Four run for school board
Two open seats in New London
By John Faucher
Four candidates are running for two open New London School Board seats in the April 7 election.
The Press Star contacted candidates to learn more about their backgrounds and why they are running for office.
Former school board member John Michels has previously served as a school board director and served as president of the governing boards of New London’s Catalyst and Next Generation charter schools.
He is a professional engineer who retired from Poyry Appleton. He and his wife have lived and owned a business in the town of Mukwa for the last 30 years. The couple has four grandchildren with the youngest enrolled in 4K at Lincoln Elementary School in New London.
Michels also served as an adjunct professor of physics and is a member of the Academic Advisory Council at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point Department of Paper Science and Engineering.
He is a United States Navy veteran, youth worker, praise band musician, high school sound tech and usher for Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.
“I am passionate about putting our students first before politics or personalities. I have no other agenda than success for all students,” said Michels.
“My previous board service, engineering background and grandchild in the district provide valuable experience and perspective,” Michels said.
He said if elected he would practice and encourage a culture of mutual respect and professional behavior and be a careful steward of the district’s taxpayer dollars.
Michels said he will advocate for improved communication between the board, staff, parents and community members. He also said he is in favor of increasing the district’s technical and vocational programming.
Ben Wickersheim has worked in higher education for the past 10 years. He is currently serving as an Admissions Specialist for Fox Valley Technical College. He has two daughters enrolled in the School District of New London.
Wickersheim said he is running because he understands the importance of education as a foundation of life and he believes serving on the board would allow him to become more involved in his children’s education. If elected he said he is looking forward to working with other parents and community members who face the same challenges as families today.
“I believe in the power of collaboration. My time serving in higher education and in the community has given me the opportunity to work on many teams and committees,” said Wickersheim.
“I look forward to helping build a cohesive culture on the board that works together to ensure our students have what they need to be successful and we have a school district that the entire community can be proud of.”
John Heideman is a current member of the New London School Board running for re-election. He is a 1990 graduate of New London High School. He and his wife April own and operate Heideman Farms in Sugar Bush.
The couple has three children: Henry, age 13, Maureen, age 15, and Sarah, age 17. The children all attend New London Public Schools.
“As a business owner, home owner and property owner, I take seriously the need for wise, prudent and responsible use of taxpayer’s money,” said Heideman. “As they say, I have skin in the game.”
Chris Martinson is a self-employed lumberman who has served 34 years in the hardwood lumber industry. He has served previously as a director on the New London School Board from 2016-19. He and his wife Ellen moved to New London 17 years ago. The couple has two adult sons, both of whom attended New London Schools.
Martinson said he helped initiate some changes while serving on the school board and he would like to see more changes.
“I’m a voice for the taxpayer. While the New London School District needs money to operate, it should be balanced with the need for tax rates to be competitive for business retention and attraction,” Martinson said.
He also said he will be a voice for vocational education.
“We need to increase apprenticeships and skilled trades’ options for our students. New London is improving in this, but more is needed,” said Martinson.
The Press Star asked each candidate what are the best solutions for districts dealing with declining enrollment numbers.
Michels said he wants New London to be a destination school district.
“A district where people want to live and work, start a business and educate their children. I believe that due to geography our rural schools will continue to be vital centers of education and community activity,” said Michels.
Wickersheim said, “First, we must make sure we maintain a high-quality education so that the families in our community want to stay and new families consider moving here.”
Wickersheim said the district has to look at all options and failing to maintain facilities can have an adverse effect on the success of students.
Heideman said the district needs to promote the “great things” New London Schools already have to offer.
“We are served by excellent teachers. We have a very competent staff that cares about our kids and facilities and our administration is top notch,” said Heideman.
“We do an outstanding job of preparing our kids for college and technical schools with an unbelievable amount of AP [Advanced placement] and dual credit courses available for our students.”
Martinson believes the first principle in retaining students is for the district to find out why parents are choosing other options, before it can try to improve in those areas and solve problems.
He said the district should market its strengths and used the example of New London’s successful vocational Agriculture program. A neighboring school district does not have a vocational agriculture program and “we have a good one,” Martinson said. “Let those parents know.”
He also said the district can help cope with declining enrollment in the future by doing more things to promote economic growth in the community.
Candidates were asked to share their thoughts on the recruitment and retention challenges that districts are experiencing in the labor market.
Michels said, “Our educators and staff are our most important asset.”
He said the district needs to ensure a supportive management environment and show appreciation to staff for their efforts.
Michels said he feels the district should remain competitive in terms of compensation and benefits, while continually working to improve staff work environments.
“We need to find ways to give teachers more flexible schedules and provide time for collaborative training and professional learning opportunities,” said Michels.
Wickersheim said he feels recruiting and retaining staff is not all about monetary compensation.
“I want New London School District to have a collaborative culture where our educators feel involved in the decision-making process. They need a voice and I would love to get their voices heard.
“If staff feels involved, they won’t be looking to go elsewhere,” said Wickersheim.
Heideman said he feels the New London School District is very competitive in its compensation and benefits for staff, teachers and administrators.
“We have consistently increased options in our retirement benefits. We are a very attractive community to live and work in, thanks to having one of the lowest tax rates in the region and state,” said Heideman.
Martinson said staff input into the benefits and compensation committee is critical.
“I advocated adding the NLEA [New London Education Association] president to the committee and that has been done. I supported two-years ago [along with board members Wegner and Heideman] a compensation model that would be more fair to longer-serving teachers than what was in place,” said Martinson.
He added, “The Golden Rule works great.”
Candidates were asked their views on spending funds to maintain and update facilities at a time when online education is gaining in popularity.
Michels said he feels maintaining the district’s facilities will remain very important.
“Full-time online learning will not replace brick and mortar facilities in the foreseeable future. The district’s own experience has shown that a blended learning experience that includes most of the instruction face to face is much more successful,” said Michels.
“This classroom and online combination provides for student social interaction, co-curricular activities and schedule flexibility.”
Wickersheim said maintaining school facilities are vital in attracting new families to the district and recruiting and retaining staff.
“We need to do what is necessary to maintain the develop our district’s facilities so that we can evolve with the ever-changing state of education. I think we can be creative with current budgets to ensure our facilities are top rate,” said Wickersheim.
John Heideman said he believes the district is doing the maintenance and building renovations that are needed. He said the recent facilities referendum was focused on needs and not wants and that’s why it passed by a record margin.
Heideman also said the current online education being used to reach students and keep them engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic will help shape the future of online learning.
Martinson said he supported the 10-year facilities referendum passed in 2018.
“When all projects are completed, this will update and preserve all our facilities, without a huge tax burden,” said Martinson.
“I helped negotiate a lower amount [13 million] as I felt that we could trim the general budget without hurting education,” said Martinson.