the district, has been assisting.

Kritzer supported the same idea, and said he recommended the board continue to work on developing a board-level strategic plan, something it had started during his term. An upcoming board retreat in February may provide an opportunity for it to do so, he said.