Q-&-A with PBL school board member Mike Short

Paxton-Buckley-Loda school board member Mike Short is not running for re-election after 24 years serving on the board — including 21 as its president. The 60-year-old rural Paxton man sat down Friday with Paxton Record Editor Will Brumleve to discuss his experiences on the board and his outlook for the district for the future ...

Brumleve: After 24 years on the board, what led to your decision to not run for election again?

Short: Come April, it will be 24 years, a little over 24 years, and that’s more than long enough.

Brumleve: When you look back over the past 24 years, how much has changed in the district?
Short: Oh, my goodness. I don’t know if we could list everything. I think probably two of the biggest changes are the demands on student achievement and accountability, both for the students and for the administrators. I think back when I was in school, and we had part-time principals, and they taught part of the day and did the principal job part of the day. And now, I don’t know, quite frankly, how the principals get the work done that they do. There’s so many demands on them, not just from the job of actually being principal, but just paperwork, commitments to the state, filling out forms. I don’t know how those guys and gals do it. The kids really haven’t changed much, just the tools and toys they have have changed. The technology aspect, when we started, it was like, we had a computer in the office and that was about it. Then we started with computer labs, and now they’re down to using smartphones and tablets. Textbooks, I think, are going to be a thing of the past. We’re starting to get that way now.

Brumleve: I was a third-grader at Leal Elementary School in Urbana 24 years ago. I can definitely attest to everything you just said there. But are these changes good?
Short: I think at least from an educational standpoint the changes are good. You know, we’re becoming more of a world economy, because you need to be prepared to go out into that world. And I think we’re doing a pretty good job of getting them — whether they’re going into the business world out of high school or if they’re going on to college — I think we’re doing a pretty good job of preparing them for that. Yeah, we can do better, and we’ll continue to do that.
As far as the other changes — the demands on the time of the staff and administrators — I don’t know if that’s good. Because they don’t really have as much time to do the job of teaching and being with the kids as they really should. There’s too much time spent on preparing and filing state forms and things of that nature. It really detracts from the job of educating.

Brumleve: While it wasn’t a forced thing, the early dismissal times that were implemented at PBL a year ago is sort of an example of what you’re talking about, isn’t it? Teachers and administrators are having to reduce their instruction time slightly each week to plan for curriculum and assessment changes.
Short: That’s a very good example. It has, that particular plan, has worked out well. It’s given the staff good time to be together and to plan and to implement the curriculum changes and the plans we have. But, again, it takes time away from them being with the students.

Brumleve: How do you see the future of the district? You may not be around 30 years from now, but what kind of direction or vision do you have for how things are going to go with PBL? Do you think it can maintain its enrollment? Do you think the school buildings themselves are suitable for PBL’s use over the years to come? Or do you think there’s going to be some major changes — like future consolidations with other districts, or just new buildings having to be built? What do you see happening, if you had to guess?
Short: I think the future of PBL is good. As far as enrollment, I don’t see a major decline, although there is just the general aging of the population that could be a hindrance to growth. You know, you’re seeing new buildings, new housing going up now. Even without the TIF district (in Paxton), if that goes through and there’s some growth out there (near Interstate 57) — residential growth — there’s potential for the school district to actually grow. I don’t think it’s going to be by leaps and bounds; I think if there is any growth it will be kind of a slow and steady thing.
The strength of the district is really going to rely on the finances — what happens financially. If the state gets their house in order and funds the schools the way they should, or at least keep from taking money away from us and not hurt us anymore, then I think financially we’ll be OK.

Brumleve: What about buildings? Are they usable for the next 30 years?
Short: There’s going to have to be changes. I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up going to a balanced calendar at some point in time, where the kids are in class most of the summer. Almost like four quarters that are spread out throughout the year. That’s going to require upgrades to heating and cooling systems, and then that brings into play what happens with PBL Eastlawn School. Do you really go ahead and invest money to bring that building up, or at that point and time do you go ahead and say, ‘Look, we need to replace that building.’ Fortunately, I’m not going to have to be part of that decision; that’s going to be somebody else.
Long term, it’s hard to predict because you have to look 30 years down the road. Even if you look back 30 years, nobody really thought there was going to be a consolidation. I know Paxton and Gibson City were talking (about consolidating at that time); that didn’t happen. At Buckley-Loda, the people there, I’m sure, never thought they would be coming down here. You look at Roberts-Thawville, the Ford Central school district, I know they thought they would be there for a long time. Now they’re gone; they’ve gone separate directions.
I wouldn’t be surprised if 20, 30 years down the road, there will be one school district in this county, and southern Iroquois County, as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if that happened.
But right now, the two bigger districts here — PBL and GCMS — are both financially about as good as you can be, given the circumstances. As long as something terrible doesn’t happen, I think they’ll continue to be separate districts. But, then again, things change a lot. There’s a lot of cooperation now between the districts that there wasn’t when they were talking consolidation. Our special education cooperative is a prime example.

Brumleve: Looking back at the consolidation 23 years ago, how did that come about, and what do you think the benefits and drawbacks of that move were or have been?
Short: One big benefit to the Paxton and Buckley-Loda consolidation was the fact we were co-oping sports at that time. Kids, they had a “P” on their letter jacket, and they had a “B-L” on their letter jacket. To them, it was just like, ‘These are the kids that we’re with now.’ Having that cooperation, and having those co-op teams there, I think that actually helped make the transition to the consolidation itself easier. The kids new each other. That helped.  The bigger problem — and we knew it would be — was not with the kids, but the adults who hate to see change.
It was really a financial thing for both school districts. I mean, we needed each other, and it worked out well. The state had incentives then — if I remember right, it was like $4,000 per certified staff member that they would give districts if they consolidated. ... It was really a financial thing. I know it was hard for the people of B-L, because they knew their building was going to be closed, and I will give those people on that Buckley-Loda board at that time a lot of credit, because that had to be a very difficult decision for them. ... It had to be hard.

Brumleve: But you think it’s worked out to be a pretty good move, right? Definitely good for the financial aspect?
Short: It is. And we’ve picked up (students from) the Roberts area from the Ford Central (school district) dissolution. Everybody’s just blended together. It’s like it’s been this way forever, practically. It’s a good relationship. We’re all one family now.
It’s good, not only financially, but it has offered, because of the size of the district now, we’ve been able to offer increased curriculum choices that separately the two districts probably wouldn’t be able to do. The kids really benefitted, educationally, as well.

Brumleve: What are some of the most difficult decisions you’ve had to make in 24 years on the board?
Short: There have been times where we have been stressed financially and we had to reduce staff. And when you start putting a lot more children in classrooms, especially at the elementary level, that’s pretty difficult. Because you know it’s not in the best interest of the kids; and it’s not in the best interest of the teachers either. Those are always the toughest decisions, I think, that you have to make, because of financial reasons, when you have to start increasing the class sizes and reduce staff.
We’ve had those a couple times over the years. But the thing that most bothers me anymore are the (student) disciplinary hearings. I just hate going through those. But there are times when you really don’t have any choice. You have to do it, and you have to do what’s in the best interest of the kids. And when you have someone that’s being so disruptive that it’s hindering the educational process for the rest of them, then you have to do something. I really hate doing that, but sometimes you don’t have any choice.

Brumleve: With the school security issue kind of being in the forefront of the news media recently in the wake of the shooting in Connecticut, what kind of pressures are school districts facing, not just from news media, but from parents, society in general, these days to make sure kids are safe? I mean, are you guys faced with having to do more than you see necessary?
Short: I don’t know that we will be forced to do more than we feel is necessary. But, yeah, you do have to focus on that safety, and we have been.
We’ve made changes. For example, (at our schools) you have to be buzzed in; we do have some security measures in place. We’ve had great cooperation with the city of Paxton police, the Ford County sheriff. We continue to work with them to improve our security measures.
As far as pressure from the community, so far around here there really hasn’t been a lot. Obviously, everybody has concerns and they want us to be aware of things. I don’t want to be so extreme that everything’s locked down all the time. I think at the same time I don’t want to be so extreme to the other direction that you turn everybody loose. There’s got to be some kind of a middle ground in there.
We used to have discussions about closed campus, and I think this situation now pretty much eliminates that discussion. There’s no open campus, which means you’re not leaving during lunch hour and things. I hate to be that way, but it’s just the way society is anymore.
I think there will be an increased awareness of what we are doing and what we need to do — school districts in general, not just PBL.

Brumleve: What goes through your mind when you hear something like that happened?
Short: The first thing: As a parent, it’s just an immense fear. You just feel so sorry for those people, but there’s nothing you can do about it, to help them. The pain they are going through is just unimaginable.
As a school board member, you think, ‘Thank god it didn’t happen here.’ You wouldn’t think hat it would, but you never know. It can happen any place, any time. You just have to try and limit the exposure (to students) and be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Having said that, as far as the NRA’s proposal to have police in every (school) building (in the U.S.), I guess that’s fine, but quite frankly, there’s concern about who’s going to pay for it, and what are you going to do with those people when school’s not in session? What happens if one of them calls in sick; where’s his replacement coming from? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered before we get to that point.
And I’m not in favor at all of having staff armed. We’re very fortunate; we have a very good relationship with the local police departments. They have a presence (here with regular walkthroughs), which helps.

Brumleve: Are there any highlights that come to mind when you look back at your time on the board — maybe a moment that you were really proud of for helping the district accomplish a goal?
Short: The most visible (accomplishment) would be this building we’re sitting in right now (the junior high school). Having this new school really sets the stage for any (future) growth, or any expansion through consolidation or annexation. This is a great campus here now. The city of Paxton’s pretty well situated to be a pretty good player through any type of school growth.
The one that probably isn’t so obvious is, I think this board is pretty proud of the hires we’ve made for our administrative staff. We have some great administrators here. They have the skills and they have the desire to lead this district to see that the students get the best education possible. And it starts at the top and works its way down. Our curriculum coordinator, all of our principals, they are very driven to see the school district succeeds and our children have a great education.

Brumleve: What have you most enjoyed about serving on the board?
Short: Just building the relationships I have, especially with the board members, the administrators. It’s given me the opportunity to know people who, quite frankly, I otherwise might not have gotten to know. I’ve built some great relationships and have made some very good, very strong friends being here on the board. The people I’ve served with, worked with, through the years, I know that if I needed something all I’d have to do is call them and they’d be right there for me. And I think that’s the best thing, and that’s what I’m going to miss the most, too, is just being here with the board, with Cliff, Amy. It’s very tough.

Brumleve: Are you going to show up at the board’s  meetings anyway?
Short: If they screw something up, I’ll be here (he says with a laugh). Cliff (McClure) knows that. We laugh about that.

Brumleve: Are there any qualities that you feel are really required of a school board member — as far as not necessarily knowledge but maybe just their personality traits and stuff like that?
Short: If you’re going to be a good board member, first of all you’ve got to be willing to commit the time. Because it is very time consuming to do the job right. But it’s mainly the interest in doing what’s in the best interest of the kids.
And really, you have to want to be on the school board and be involved in education. And you have to be involved in the whole package — not just curriculum, not just athletics, not just extracurriruculars, but it’s everything that you really need to focus on.

Brumleve: Is there anything that stands out as far as what you’ve learned on the board over the last 24 years?
Short: Two things: Being an official, an IHSA official, being an umpire and being on the school board, I think there’s similarities to both of those. (Being on the board) is kind of similar to standing back behind home plate, and then people don’t like your calls and they’re yelling  at you. Well, you can’t turn around and start yelling back at them; you just stand there and you take it. Same thing here. You make decisions that people don’t like; they’re unhappy with you; and they let you know. You sit here and you take it.
I’m still learning. Twenty-four years the way things have changed, I don’t think you ever quit learning. The one thing I learned pretty quickly is how little local school boards actually can do to affect education; there’s so many mandates and you are so dependent on outside financial sources that it makes it difficult. You do what you can with the information you can and hopefully you make the right decisions.
But I couldn’t even begin to cover things I’ve learned over time. I’m still learning.
It’s a pretty steep learning curve. We’ve had board members who have been on the board just one term, and really they’re just getting up to speed by the time their first term’s over.

Brumleve: How do you think Dawn Bachtold has done as the board’s new president?
Short: She’s been great. She really has. She has the demeanor to handle situations.
Going back to the disciplinary hearings, she has this demeanor about her to calm people down and kind of help settle the situation, yet at the same time she can be tough when she needs to, as well.

Brumleve: Do you have faith in her ability to lead the district into the future?
Short: Oh, yeah, without a doubt. Quite frankly, I hope she, Shawn (Young) and Chris (Thompson), all three, get re-elected. They’re all great board members.
I didn’t have any doubt that Dawn was the right choice to be president at this point.
She will do very well.

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