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November 12, 2013 | 03:09 PMLINN — To some, a school board is just five people who sit at a table each month and decide how high school taxes will go. To others, they’re helping shape the minds of a community’s children.
In reality, school board members do both. Reek School Board President Peter Borgo does it while holding down a job as a senior lab technician at Walcomet.
On the phone Nov. 6, he discussed what led him to run for school board eight years ago, as well as recent controversies and the work required of a school board member. The controversies were about Reek’s recent referendum project and the Big Foot Area School’s math curriculum.
But it’s not all fire and brimstone for a school board member. On Oct. 23, Borgo was recognized by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) for achieving Level 3 certification. Which is what, exactly?
“A participation award,” said Borgo, given to school board members who attend WASB meetings and conferences. Bonnie Cornue, the board’s vice president and former president, has a Level 5, he said, which is the highest recognition level provided by the WASB.
“That’s not a goal of mine,” he said when asked if that will be him someday. “I kind of wanted to see this referendum and construction project through, and when we’re done, I’ll consider what I’m going to do in the future. I think long service is useful, but I’m not that young anymore. I think it’s good for young people to give service and take charge.”
Borgo took charge of the board two years ago. Previously, he was vice president. It’s not his first turn behind the table at a board meeting, though, as he also serves on the town of Linn Plan Commission.
So why run in an election to serve on a school board? Partly because someone asked him.
“There were, it turned out, three candidates,” he said, adding that two seats were up, one incumbent filed noncandidacy and the other didn’t file any papers but ended up seeking re-election as a write-in candidate. But perhaps a bigger part of his answer to the question are his concerns.
“I thought there were certain things that need to be addressed in the school (such as) maintaining academic standards,” Borgo said.
He said he also had concerns about the Reek School building.
“I also was aware there were problems with this building, which we addressed with this last referendum,” Borgo said. “That was another reason for getting involved.”
Expect the unexpected
The referendum project generated the latest round of controversies for Reek’s board. Last November, voters approved the $2.8 million project after the board tried twice to obtain support for a $3.2 million project.
“Well, I certainly didn’t want to go through three referendums, but we learned some things,” Borgo said.
The most important lesson, he said, was keeping the lines of communication open with parents and the rest of the community. That’s something Borgo said he’s still trying to address.
“I don’t think I still have a solution,” he said. “There aren’t many avenues where you can go to a group of people and explain something about the school.”
Borgo said although they went to town of Linn meetings to talk about the referendum project, “those audiences were relatively small.”
It seemed similar to the controversy staff at Big Foot Area Schools — not just Reek — faced when they changed the math curriculum. Borgo said that occurred during his first term on the Reek board, and it was another issue he did not expect.
The problem? Students would ask their parents for help with their math homework, he said, and parents would have difficulty understanding the assignments.
So would some students.
“There was a lot of new, more advanced mathematics being introduced at earlier grade levels,” he said. “It was a developed curriculum, with support, and it was researched … and, especially older kids, as they were integrated into it, found a lot of difficulty.”
Curriculum is just one of a school board’s more important decisions. Borgo said that they mostly rely on teachers, who have done research and logged hours of work.
Other tasks are possibly among the most difficult for a board, such as creating a budget and dealing with personnel — or potentially delicate student matters “which don’t happen in grade schools often, but can include expulsions, which is then a legal issue,” he said.
“One of the biggest responsibilities of the board is to hire a superintendent,” said Borgo, adding that in Reek, that job requires one to serve as both principal and superintendent.
“So we really have to work through that person and help them be successful,” he said. “We’re also very fortunate to have a competent, but part-time, business manager.”
Which brings Borgo to what he said could be his biggest challenge as a board member — school finances. “I will say that I’m still learning about that,” he said. “School finances in Wisconsin are difficult because the amount that we can levy really depends on enrollment.”
State aid is another factor that potentially can hold up adoption of the next year’s budget. But where some state public schools receive four to six figures, Borgo said what Reek usually gets is hardly worth the wait.
“Reek gets one dollar,” he said. “A couple years ago, we got four. It’s almost laughable to us because of the amount of (work) you have to do to receive that one dollar.”
Nevertheless, Reek has one of the lowest tax rates in the state, Borgo said, despite that it increases next year by less than 10 percent because of the referendum project.
He doesn’t take lightly, though, his position on the board. Borgo said the job requires a great deal of reading, keeping up with emails and a lot of face time at the school.
“I’ll stop in, see a game, say ‘hi’ to the teachers,” Borgo said. “I’ve got to be a little proactive to stay in touch.”
And he seems to enjoy it. He said his two sons graduated from Reek years ago, but what he enjoys most about his job on the board is what some may label as the little things — seeing students win awards; going to sporting and musical events.
In fact, he said whenever he decides not to seek re-election, he still plans to attend school functions.
Why? Perhaps the answer lies in his comments of how he’d like to see Reek offer more programs to invite the older community members, people who don’t have children in Reek, to experience the school.
“We’d like to (provide) more access to the community because we want them to feel comfortable coming into the school and see what we’ve accomplished,” Borgo said. “We may be an elementary school, but learning is lifelong.”