Thoughts on VAHS graduation this past Sunday

On Sunday we said congratulations to our newest graduates from Verona Area High School.  While I have never been to a graduation ceremony at VAHS before, I was very excited to participate as a member of the School Board.  The event was held at EPIC in their auditorium and we cannot thank them enough for their support of our school district.  With well over 1000 people in attendance, the auditorium serves as a nice setting for the graduation program.    I did get lost in the parking garage on the way out but that is a story for another day.

The ceremony was delayed by roughly 20 minutes due to a log jam of traffic arriving for the intended 1 p.m. start time.  Once it did start, I commend the band members who played Pomp and Circumstance for a little over 20 minutes until all graduates had proceeded in to their seats.  Listening to the music it reminded me of graduation 24 years ago at my alma mater, although our marching in only took 5 minutes.

After all the soon to be graduates were seated, we had some welcoming comments from Principal Pam Hammen.  She and her entire staff need to be commended on the work they do to ensure graduation goes as smooth as it did.   I think the highlight of the day though was the presence of Verona’s oldest living graduate, Martha Zingg Lound.  Martha graduated from Verona High School in 1929.  Ken Behnke who is on the board with me is her grandnephew (sorry if I have that wrong).   After talking with her, Ken prepared some comments that he shared on her behalf with those in attendance.  First, let me say that it was so truly heartwarming to hear the applause and response people provided for Ms. Lound.   In fact, at one point I was thinking that it sounded like a state of the Union address with the frequent applause breaks.  Ms. Lound provided an amazing story for our graduates to be inspired by.   The house I live in today was farm land just across the street from the farm house she grew up in.  There were only 12 in her graduating class.  Many students didn’t finish school as they were called home to help on the farm or to go to work in the factories.  She went on to achieve a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree through UW-Madison.  She was born before television, limited radio, and cars were just coming onto the scene.  She saw our country go through multiple wars, survive the civil rights movement, and securing women’s right to vote.  She has even navigated the technological revolution.  As Ken noted, she does send email.  Her presence was an inspiration for all and it was easy to see our graduates understood that.

I was truly inspired by her presence.  However, it wasn’t just her.  It was also our graduates.  Ms. Lound who was in a wheelchair was at the edge of the stage where the graduates departed after getting their diplomas.  A good number of our graduates took time to stop by her, shake her hand, say thank you for being there, and wished her well.  I think that just shows the high quality kids we are blessed with.  I also found it interesting that it wasn’t just one type of kid that stopped.  It wasn’t just honor roll kids, or students leaders, rather it was a diverse representation of the student body.  I think it made me feel good about the community we have and showed me the hope for our future to treat each other with respect and dignity.  There are those who worry about our graduates each year wondering if they were up for the task.   What I saw playing out on the stage beside me affirmed that these young people were indeed ready.  It made me feel proud and I hope that all of the parents and families are equally proud.

I felt very fortunate to be on stage representing our School Board.  I felt exceptionally happy to be able to shake hands with graduates upon them receiving their diplomas.  I am very fortunate to have my position on the school board and I can’t thank you enough for providing me that opportunity.

With all graduations there is a bit of sadness.  We have made it to the end of another year.  With the end of that year we also need to say goodbye to a number of teachers and support staff that make our schools great.  We say goodbye to 29 individuals who have touched students’ lives and have helped contribute to our educational community.  While they may be replaced in their role, they will never be forgotten.  Thank you to those teachers and staff for their commitment to Verona schools.

Finally, I would take heat from my kids if I didn’t say congratulations to our neighbor Amanda Bird.  She graduated Sunday and has spent the better part of the past three or four years as our go to babysitter.  She is staying local attending UW-Madison in the fall, but we fear her babysitting days may soon be behind her.  She is a great kid, from a great family.  We have every confidence in her as she pursues her dreams.  We wish her only the best.  And we may need to take advantage of her babysitting services one or two more times before September. 🙂

So to our recent graduates and our soon to be retired staff best wishes to you and god bless.

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Post Election Reflection

The past two days have been a bit surreal.   The final vote totals are still not reported for my school board race but based on the remaining number of possible votes, I have been declared a winner.   I know it is a cliché, but I would have been a winner on Tuesday regardless of the vote totals.  I have learned a lot about our district in the past four months.  I have met a lot of great educators, administrators, and parents.  I have found out more about our community’s service organizations.  So I have enriched my life whether I had won the election or not.   I would have been disappointed, but I am confident my commitment to staying involved in education in our community would have remained regardless of outcome.

Tuesday night when the totals first started to come in, it was hard to believe that over 2300 people would vote for me to represent them on the Verona Area school board.  It is hard not to be humbled, excited, uplifted, and also scared.  I had a lot of people say that “the election is the hard part”, after that it is “easy”.   Pardon me if I do not fully subscribe to that line of thought.  To do this job right it is going to take a lot of work and effort and I look forward to that.  Seeing the issues that many communities have across the state regarding education, I feel fortunate to have this opportunity and I promise to do my best to make sure we do what is best for all students.

On my way to work today I spoke to a good friend about the election.  He said that while congrats are in order, he may also choose to offer condolences.  He asked how soon my phone would be ringing with people asking questions or demanding things.   I told him, that the phone ringing would be welcoming to me as I want to hear from people.  I want to have conversations with folks whether easy or difficult ones.  I made a commitment to engage people in the district and I plan to honor that commitment.   I am excited about the opportunity that lies ahead of me and I am thankful for those that have supported me and helped me get to this point.  However, the journey isn’t ending; it is merely moving on to its next phase.  Those that helped me to an election victory, I am going to ask that you stay plugged in to what is happening in our district.  I am going to ask that you continue to serve as sounding boards and means for me to obtain feedback about what we are doing as a district.  I am going to ask that you continue to be a resource for me.   I couldn’t have gotten here without their help and support and for that I will be forever thankful.

There are many people that I need to thank for their efforts.  I want to thank my neighbor Holly Benzine for her photographic talent and working with me and the kids to create a nice picture that we could use for my marketing.  I need to thank my brother-in-law, Dan Racette, for helping me with the lit card layout, and putting it into a working format.   I also need to thank my cousin Cheryl Anthony, who despite living in Palo Alto, CA, provided some initial logo design work.  I also need to thank another neighbor, Tami Schroeder for helping to distribute my campaign literature and for being so positive and supportive.  I need to thank Paul and Denise Beckfield for writing a great letter to the editor of the Wisconsin State Journal and showing their support.   I also owe Jana Schroeer and Chris Hannemann a lot of thanks as they helped provide feedback to me as a candidate and also helped drop lit for me within the Verona community.  Pat McPartland and Carol White were both helpful in walking with me and really inspiring me to get out on doors one of the first weeks I lit dropped.   Their support and encouragement that first weekend really helped me in the following weeks to stay out and get to many houses in the community.  I owe a lot to Laurie Lodholz and her family for hosting a very insightful meet and greet at her home in Fitchburg.  Fitchburg provides a lot of students and support to the Verona Area schools and I want to continue to make connections in Fitchburg to stay tuned into their concerns regarding our schools.  There were many others who were generous and donated to my campaign and for that I will be forever thankful.  Erika Hotchkiss, our new county supervisor also deserves a ton of credit and thanks.  She inspired a lot of people in our community to get involved and make a difference.  I enjoyed getting to know her over the past few months and I appreciate any help she provided during the campaign.  I am confident she will represent us well on the county board.  Finally, I need to thank my family.  I should say my extended family  which is composed of neighbors and friends, my wife and kids, my parents, and my aunts, uncles, and in-laws have all been very supportive and that has been greatly appreciated.

Now we start a new chapter.  I will continue to blog about things school related and I hope you will continue to follow my writing.  If you ever have questions or concerns about the district, please let me know and I will be happy to talk by phone, in person, etc.  I take this responsibility seriously and am excited for what lies ahead.

Thank you.

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Election Day is upon us

Tomorrow is Election Day.  It is hard to believe that after four months of working toward my goal of being elected to the school board, we are just a little over 24 hours away from knowing the outcome of the election.  It is important for everyone to vote.  Whether supporting me as a candidate or not, voting is a civic duty.   Thomas Jefferson believed that education of the citizenry was the best way to ensure that those who rule would be kept in check.  He was a firm believer in developing citizenship through education.  While I haven’t voted in every election since I turned 18, I have voted in most of them.  One way in which we can have voice and influence the direction over our lives is to vote.  So I am asking you all to vote tomorrow.  Vote in the races that matter most to you.  If you aren’t sure who to vote for, do your homework.  The state journal has an interactive link that you can go to in order to personalize a ballot.  It pulls the races that you get to vote in based on your street address.  I think that is pretty cool that they provide that service.

When I began my run for the school board, it was because I wanted a chance to serve.  I also believe that voters should be given a choice.  I don’t like to see elections go uncontested.  I think all candidates need to be put through their paces to prove why they are worthy of representing the populace.   I have one of two contested races in Verona.  I would encourage anyone taking the time to read this to consider running in a race during the next election cycle.  People should have choices.  It is hard to bring about change or expect change if there is not another option on the ballot.    I mean no disrespect to any of the current alders in Verona who are running unopposed.  I just believe that elections should be about having a choice.

So again, I ask you to vote tomorrow if you haven’t already done so.  This is your opportunity to express your voice.  I want to thank all of those people who have helped me run this candidacy.  I have received support from a number of folks over the past four months.  From monetary donations, to assistance with lit dropping, it has been greatly appreciated.  I also need to thank my wife and kids for their patience over the past four months.  As I took time away from them to meet with different groups across the district, it had an impact.  My wife has been fantastic and she deserves a ton of credit for keeping me motivated.   I also owe my co-workers a lot as they have helped cover for me while I have used vacation time to get out of the office and attend meetings with constituent groups. 

Over the past weekend and a little bit of today I was able to get to 600+ homes to drop literature.   It felt good but now my knees and back are both paying the price.  If I learned anything from this experience it is that I needed to start sooner with everything.  I also needed to not be worried about asking for help.  It is hard for me to do, but as I found out, there are a lot of awesome people out there willing to lend a hand.

Thanks for following me over the past month or so.  I will continue to blog about educational issues following the outcome of the election.   Let’s hope that the next post will be as an official member of the Verona Area school board.

Vote John McCulley for Verona Area School Board.

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Campaign Update

Today I was able to meet with Erin Kuehn-Schettler who is the Director of Student Services for the School District.  She has responsibility for helping to coordinate all efforts of the guidance, school psychologist, social work, and special education staff.  Part of her job is to make sure that students are receiving the appropriate services they need to help them be successful.  I had a great conversation with Erin and I really appreciated the opportunity to talk with her.  Of the many things I have learned about our school district over the past four months, none surprised me as much as hearing that we currently have over 100 students in our district that are homeless.  And as Erin added, those are only the ones we know of.  I am not sure but I think stunned would best describe my reaction to that news.  Again, maybe I am in my own little bubble but I never would have guessed that we would have that many students in our district that were homeless.    

As I shared with Erin, thinking about those students who are homeless was really troubling.  I look at my family, where my three kids have a roof over their head and food on the table every night.  Despite that my kids have had their challenges.  I can only imagine how difficult it must be to not know if you have a place to sleep or food for dinner each day.  These are real challenges that some of our students are bringing to our schools.  

So what are we doing about it as a district?  That is a good question.  We work to build safe places in our schools and in our classrooms.  We work through our guidance counselors, social workers, and school psychologists to reach out to families and ask how we can help.  We try to ensure that we have funding to support these students.  We have done more in pursuing grant funding and other money streams to help, but the district could always use more.  The school district really is a safety net for these kids.

When I decided to run for school board, I said I would make student needs my first priority.  I intend to do just that.  One of the first things I would look to do is figure out how we can support all of our students in their learning environments better.  I think some of the support can come from parents.  I have met a number of talented parents over the past four months that would be excellent helpers in the classroom.  I would ask you, please take time to volunteer in a classroom.  I did it last year and it was very rewarding.  After talking with Erin today I want to get back to the classroom to provide whatever assistance I can.  Perhaps, we can also work on a campaign to raise funds, collect clothes, school supplies, etc. to benefit those families less fortunate than we are.

Erin has only been with us for a year and she has a lot of work to do.  She has a lot on her plate but after our visit I am confident that she will keep our district moving in the right direction.   I look forward to working with her to ensure the needs of our most vulnerable students are met.

On a separate note, I was to meet with Principal Pam Hammen today at the HS, but they had an evacuation so her day went from available to meet to working in the kitchen to help ensure lunch was ready.  I have to admire the fact that she was there working to ensure the needs of her students were met.  I look forward to meeting with her on Monday.

I will also be out tomorrow (Saturday) with dropping literature for myself and Erika Hotchkiss.

Have a good weekend.

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Verona Press Questionnaire

Seeing as this will be released in a day or so, I wanted to post it here as well.    As always, please feel free to contact me if you have questions.

What makes you qualified to serve on the school board? What stake do you have in Verona schools?

My qualifications for serving on school board come from my diverse background in education which includes a 6-12 teaching licensure, experience as a substitute teacher, experience as a classroom volunteer, working in higher education with high school seniors and incoming freshmen, working with developing new educational programs through the UW System that involves working with many different stakeholders and serving in roles as an employee and as a supervisor.  I have three young children just beginning their educational journey through the Verona Area schools.  We, like many families picked Verona as a place to live based on the quality of the schools.  Due to the slowing pace of growth in Verona and reductions of state support, schools are making due with less and less.  I hope that as a board member I can work with the rest of the board and our administrative team to ensure that the long term viability and sustainability of our schools is intact.

Thirty percent of VASD students are now from low-income homes. How should the district address these students’ educational needs?

The diversification of our district presents a number of challenges.  As I have gone out and met with administrators and PTO groups, it is very clear that we have a fair number of students who struggle to get their basic needs met outside of school.   This then creates a challenge within our schools.  This is not just a free and reduced lunch issue though.  A number of research studies show that the most successful students are students who have actively engaged parents.  Active engagement can be a parent active in school events or it could be assisting students with homework and role modeling the importance of education.  Families living in poverty, struggling to make ends meet may find that engagement harder to achieve. I think the district needs to seek out new ways in which it can engage families in order to assist students who need it most regardless of economic status.

School budgets have been squeezed for years in Verona. How can the district ensure schools remain strong despite limited funding?

School funding is a hot topic and a very challenging one.  For years Verona benefitted from rapid community growth and strong open enrollment numbers.  Budgeting while at times difficult has been less tenuous than other districts and communities have faced.  Some steps we need to take to ensure long term success include increasing parental involvement, ensuring curriculum is structured in a way that presents seamless transitions, and supporting and promoting all of our schools as quality choices for families.  We also need to be more open to feedback in order to find best practices that can be shared throughout our district.  I think it is important that as an employer we ensure that Verona Area schools maintain the quality of instruction and support provided by its many professional staff.    We need to work collaboratively with our teachers and support staff to continually improve our district and maintain our reputation for academic achievement.       

Besides budgeting, what’s another top issue facing Verona schools, and how would you address it?

Core Knowledge Charter School (CKCS) has requested to exceed their enrollment caps, VAIS has had challenges maintaining required enrollment, and New Century had a severe drop in enrollment last year due to a number of families relocating and now they are being asked to grow to stay viable.  The charter schools in our district serve a number of students and provide their families with alternatives to the area elementary schools.  Charter schools will demand more attention in the years to come as the expansion of Charters is considered.  If expansion is allowed, what impacts will that have on other schools in the district?  How would the expansion be paid for?  Would the expansion lead to contraction in other parts of our district?  The Verona Area school district will need to wrestle with these issues.  I would insist on meetings with all stakeholders to discuss the long term sustainability of our district and look for options to promote all of our schools positively.  

 

 

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It’s a doggy dog world

Another lovely weekend is in the books.  I walked I am estimating 5 miles or so over the two days.  I visited well over 300 homes in Verona dropping literature and trying to get my name out.   Following is a brief summary of the weekend.

Friday started my weekend campaign work with a really good visit with Ms. Taylor who is the principal of Glacier Edge Elementary School.   First, I must say that it is very easy to tell how invested in her students’ lives that she is.  In my hour with her talking about school needs and concerns, we were interrupted a few times by students who were coming to share birthday treats and provide hugs.  That was fine by me.  It was so easy to see why students have that connection to her.  I honestly felt like she was serving as mom to a number of kids, at least that’s how her approach came off.  From the little girl she encouraged to go put a coat on before going out to recess, to the many children she encountered on our school tour that hugged her every few stops Ms. Taylor is invested in her kid’s well-being.  I don’t feel it stops there.  Every teacher I met, every staff member had warm, welcoming smiles.  It truly was a great environment and I am so thankful for having been given the opportunity to be in the school to see that.  Again, it reassures for me that we have excellent people doing great things in our schools.

 Saturday morning I had the good fortune to meet with families in the Fitchburg area.  While I appreciate everyone I met, I really need to be thankful to Laurie Lodholz and her family for arranging the meet and greet session.  Not only did I meet Laurie, but I also met her husband Jim, daughter Maggie (so sorry if I got that wrong) who is now in college at UW-Madison and will be graduating with a degree in Non-profit Leadership.  I also got to meet their daughter Anna who is a fifth grader at Stoner Prairie.  Hope my girls turn out as well as theirs have.  What a great family.  I think the thing that Laurie said to me on Saturday that will stick with me most is that it is not that she has to agree with me 100% on every issue.  She just wants to know that someone cares and is willing to not only ask for feedback, but is willing to listen to the feedback.  I promised her that I do want to listen and that I will continue to listen.  I met a few other parents who have students in the VAIS charter school as well.  It was really good to hear from Colleen Chase about her daughter who is currently at Stoner Prairie and her younger sister who will be starting at VAIS in the fall.  I think it was very beneficial to hear her perspective as a parent who has supported both the area elementary and will support the charter school.  The session was valuable to me for a number of reasons, but mostly because again it reaffirms the commitment and dedication many parents have toward education.  They have good ideas and it reaffirms that what I am doing in trying to reach out to them can only help me as a board member.  So Laurie and Jim, thank you again.

 Saturday afternoon went to the dogs.  Literally, I didn’t realize how many people own dogs in Verona.  I love dogs and have enjoyed meeting many canine friends during my lit dropping time.  After the first few times out lit dropping, I hadn’t encountered many dogs that weren’t either with their owner in tow or barking at me from a window.  Many more dogs out and about with no owner close by and I feeling less comfortable with approaching was a recipe for bad.   Of course, the bad occurred when there was an owner present.  I saw this smaller dog on a leash in a yard.  It jumped up and was savagely barking so I thought, ok, I’ll skip that one.    Then the owner came out to his car so I thought ok, I’ll just go up and hand him an info card.  I must have misjudged the length of the chain.  Good thing I had jeans on because he didn’t puncture the denim, but the little thing tried to take a chunk out of my thigh.  It jumped and lunged and then bit.  Apparently the owner must not have been a supporter since he never said anything like “sorry about that.”   Lesson learned, don’t proceed until you know you are welcome and the dog is under control.

 Today was another great day.  I was over in the Jenna Dr., Westridge area dropping literature.  I hit quite a few houses and had some good conversations with families while I was out and about.  It is amazing how quickly three hours goes by.  I would have stayed out longer and done more, but I had taken my daughter with me initially.  I was able to have her stay with friends of ours for a few hours while I was out getting to a number of houses which was nice for her and me.  Thanks to Chad and Betsy for letting her hang out at your home.  I have a lot of ground to cover and will be using vacation time from work this week to get out and cover more.   So if anyone is looking for something to do, I always welcome the company. 

Thanks again to all of those who have helped and supported me.  We are in the home stretch.  If I can put out a brief reminder, if you think you may be gone on Election Day due to spring break, you can vote now.  Please go to city hall herein Verona between 9-4, M-F and cast your vote.  If you live in Fitchburg, you can do the same at City Hall in Fitchburg.

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Update from the Campaign Trail

After my last blog entry I have to admit that it seems a bit weird going back to writing about the campaign as we head for the homestretch of the election.  I really am not sure how to follow up that last entry, thus why it has taken me a little longer than usual to post a new entry.  As I put the finishing touches on my responses to the Verona Press’s questionnaire and finish some work on campaign financing paperwork, I am trying to reflect back on my week and think of the things that were newsworthy.

It feels like my campaign has finally started to take off.  I have a lot of people stopping me and asking if I’m “that guy running for that thing”.  Yes, yes I am.  I have people requesting signage for their yards and more people volunteering to help me get the word out.  I feel like I really have some momentum building up.  The biggest issue I face at this point is the election date.  I have had a number of people say they would vote for me, but they will be out of town due to it being spring break.  Lucky for them and for me, people can go in and vote early as of Monday the 19th.  Contact your local polling place but you should be able to go in between 9-4 and vote now so you can avoid the rush later.

As for this week, I have to once again say how fortunate we are to have such wonderful people working in our schools.  I can also say that about the parents I have met this week that are so passionate about their children’s education.  I also met one of our High School students during the Rotary luncheon and I must say that if she were on the ballot, I would be voting for her.

On Monday I had the opportunity to meet with Bob McNallie at Core Knowledge Charter School, Lynn Berge of New Century Charter School and Sandy Eskrich, Associate Principal at Savannah Oaks Middle School.  One interesting common theme among them is they all have worked in school psychology or guidance.  You can tell that they are all very passionate about their schools and the role they play. 

On Tuesday I attended Site Council meetings at Sugar Creek Elementary and New Century Charter School.    Both meetings were helpful for different reasons.  I think the Sugar Creek meeting was really beneficial for a number of reasons.  At the New Century meeting, it was more of an opportunity for me to meet with parents in that school community.   It was a good opportunity and I appreciate the invite I was given.    

Also on Tuesday, I attended the Rotary Luncheon at the Pancake Café.  Another one of Verona/Fitchburg’s Service focused organizations.  It was a very nice luncheon.  I got to meet a good number of Rotarians, but I also got to hear about one of our HS students that were being recognized for her service to others.  Chloe (sp?) Imhoff is a high school senior who has been involved from day one of high school and has continually worked on ways to give back to others in the community.   Like the Lions whom I mentioned last week, the Rotary works to give back to the school district in a number of ways.  Most notably are the scholarships they sponsor each year with 5 students who get recognized during the course of the year for their efforts.  Also like the Lions, the Rotary is a small organization but a very friendly and social group.  If you are looking into joining a service organization, either club would be a great option.  One thing Ms. Imhoff said during her comments after receiving her recognition was that her parents got her involved in community service at a young age.  She said for her it just became what was expected and by the time she got to high school she was seeking out the opportunities.  I would encourage you to take your kids and get involved in community service organizations or projects.  The world needs more people who care about making it a better place without worrying about making a profit.  Thanks again to the Lions and the Rotary for making me feel welcome and allowing me to participate.

Finally, tonight I attended a parent teacher conference at Country View elementary for my oldest daughter.   After it was over, I took a quick run through the Art and Author Fair.  Many thanks go out to all of the parents who worked hard to coordinate the event.  I also want to thank the students for their contributions to the fair.  I would encourage all parents to really take the time to go to the schools and see the good works that our students are producing.   I know I sound like a broken record, but we have talented teachers and staff who work extremely hard to help our children obtain a good education.  Their efforts should not go unnoticed.  And we have great kids.  We should take pride and also make sure they enjoy their special moments when they occur.

In the morning I am meeting with Ms. Taylor at Glacier Edge elementary school.  I look forward to touring the facility and hearing about the community that has been established at Glacier Edge.

It is getting late and I have miles to go before I sleep.  God Bless and goodnight!

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