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Three compete for two seats on Baraboo School Board in April
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Three compete for two seats on Baraboo School Board in April

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Three candidates, including one incumbent, with children in the Baraboo School District are vying for two seats on the school board this April, but only one will see his name on the ballot.

Alex Schenck, a software engineer, will appear on the April 6 ballot above two blank spaces for write-in candidates, including registered write-ins Nancy Thome, incumbent, and Jim O’Neill, who ran for school board last year.

Thome, an attorney, filed papers of non-candidacy late last year because the time commitment of serving on the board these last three years has been much higher than she was originally told. Despite finding the work “very meaningful and worthwhile,” it was conflicting with her career and family time, she said.

Sen. Joan Ballweg saw the recall elections that resulted from Act 10 as the people getting a chance to have their say.

But after declaring her non-candidacy, she learned that longtime board member Sean McNevin had also decided to step down when his term ends this year and that District Administrator Lori Mueller was leaving at the end of the school year. She worried that a new superintendent, two new board members and two other board members with just a year of experience might leave the district unsteady, so Thome changed her mind and decided to run as a write-in.

UPDATE: Middleton-Cross Plains education director Briggs named Baraboo's next superintendent

Time remains a concern, she said, but “I’m hoping that maybe we will have a year that won’t have a crisis” that increases the time commitment, such as the offensive photo that went viral in the 2018-19 school year, concerns brought up by former Baraboo educators in 2019 and the pandemic this school year. She missed the last two board meetings to work on merging her law practice with a small firm in Madison, she said, but doesn’t intend to miss any more.

“If we continue to have crises ... I’m just going to have to do the best I can,” Thome said.

Schenck saw two soon-to-be vacant seats, which played a part in his decision to register as a candidate.

“I’m willing to step in the gap when something needs to get done and do it,” he said. In addition, “I think I can do some good for the board and for the district.”

He said he thinks he can be an advocate for people who are underrepresented among district leadership, including educators and those in special education and elementary education.

O’Neill, a website administrator for Sauk County and an Iraq War veteran, said he lost track of time because of the pandemic and missed the registration deadline to appear on the ballot, but is still running a write-in campaign. He sees himself as a “life-long learner” and was endorsed by the Wisconsin Green Party.

“I realize how important it (education) is,” O’Neill said, adding that he had bad grades in high school, went through the military and then did well in college. “I’ve seen kind of both sides and kind of what it took to get from a very poor student to at least being a good student.”

He also ran for the board last spring, one of six candidates for three seats, but came in last with almost 9% of the vote, 1,228 votes total.

All three candidates have school-aged children in the district who are virtual students because of the pandemic. Thome and Schenck both advocated for keeping the district mostly virtual through the start of the school year, but now support the in-person learning option based on how it’s been working so far and how few instances there have been of in-school transmission of the virus. O’Neill said he prefers virtual learning for safety reasons but recognizes some families can’t be home to watch their children all the time or have other extenuating circumstances.

The two candidates who get the most votes — regardless of candidacy status, as long as they are legally eligible — will win a seat. That could include other write-in candidates who did not register.

The following candidate profiles have been shortened and/or paraphrased for brevity.

Alex Schenck

Age: 33

Family: Wife and daughter, 7

Current occupation: Software engineer

Prior elected office: None

Other public service or community involvement: None

Education: Bachelor’s degree in information science and technology; working on getting his master’s in data science

Candidate email/website/social media page: None

Question: What do you feel are the biggest issues facing the Baraboo School District?

“I think that the district has a lot going well for it. ... I don’t have a large agenda of things to change in the district, but I noticed as you watch the superintendent interviews there were some themes from some staff that were feeling like their voices weren’t being heard. … I would like to address the staffing concerns that we’ve had and with people leaving the district. I’d like to reverse that.”

WATCH NOW: Baraboo superintendent finalist interviews

Q: What will you do to ensure those challenges are met?

“I think that there could be methods for a better line of communication between staff and admin and the board,” he said, pointing to a suggestion that came up during the superintendent search to create a student liaison and a staff liaison to the board. “... I think that communication and repairing relationships is kind of one of the top priorities there.”

Q: Why do you want to serve on the school board?

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He spoke of his experience with his daughter, who has autism and needs specialized instruction. Shutting schools down last March was “really disruptful for her.”

“I felt that the school board made some decisions that I would have made differently in their voting, but overall I really want to participate and give something back and help out. The district has served my daughter very well, and I’m very happy with the education she has gotten and ... with the educators she’s interacted with. I think that they could use an advocate, and I think that special education, elementary education could use stronger advocacy.”

Jim O’Neill

Age: 47

Family: Wife Tatsiana, 38; daughter Uliana, 12

Current occupation: Website administrator

Prior elected office: None

Other public service or community involvement: Fundraised for local organizations through the yoga studio he and his wife own, It’s All About You in downtown Baraboo.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in computer programming; associate degree in computer networking

Candidate email/website/social media page: jamesoneillforoffice.org, facebook.com/JO4Office

Q: What do you feel are the biggest issues facing the Baraboo School District?

Inequality and poverty, which are some of the “most devastating things to our children. It doesn’t just affect those who are afflicted with that, but it affects their friends, their family, their schoolmates, the teacher. It’s something that you cascade from … so working toward dealing with poverty and inequality directly will also help to solve the other issues, like bullying and school performance, child performance and that sort of thing.”

Q: What will you do to ensure those challenges are met?

“It’s a difficult thing to do, because it’s something that is external to the school district itself. The school district currently has an equity position, so I would look towards possibly expanding that to not just looking at internal equity issues, which is also a good thing, but also possibly having it expand to deal with external equity issues — housing, food, employment and that sort of a thing.”

He said he also wants to look at unionizing parents “as a basis for … dealing with inequality and poverty in the district.”

Q: Why do you want to serve on the school board, and why are you qualified?

“Education is the most important thing that we spend money on in pretty much our global civilization, because it creates the adults of the future. It educates them, instills values and helps to teach them how to become a member of society.”

Nancy Thome, incumbent

Age: 56

Family: Husband, 22-year-old daughter, 16-year-old son at Baraboo High School

Current occupation: Attorney

Prior elected office: Baraboo School Board (one term)

Other public service or community involvement: Currently on the board of the Devil’s Lake Concessions Corporation and in the Baraboo River Canoe Club, previously on Baraboo’s Community Development Authority board and the Al. Ringling Theatre Friends board

Education: Juris doctorate

Candidate email/website/social media page: None

Q: What do you feel are the biggest issues facing the Baraboo School District?

“Right now, the biggest issue is COVID, but that’s hopefully winding down. The biggest ongoing issue, I think, is teacher retention.”

Q: What will you do to ensure those challenges are met?

She said pay and work culture both need to be addressed. Thome was involved last year in recommending raises to some employees as a way to address inequities in the pay scale, such as two teachers with similar experience and roles but substantially different salaries.

“We made a commitment at that time to continue to make some adjustments for our teachers for the next few years until everyone who needs to be adjusted has been adjusted,” she said.

Thome said she’s concerned the district’s work culture isn’t “as good as it could be,” but a new superintendent and at least one new board member could help the district tackle the issue this year “with a fresh set of eyes.”

Q: Why do you want to serve on the school board?

“I believe that public education is one of the most important things that we do as a nation. My father was a public school teacher for over 30 years, so I grew up valuing public education, and even though I sent my kids to St. Joe’s for grade school, I’ve always been a strong supporter of public education.”

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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