This time last year, Tera Lee was happy serving as a regular volunteer at Farmington Elementary School. But concern about student-teacher ratios propelled her into the center of a summer-long debate over class sizes and led to a successful bid for the Farmington School Board in November.
This week, Lee, the top finisher in November's election, took her seat on the board. We talked to her ahead of time to see what was on her mind.
You've been involved in the schools for years now, right?
Yeah. I've been volunteering every Friday for, I think this is the sixth year.
But your more visible involvement started earlier this summer with the whole enrollment, class size issue. What prompted you to really take that on as a cause?
I was in the building the day the staff was told of the cuts, the FTE cuts, and it just really bothered me to see how it affected them. Being in the classroom every week I see a difference between a class that has more students and a class that doesn't. Having more than one son, sometimes my son would be with 20 kids and sometimes they're up to 25, 26 and there's a drastic difference. I was very concerned right away when I had heard that meant the numbers would be higher next year.
Was it kind of a learning process for you as you got more involved in that?
Oh, yeah. I was learning how they do it. How they make the decisions, what they base things on. It was learning how other districts do it and how the teachers feel about it, principals feel, administration feels.
Were you thinking from the beginning you would run for school board? Or, how did you make that transition?
It never occurred to me to run for school board. That was the last thing on my mind. And then people of course started telling me that right close to the beginning. "Oh, you should run for school board."
What was your reaction when they first started saying it?
Oh, I don't have time for school board. Or I don't really need to. And I was also concerned that maybe my hands would be more tied on the school board. Tim Burke gets a lot of grief for not being able to say and do things and I was concerned that if I was on the school board I wouldn't be able to try to rally up the community for something they believed in. I finally started seriously thinking about it the last week of July but I really didn't decide until last minute.
What changed your mind?
All the people that were the closest to me, my husband, good friends, people at the school, people at church were very, very persistent. They thought I should do it and huge, overwhelming support of teachers across the district. I would hear conversations through my family members, "Oh, this teacher was saying try to get Tera to run or this teacher was saying -- teachers that I didn't even know. The need. People really seemed to have a desire and a need for somebody to stand up and fight for them like I was doing and they were very excited about it. That really moved me. I didn't expect that outpouring of support.
How was the campaign process? Did you enjoy that?
Yeah. I did. It got to be a lot toward the end because I was door-knocking all the time, because I did want to talk to as many people as possible. I don't want to talk to just one group of people that agrees with me. I want to talk to everybody and so by the end that got to be a little bit -- my family was missing me. My 3-year-old was getting a little clingy. So it got a little long, but I really enjoyed it.
What have things been like for you since the election? Has it been kind of another education process, learning all the stuff that goes into being a board member?
Yeah. It has been. I've been doing a lot of reading. I've had teachers and board members from other places hand me books. So I've been reading all the books and the MSBA manuals they gave us. I went to a training session already and we'll have another one in January. Just going to all the board meetings, the facilities meetings and trying to hit more PTP meetings.
Do you feel like you're ready to go with your first meeting?
I'm very excited about it. I think there'll be a lot to learn, but I'm very excited to do it. I feel like I learned everything else pretty quickly so I think I'll pick it up pretty quickly. You can continuously learn. You'll never be done learning, but I'm very excited to do it.
Are there things you're looking forward to once you're officially on the board?
I'm looking forward to being able to speak my opinion at every meeting instead of sitting in the audience having to be quiet.
You don't have to fill out the blue (comment) card.
Yeah. I can say something when I want to say something. I'm looking really forward to getting to know the other board members. I really like both Julie Singewald and Julie McKnight and I've gotten to know Julie Singewald and Tim Burke already. I'm looking forward to that and I'm looking forward to getting up there and being able to have some really good conversations. Because we're going to have to make some changes with the way funding is, I think across the board. So I'm excited to be a part of that.
There will be some challenges I'm sure especially with the state budget, and who knows what that's going to do for education funding. It's a real fun time to be on the school board.
You know, it's going to be hard because you're going to make hard decisions and you're never going to make everyone happy. So you just really hope that they trust you to try to put the kids first and not take things personally. You just hope that they know your heart's in the right place, because when you have to make cuts the people who are cut aren't going to be happy. That part will be hard but I think it gives us an opportunity to re-decide, redefine what our priorities are and that part I think will be exciting.