Dan Willis has occasionally toyed with the idea of running for a school board seat.
He remembers getting a phone call from former Iolan Nancy Mechling when he was just out of college, asking him to fill a vacant seat on the USD 257 Board of Education.
Willis politely declined.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t feel I was the right candidate yet,” he said. “I wasn’t a family man yet. I hadn’t been seasoned yet.”
But the notion never went away.
Fast forward 25 years, as USD 257 voters prepared to vote last fall on a proposed $50 million bond issue to build new schools north of Iola.
The ongoing discussions sparked renewed interest in Willis, who is one of two candidates for the district’s at-large board seat.
“The bond issue got me cognizant of how much background I have that can help this board,” he said. “I figured (now) is the right time if I was going to do it.”
Voters will choose either Willis or Virginia Macha in the April 7 general election. They are vying to replace the outgoing Mark Burris, who opted not to run for re-election. (See related story on Macha elsewhere in today’s paper).
“THROUGH August, September, October, I wanted to believe in that big, pretty new school system and be proud of Iola,” Willis recalled. “I’m a homer. My family’s been around here almost 150 years. I wanted to make it work.”
But as the debate continued, Willis’ views began to shift.
“The more I discussed it, the more I started to hear the ‘no vote.’” Willis said. “And about seven days before the election, I found myself on the ‘no’ side.”
Why the change of heart?
“It was based upon the 30-year, $50 million price tag,” he said. “It was too much for the community to handle that amount of dollars. And quite honestly, I wasn’t ready to give up on the buildings we have.”
Willis noted his grandmother was an Iola High School graduate in 1930. His father graduated in 1950; he did so in 1985.
“We have a fifth-grader who is going to graduate in 2022. By the time my grandchildren get through, it’ll be a 100-year cycle. I’m not ready to give up on that.”
Neither were a majority of USD 257’s other voters, who soundly rejected the bond issue.
Willis believes his background would serve him well.
He’s in his fourth year as safety and environmental manager at B&W Trailer Hitches in Humboldt. Prior to that he worked for 20 years in various managerial positions at Haldex Brake, the last 12 years as maintenance manager.
“I’ve been around budget cuts and layoffs, and had to make those difficult decisions,” he said. “I have the background to be on the board and serve. I’m prepared. My greatest asset is I’m open-minded and I’m non-judgmental. I don’t have a platform or an agenda to run on. My open mind is going to let me determine what’s the best course.”
WITH USD 257 facing budget cuts, Willis vows he can look at issues fairly.
“What’s right is right,” he said. “You can’t change your mind because of convenience or the circumstance. If you separate the emotion from the economics, the decisions get more clear.
“When Haldex closed, my family and I were forced to potentially relocate,” Willis continued. “We looked at it. One thing we noticed, where school districts are rated highest, the school facilities are up to date.
“I didn’t say new,” he stressed. “There’s a connection with up-to-date schools and a successful education.”
As for USD 257, “I have my opinions,” he continued. But if the district must consider cuts, “you have the largest dollar values with the least amount of classroom disruption. I’ve been to several meetings, and I understand the decisions this board has made.”
While he doesn’t envision another bond issue for a while, there are improvements that need to be made promptly.
“The only thing that makes sense to me, is do what the structural engineering report says we must do,” he said. “As soon as possible, we need to get the basement, foundation issues taken care of, and get floors fixed, that kind of thing. Those are the ‘have-tos.’”
But improvements for USD 257 don’t rely solely on bricks and mortar. Relationships are vital, he said.
“I don’t’ know if there’s anybody who can match my ability to be versed in what the public/private relationships can be in developing children and their potential readiness for the workforce. I feel pretty good about my relationships. I stake my career on relationship building.”