January 8, 2021: National Board Appreciation Month

This week, Don visits with Lincoln Board of Education President Kathy Danek during National School Board Appreciation Month. Learn about the duties of a school board member.

It’s National School Board Appreciation month, and we are thankful for all school board members past and present that have served our community.

Have a question, ask in the comments and we will try to address it in future shows.

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Join us for our next “LPS Board Update” on Friday, Jan. 8 at noon. You will be able to find it on the LPS website, the LPS Facebook page, and the LPS YouTube Channel.

Video Transcript

Don Mayhew 0:00
Hello, I’m Don Mayhew, one of your Lincoln Board of Education members and welcome to LPS board update. This show is an opportunity for us to learn more about what’s happening around Lincoln Public Schools and for you our community to ask questions. Joining me is LPS Communications Director Mindy Burbach.

Mindy Burbach 0:18
Welcome. Thanks, Don.

Don Mayhew 0:20
Mindy, let’s start off with a quick pandemic update. This week we kicked off the second semester. Staff and students returned after a two week winter break. Are there any changes to protocols as we start our second semester?

Mindy Burbach 0:33
Well Don, as we’ve been saying all along, we continue to work with the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department just like we have, since the summer and all semester long last semester, we make adjustments as we learn new information. The second semester are going to include those protocols that we’ve put into place and adjusted. But we also want to remind everyone that we’re not through this yet. So it’s so important that we still do that self screening every single day. It’s an important tool for us to help reduce that risk of COVID-19. So if you or your family member has any symptoms stay home. We continue to ask families to take temperatures, check for symptoms before coming to school. The use of face coverings are still very vital, very important when around others that will help us reduce the risk of spread. We continue to encourage washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer along with cleaning those frequently touched surfaces. And then the physical distancing. We’re trying to distance people out from others as much as possible. I think if we do those, not only in school, but in our community as we interact with one another, we’re really going to do our part to help reduce that risk of spread. We are having conversations with the health department about vaccinations. We know that is a hot topic right now, educators are in the phase 1-B tier two for receiving the vaccine. There’s still a lot of information coming out about that. We are working with the health department, both the state and local health department on plans of how and when that will be distributed to our educators.

Don Mayhew 1:57
All right, Mindy, thank you so much for that update. I know that it was recently reported in the Journal Star that Lincoln has one of the lowest infection rates in the state. And part of that is is the work that we’ve been doing at Lincoln Public Schools, the protocols that we’ve been following, and working to try to keep kids and therefore the community safe. So that’s good information for us to have. All right. Next we’re going to move on to our interview with LPS Board President Kathy Danek to talk about what it is like to be a school board member. January is National School Board Appreciation Month, I have the privilege of working with six other extraordinary citizens who volunteer their time and dedicate their energy to ensure that children of Lincoln each and every one receive a public education. Joining me today to have a conversation about being a school board member is Lincoln Board of Education chair Kathy Danek. Kathy, thank you for joining me today

Kathy Danek 2:51
Thanks for having me, Don. it’s exciting to talk about school board service.

Don Mayhew 2:56
Kathy, you and I were first elected together about 20 years ago, you’ve been my longtime friend, colleague, ally. We’ve been through a lot of history in that time. Take yourself back 20 years, what prompted your decision to first become involved with Lincoln Public Schools

Kathy Danek 3:17
Basically it was service to my neighborhood and my community. I was I was I’ve been a lifelong resident of Northeast Lincoln. We were growing fast. We were opening two new high schools. My children had just graduated from high school. And it was about giving back to my neighborhood to make sure that kids that came after my children had access to a free public education, a strong public education, because that’s what my kids got.

Don Mayhew 3:44
Thinking back to that time. I remember, for me, there was such a huge learning curve. And I had a full time job. But then there was also this huge, unpaid part time job. And I remember spending 20 to 25 hours a week trying to learn everything. There are committee meetings, there’s taking phone calls and emails, there’s a lot that’s involved. Again, thinking back 20 years ago, when you first got elected, how much time were you spending in your job as a board member?

Kathy Danek 4:11
Oh, gosh, 30 to 35 hours a week. I still spend an average of 20 to 30 hours a week, but 30 to 35 to learn just to learn all the ropes of being a school board member. It’s it’s more than just getting elected and showing up to a meeting twice a month. We have a significant number of committee meetings because our board is built on a strong committee structure. We have had to learn about a budget that had more zeros in it than I’ve ever seen in a checking account. And what that budget did and what our parameters were. We had to learn about service to our community and that while we are elected by sub districts, we serve every child in every in every quadrant of the city of Lincoln.

Don Mayhew 4:52
So a lot of people wonder, you know what a board members actually do? What How would you describe the job of a board member?

Kathy Danek 4:59
My first job is public relations with my community, I have to be able to answer emails, phone calls, sometimes. Sometimes keeping people from losing their temper, sometimes letting them talk and calm themselves down. But my number one rule of thumb is never give anybody something that’s not true. And if I make a mistake, I go back and correct. And the second piece is to make sure that I have facts to help them deal with the situation. Our Our job is about policy. It’s about setting the governance up so the superintendent can administer the School District. And that’s a really important issue, our policy manual is about four and a half inches thick when it’s printed. And there are thousands and thousands of policies to go through that guide the school district. But that’s the board’s job. We set up policies. We tell them what they get to say how, and if we don’t like how we go back and have them fix what they’re doing.

Don Mayhew 5:59
you are our board president this year, this is the fifth time that you have been board president, as far as I know, that is a record and says something that your colleagues have chosen to put you in this seat so many times. And what a year to be president, with the pandemic, with the protests, there has been a lot of time and a lot of people don’t know the President is is still one of seven. But you end up being the point person for a lot of communication. A lot of conversations with the superintendent you’ve been doing. An incredible job of responding to constituents has, as they have been, you know, writing to you with concerns on one side or the other. What has that been like for you being in that position this year?

Kathy Danek 6:45
It’s trying to keep a cool head in a violent situation or a stressful situation, people are hurting. And sometimes they have to come and holler at us because they don’t know where else to go. And they didn’t have answers. And we were trying to find answers. This was a situation in the past year. Part of it was something we’ve never been through on the back of a successful bond issue that we barely had a chance to celebrate. We passed a bond issue in February we closed this goes down in March because of a pandemic, that it’s an it’s a world crisis. And nobody knew how to deal with it. And I am so grateful. so grateful that our citizens trusted us to make some of these decisions from working with our school district with our community and with each other.

Don Mayhew 7:36
You mentioned the bond issue. And I wanted to ask you about that almost a year ago, and it seems like a very long year, we passed a $290 million bond issue. And that was the third bond that you and I have worked with in our time on the board, we did a lot there was a lot of public outreach, there was a lot of work to get come up with a cogent list of what our needs were and how to take care of the most urgent of those needs. In your time on the board, what are some examples of the things that we have done to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars,

Kathy Danek 8:14
one of the best things that we’ve learned is we set up a 10 year plan, I think, former board member Keith Prettyman for coming up with that 10 year plan idea where you prioritize all of the needs of the district. And the board adopts a 10 year plan. We have updated as needed, because needs change. And that plan has guided us and then we took the bond issue resources from the 2006 bonds was the first time we did that. And it was $250 million. And all of us were like, Oh my gosh, what is this, this is more money than we’ve ever asked for. But we were able to roll the dollars down and make a better use of those dollars because we were we were super stacking projects. And as you as you take the projects, and you order all of this stuff to put in a building or all of the you’re renovating every high school out of that bond issue, you can all of a sudden make better use of your dollars because you’re able to order enmasse and then get everything done over a timeframe. That’s been that’s been a really, really cohesive part of working on that bond issue and that planning piece that became a backbone of how we take care of our district as stewards of the buildings that we serve in. It’s not just about new bond issues aren’t just about new buildings. They’re about updating existing infrastructure within the buildings we have. And that was the biggest part of the 2006 bond issue, updating these four existing high schools to match what was in the brand new North Star and Southwest, which it’s hard to even think of them as brand new when they’re 20 years old. Almost 20 years old. That was a big deal in the city of Lincoln. When they walk through their schools and they, from my northeast community, it took us 40 years to get a competition gym in northeast high school that serves the Northeast community. That was in the 90s 40 years, we’ve come up with a way now that we don’t have to wait 40 years to get those needs taken care of. The other thing is good stewards is the people before us had good things in place. Ground-coupled heat pumps, I talked to Doug Evans the other day, because he was one of my mentors. And I thanked him for the ground, couple key pumps. And he shared with me that you know, I voted against that the first time it came in, I just couldn’t imagine how it would save us money and be the best thing for our district. But when you when you have a bad vote, and you know, you’re wrong, you come back and say, Hey, I was wrong. And I’m glad it worked out. And he’s right, had we not put those ground-coupled of heat pumps in. And that fresh air exchange, and renovated all of our buildings so that ground-coupled heat pumps that heat and cool our every existing school building. That fresh air exchange has, has put fresh air into the classrooms of students in a year when we needed a fresh air exchange more than any other year. It was about the educational environment when we did it, we had no idea the far reaching effects of what we were doing years ago.

Don Mayhew 11:30
And they also they paid for themselves pretty quickly too

Kathy Danek 11:32
20 years you’ve paid for them. And we heat and cool a building for what it costs us to just heat it before. Now you update windows, you update doors, you’ve updated security. All of those things have come into those three successive bond issues, and every building gets similar. That’s a really big source of pride for me, when I can walk into a building and we serve every student in a similar manner. It just makes me smile.

Don Mayhew 12:03
You mentioned one of our predecessors. And I’m glad you did. That’s one of the things I wanted to ask you about. You and I have 20 years of experience, Barb Baier’s right behind us with 16 years of experience. We’ve got three board members in their second term and one in his first term, we have a pretty good spread of experience. And when you and I were new, board members at that time took us under their wing, shared with us history, institutional knowledge, as you said that we had our mentors on the board, I know that you have worked hard to work in that capacity for our newer board members. And it feels like we have a pretty good system for passing that information on. And as you said, you know, a way of doing things. We’ve got processes. There are things that were tried years and years ago. And maybe they worked maybe they didn’t work and we you know, we have memory of that and that informs our decisions today. Talk about that a little bit. What are some of the things that you took from your mentors or past colleagues that inform your board service today?

Kathy Danek 13:09
A lot of other shared experiences are that Doug Evans, Marian Price, Cathie Petsch, there was my high school journalism teacher helped me make the decision to run for the school board. She She is such a good mentor because she could talk about what service meant and what we were supposed to do. And she’s still one of my dearest friends today. Then we go into Ed Zimmer with the historical knowledge of Lincoln and Keith Bartels even a Mike Nolan had things that they had us look at, how do we make sure that we’re taking good financial care of the district and making sure that what we’re doing has, has the ability to pay for it without making the taxpayers overextend themselves, just making good use of taxpayer dollars. Our predecessors whether they’ve been on the board a long time or a short time, everybody comes with some semblance of service, that we can all look back on and gain something from that from that service.

Don Mayhew 14:14
One of the things I’ll never forget is Kevin Keller, several years ago saying that a vote we had had, it was a kind of a contentious vote, not angry, but it was there were a lot of very different ideas going into it ended up being a four three vote and he said this was a four three vote, but it’s going forward as a seven oh decision. And that wasn’t a new concept. But that was such a great way to talk about it, that we can discuss things we can argue even. But once the vote is taken, then we go forward, that is the will of the board and that becomes the direction of the district. And I think that that’s something that we’ve been very good at doing. We don’t keep trying to re litigate past votes or taking shots at each other.

Kathy Danek 14:58
And if we make a mistake, we correct it. That’s the that’s the big piece for for that that that was we had just come through a crisis, we had the district office had burned to the ground, we were trying to rebuild a new district office, we were talking about what location to put it on. And when we, as a majority of the board, felt that it was more important to have a centralized location, then to move it on to a place that we didn’t, we weren’t positive and could serve and long term. As it turns out, we made a really good decision as the board to keep it on the same block with a new house number. And put a different kind of development in that in that little community, where the where the district office now says, that was that was the 4-3, 7-0 decision for three votes seven or decision. And all of us knew, you know, we all knew why we were voting for me it was access of my neighborhood, I think Barb Baier was the same way both of us serve a lot of Title One schools, access with a bus to get to the district office to all of those services, a centralized location where parents can come if they needed help, making sure their kids get the services they need for their child’s education.

Don Mayhew 16:18
We talked about some of the challenges of this last year, you talked about a past challenge. One of the things that we spend a lot of time working on, as you said, We are the representatives of our community, and public engagement is one of our most important and first jobs. And we’ve had a lot of that public engagement in this last year. And we’ve had families, staff, members, students, community members, all reaching out to have conversations with us sometimes one on one, sometimes at board meetings. And as you mentioned, you know, people are are hurting and you’re like that, especially they want to reach out to us. Let me ask from your perspective. Why is it so important for us to have these conversations?

Kathy Danek 17:00
Because the board, the board is a conduit for communication with the community board is not the school district, we’re elected by the community. It doesn’t mean we have to do everything they say. But it does mean we have to bring their concerns and make sure that concerns are addressed. I can use some things from this pandemic discussion of 50,60,70 times questions that brought up in a meeting and I would sit down with Dr. Larson afterwards he goes “well, we did address that. Well, we did address that. Well, we did address that” over and over and over again. And it was ironic that all of us thought it was something new. But we have a really good staff in place that has already taken what they can and been really good about trying and what I call it trial and error. They talk about what’s the good, the bad and the ugly about this proposal? And how do we best serve the majority of kids and make sure every child has what they need.

Don Mayhew 18:02
So what would be your advice, then to people who feel like they have something on their minds, and they want to talk to a board member,

Kathy Danek 18:09
one of the best things is our phone numbers are on the district website, they can pick up the phone and call it if you google me you’ll find it I have had the same phone number since 1972. So it’s not like I’m hard to find. I’ve lived in the same house since 1977. I think even talk to me at the grocery store, you can call me or we can set up a meeting. Right now we can probably set up zoom conversations. All those things are available, I answer emails. There’s a variety of ways of conversations. If you ask me to keep it confidential, I will keep it confidential. But my number one thing when you when you call me with an issue as a as a community member, it’s always settled best if it’s settled at the lowest level of administration. Call me about a concern in your school building. I’m going to ask you have you talked to the teacher? Have you talked to the principal? Because if you haven’t talked to either one of those individuals in a building, and then I take it to the superintendent, the first thing he’s going to say is have they talked to the teacher? Have they talked to the principal, because they’re the ones who can settle it. If it’s a student services that’s, Russ Uhing is phenomenal at working with, with the families. It might be somebody who needs a communication link, maybe they’re bilingual family, or they’re just learning English. All of those, we have all of those services available. So my job is to channel them to the right place. And I think that we try to channel them. Let’s get your problem solved. Let’s do it at the lowest common denominator because that affects it the fastest, fastest way each and every time.

Don Mayhew 19:50
On the other side of that I know that we’ve all experienced this where somebody has a concern. And I think all of us in our lives you know, we tend to associate with People who probably kind of see the world the way we do, who generally agree with us about things. So it can feel like everybody thinks that this is correct that this is common sense. And they will come to a board meeting, or they’ll write us an email or a phone call and then we don’t do what they want and they say, “Well, you didn’t listen to us.” Or “You didn’t listen to me.” And I know, I spent a ton of time on the phone or reading emails, I know, you pour through everything, and you do an incredible job of trying to respond to everybody. I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that they’re not the only ones we’re hearing from, we’re hearing from a lot of people in a lot of different situations. And a lot of those opinions can be very different if we didn’t do what you want. And it’s not because we didn’t listen, it’s just because we disagreed with, with what you said, I mean, how do you you know, deal with that? How do you reconcile that.

Kathy Danek 20:51
One is, I’m an ear, I have to listen. And board members do better work if they listen more and talk less. board meetings have been a good example of that in the last year, the others, I served with a lot of really talented individuals. Barb Baier’s been phenomenal this year and answering emails with very direct, succinct communications. And one of the things I’ve learned when you have 4000 emails to get through in a matter of a month, or 400 a week or 100 a week, if somebody is answering it really well. You can either copy and paste and say thanks, Barb, for this great communication, say, I believe you’ve already been asked, it’s already been asked and answered. Thank you for your information, we’ll keep it under advisement. They have to be heard, they don’t have to be, you don’t have to do what they say. The other thing is, we have access to a lot of really talented people that are experts in their field. We’ve been blessed this year, I can’t imagine going to a pandemic without Dr. Bob Rauner on our board. I mean, that’s been a gift from high above because he knows so much about this. And when you can vet something, he’s very cautious. He’s very, very measured. And he talks faster than I do, though so I have to always slow him down. Because I can stay on point with him. We take the talents of our board, when we’re working with our community. And we share those communication pieces. Bob’s a doctor, Connie’s in the foundation world, Lanny works in tech, you work in tech, and in good service. We all have different gifts, Annie works at the university and as a filmmaker, we all have different gifts I’ve been in, in volunteer service most of my adult life. So I think that, that you take people’s best assets and you deploy them. And we do that as a board, because our egos don’t get in the way.

Don Mayhew 22:51
Yeah, you talked about that. And I think that’s one thing a lot of people don’t know, because every once in a while, I’ll get an email a bunch of times saying before you cut anything, you need to cut your own salary. They don’t realize that these are volunteer positions for the time that we put in.

Kathy Danek 23:06
When you talk about the volunteer service, and people don’t know we don’t get paid. I always tell people as a school board member, I get paid in smiles and hugs. And this has been a really challenging year.

Don Mayhew 23:16
It has.

Kathy Danek 23:16
You can’t the smiles. And they’re not allowed to give me the hugs. Last fall and winter. before winter break. I toured every single building in one way shape or form some at the beginning of the week of the first two weeks of school. And then all the way up to the end of this of the first semester, I was in every single educational building that we have a public school, it is the one gift that we have, we get to see the joy of a child. And I can’t give you anything better than that of what we do in bsrvice than the joy of seeing the child.

Don Mayhew 23:53
One of the benefits, I think that these positions are unpaid, and it takes so much time is that we tend to attract people, for the school board who just really genuinely are interested in service. And I think that we have been very fortunate in terms of a lot of the partisanship that you’ll see at the federal level or even locally at some levels. In many ways, we seem to be largely immune from that. I think that a lot of people who watch our meetings can’t necessarily tell who the Ds and the Rs are. Because for us it’s really not about partisanship or parties. It is all all seven of us and over the years have been pretty united and just wanting to do what is best for kids. Now we may have disagreed on how to get there. But I but I think we’ve been very unified in that goal of trying to get to you know, all means all that is a very meaningful concept for us.

Kathy Danek 24:55
It’s really important that people understand we have to serve every single student, and serving, every single student means they all have access to a strong public education that serves them, regardless of what, what their advantages or disadvantages are, what their income is. Because education is the gift, that is the creation of all careers. I’m so proud of the last 20 years, if you think of just over two decades, we’ve put in a career academy, we’ve added early college access for northeast in the next year or two is going to start up with the East Campus, Bryan Community is setting up a health focus school at the new Northwest high school. I mean, all of these are goals that 20 years ago, I didn’t imagine that we would ever be able to have access to the ROTC program at Northeast, I fought for like four years to get that in. And when it finally came in, with kids from all over Lincoln that work in that program. The kids are phenomenal. I just think when you have opportunities for students, and opportunities that help them get a career path, they grow into adults. And they come back home to Lincoln, because this is where they got that great education that jettisoned them to a career that they love.

Don Mayhew 26:26
All right, well, I’m going to say that your job is not completely thankless, because I’m going to say, thank you so much for the work that you do for representing northeast Lincoln, but also all of Lincoln, and for being such an incredible voice for kids for all these years. So thank you so much for the work that you do. And thanks for for joining me today.

Kathy Danek 26:49
And Don, can I just add that it’s school board recognition month. So can I just add to anybody who has served on a board with us over the last 20 years… Thank you for your service. It is not thankless it’s a joy every single solitary day. Thanks for all you do.

Don Mayhew 27:05
I appreciate you saying that. And if the people who are watching if you have any questions about what you’ve heard here today, you can ask on our Facebook page or on our website LPS.org by clicking on the blue contact us button and we’ll work on answering your questions on our next episode. Watch LPS live board preview on Facebook Tuesday, January 12, at 5pm before our Board of Education meeting. You can find the agenda for our board meeting on our website. Thank you all for joining us today.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai