During its regular April meeting, the Watertown-Mayer School Board emphasized that in appointing a new member, it would be important to find somebody with a trait, skill, or quality that the board didn’t already possess.
The board certainly got what it hoped for last week in the four candidates that ultimately interviewed for the seat vacated by Therese Salonek’s resignation, with each candidate offering a unique and desirable perspective. At one point during deliberations, current board member Steve Burns even noted that the board “could throw all four names in a bucket, pick one, and not have any issues.”
Jerry Bruner, a politically active retiree with no children in the district, offered connections to a demographic with which the board has long sought to better connect.
Erin Blair, a young stay-at-home mom who was the top-voter not to be elected in last fall’s election, offered ties to the primary school and Early Childhood Family Education that the board will soon be lacking as the current members’ children grow older.
Julie Sweeney, a longtime Cargill employee, offered a strong financial background and experience on budgets as large as $350 million.
But in the end, Jeff Jackson offered the school board something none of the other candidates could. He lives in Mayer.
“I’m definitely excited about the possibility to connect with Mayer more,” current board member Jennifer Janikula said during deliberations. “Especially his experience with the (Mayer) Fire Department shows that he’s already interested in being a big part of the community and connecting with the people in the community.”
Prior to officially appointing Jackson to fill the vacant seat, Tim Thompson was the only board member that lives in Mayer. He too, said he felt it was important to have better representation from that city.
“That was one of the things I had mentioned at our board meeting a couple of weeks ago,” Thompson said. “I had said that I felt it was important to have a presence, or more of a presence, in Mayer.”
Indeed, a better relationship with Mayer residents is something the district has long sought. During his interview, Jackson noted a feeling of being left out that he said many residents in Mayer feel, given that none of the district’s schools are located in that city, and that the new elementary school was built in the part of Watertown furthest from the city of Mayer, instead of on the south end of Watertown, nearer to Mayer.
“I just think that, at least from my circle of people,” there is a lot of feeling left out by certain people,” Jackson told the council during his interview. “I feel like there is an opportunity to reach out to the Mayer community.”
Watertown-Mayer superintendent Dave Marlette said during the meeting that the district has “talked a lot about how (it) can build a stronger relationship with Mayer.” Given the feedback from voters in recent years, that is not surprising.
When the school’s operating levy increase was approved by voters in 2011, it passed by only 18 votes after failing by a wide margin the previous year. But the operating levy drew much stronger support in Watertown, where roughly 52 percent of the voters approved the tax increase, than it did in Mayer, where nearly 56 percent of voters actually voted against the proposal.
A similar trend was seen in 2005, when voters approved a $51.2 million building bond that included a new elementary school, renovations at the middle and high school, a new auditorium, and new indoor and outdoor athletic practice facilities. While voters in both Watertown and Mayer voted yes to the question that approved the new elementary school and renovations of the middle and high schools, it passed by a much wider margin in Watertown, with 62 percent of voters saying yes. Only 54 percent of voters in Mayer said yes.
And when it came to the ballot question that approved the new auditorium and athletic practice space, voters in Mayer actually rejected that part of proposal, with 53 percent saying no. Fifty-four percent of Watertown voters said yes.
Thompson said it was more important now than ever to increase Mayer’s representation on the school board, since the city has grown significantly in the last 10 to 15 years and now makes up a much larger portion of the Watertown-Mayer district.
“The population of Mayer has really grown,” Thompson noted during the meeting. “I remember when I moved there, the census sign — and that would have been from the 2000 census — said 550. It now says 1,700. It more than tripled in size.”
Although Jackson’s Mayer residency played a large role in his appointment to the board, it wasn’t the sole reason. The board also has sought to improve its public relations ever since it cited poor communication as the main reason the most recent operating levy failed by a 3 to 1 margin in 2010 before it passed in 2011.
Jackson doubled majored in communication studies and marketing at St. Cloud State University, and has worked for the last eight years as a senior research manager at GFK, a German-based market research firm that has expanded worldwide, where he serves as a sort of consultant that works with major companies that want consumer insights.
“I think that as a school district, one of the things that the board has been wanting is more emphasis on communication and marketing functions,” Janikula said. “I’m really excited about the experience he could bring getting better feedback from our community.”
The board was also impressed by Jackson’s eagerness to be involved in the community — he joined the Mayer Fire Department 8 years ago, shortly after moving to the community — and his wide array of interests. In high school, he represented Eastview’s first ever graduating class as the school’s Triple-A (Academics, Arts and Athletics) winner. Jackson told the board that his interest in all aspects of the district would be an asset.
“I understand different aspects of the school environment and how important each are, so I can definitely relate to the community in all of those different aspects,” he said during his interview.
Jackson is married and has two children, a son in kindergarten and a daughter who just turned 4 years old. He said during his interview that his children starting to grow a bit older afforded him the opportunity to consider applying for the school board, and seeing his son in the school district now fueled his interest.
“I’ve always kind of thought about (running for school board), but my plate was pretty full,” Jackson said. “My kids are getting to the age now where you don’t have to watch them every second, 24 hours a day, and my son is in kindergarten now. Now that I’ve really seen more of the school, the special education department, and all of those different aspects, I really want to give back to the school that has done so much for us, especially in the past year.”
Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]