NEW ULM - Sharon Gieseke, one of eight candidates for four seats on the District 88 School Board, believes she can bring a "historic perspective" to the board.
Gieseke, 55, has lived her entire life in Nicollet County, in District 88.
"I started school as a first-grader in a one-room country school (District 1288) where I was blessed to have Mrs. Ruth Sands for three years," the candidate recounts, in an e-mail interview. "I entered the seventh grade at the New Ulm Junior High School and graduated in 1975 from New Ulm Senior High School."
Gieseke graduated from a two-year college, Mankato Commercial College, with a senior accounting degree, in February 1977.
She has been married to her husband, Randall, for more than 35 years, and they have three children. Two graduated from New Ulm Senior High School, and one graduated from Minnesota Valley Lutheran School.
At age 20, Gieseke managed the H&R Block office in Gaylord for the 1977 tax season. She helped her husband farm and prepared tax returns for various tax accountants in winter. Her last (paid) tax accounting position was at Wolf & Etter in Mankato.
She was an I.R.S. tax volunteer for more than 15 years, the candidate says. She was responsible for starting the free income tax counseling for low-income/senior citizens at the Senior Center in New Ulm, "a program that is still going strong, but without me."
Gieseke's tax accounting career ended in 1995, when she received a brain injury in a pedestrian/van accident while walking in a New Ulm crosswalk.
Since then, Gieseke has devoted her time to the cause of brain-injury survivors.
"I have been a brain injury advocate for more than 15 years," she says.
She organized and managed a Brain Injury Forum in Mankato, where legislators and the public were invited to discuss brain injury. She organized many town hall meetings in New Ulm for the brain-injured to meet their area legislators.
Gieseke has also been the facilitator/organizer of a monthly support group for brain-injured survivors in the New Ulm area for more than 10 years and in Mankato for more than two years.
Gieseke founded, directs and manages the Minnesota Brain Injury Force, Inc., a non-profit corporation that provides knowledge and support to area brain injury survivors and their families, including brain-injured veterans. Gieseke does all the necessary record-keeping and did the tax preparation to ensure the organization's tax-exempt status. She organizes fund-raisers and applies for grants for the group. She has been the group's CEO/Director since 2010.
Gieseke has also been a volunteer for District 88 for more than 30 years.
Gieseke was encouraged to run for school board by her husband and friends.
"They know the trials I have overcome in my life. They believe I can make a difference," the candidate says.
"I care about the quality of life. District 88 schools reflect the best in us. I will commit to the position," says Gieseke.
Gieseke points out to some personal strengths that she believes she could bring to the board.
"I will bring a 'historic' perspective that others might appreciate," she says. "I have overcome a brain injury by educating myself about brain health and brain function. I never give up hope for a better day!"
"... I plan many public events. My work has people sharing their problems with me. I listen. Evaluate their concerns. I try to help them seek solutions to their problems. I give them ideas on what they can to do to help themselves."
"I am willing to learn."
Gieseke says that "the people are the main strength" of District 88. She adds, "the main weakness is lack of communication."
"We need the citizens to feel they represent these schools. We might find ways to get them involved in making decisions. They could e-mail suggestions," says Gieseke.
Gieseke sees the main challenge facing the district as financial.
"There is a need for more money, and they feel the need to raise real estate taxes. I feel asking taxpayers to open their wallets now is not the answer. Times are hard and very uncertain for everyone. There are citizens (including teachers) who are unemployed or on limited income, the disabled and senior citizens who can not afford this tax increase.
"Look around the area and notice a profession that has existed since Cain and Abel," the candidate continues. "Farmers that have hard economic times will tell you that they reduced spending and diversified their income to survive."
Gieseke lists several alternatives to a tax increase:
A) Raise or save money in other ways: through the Friends of ISD 88 group, promoting the Target program called Take Charge of Education, applying for grants, encouraging public donations and a wider use of volunteers.
"Send thank-you's to people who volunteer or give donations. One way can be to list donations and the names of donors in The Journal. Ask teachers what they need in their classroom that the public might donate. Make a list and post it in schools and in the newspaper. Sell space! Promote a local business for two weeks on a special wall or in the school newspaper. Include some history of the business. For a donation the business can advertise," the candidate says, listing ways in which, in her view, this approach could work.
B) Cut spending on "certain special education"
"My sister started first grade in a country school, and my parents talked German to her at home," Gieseke remembers, explaining further. "The teacher told my parents that they had to stop speaking German and speak English to her, otherwise she was not going to teach my sister. The teacher was serious!
"I have made it my mission when I am in the public to help educate various parents to do the same as my parents were forced to do. I mention this story to parents when I hear them speaking a different language to their child in public.
"I get lots of different responses:
"One, they talk English to me, walk away, laugh and go back to speaking Spanish. I speak some German words, and they become quiet. They listen but have no idea what I said.
"Two, [they say] 'I will speak Spanish all the time to my child because it is bad that he is forgetting it, and he now talks English too much!'
"Three, [they say] 'I speak Spanish to my child to help him remember what country he came from.'
"Make these parents understand they create added cost to the district when they do not try to speak English to their child," says Gieseke.
C) Reward all parents when they help their own child with school work, speech therapy or reading.
"Years ago parents were responsible for educating their own children. To cut spending in 2013, parents need to get involved in teaching their own children," says the candidate.
D) Cut spending and delay some early childhood classes.
"Check out on the web 'Head Start Doesn't Work' from The Heritage Foundation," says Gieseke. "Let the parent teach and keep their child at home until kindergarten. And if parents want these classes for their child, they can help provide some of the funds needed to pay for the education/babysitting of their own child. Continue to provide community ed classes for a fee where you include the parent and the child learning together. Parents might be reimbursed on their state tax return, and it would also force them to file a return for their refund," the candidates says.
Asked what the district can do to optimize learning for diverse student groups, Gieseke says, "try to remind all the students where they live right now, and who is paying for their education: the taxpayers of District 88 in the state of Minnesota, U.S.A."
"Provide walls that give information, maps, history and knowledge about our area towns, counties, the state of Minnesota and the U.S.A. They would learn by sight the shape of each of our area counties, states, etc. The Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag should be said every day, like we did in country school. We were proud of our country back then. ... Use the U.S.A. flag and a state flag, so they see it and can learn how to respect it. Does every child know why do we celebrate the 4th of July? The students need to feel that they 'matter' and that they 'belong' to our community," says Gieseke.
Asked what opportunities she sees for enriching school offerings, the candidate says:
"You may feed a child a fish for one day, but we need to teach a child to catch fish for his lifetime. Go back to the basics!"
"The Comfrey School made a garden with money from a grant," the candidate continues, as an example. "The students helped in the garden, were taught valuable lessons, and the produce was fed to them in their lunch program, which helped the school, too. Too many people do not know how to plant a carrot. They graduate from high school and they should know how to feed themselves by growing their own food... that is priceless!"
Asked how she would counteract what some see as diminishing choices, the candidate responds:
"Is the cup half empty or half full? Think of all you do have and be grateful. Make sure that what you do offer is useful in the child's future, or is the teacher able to teach the subject correctly? We should and need to listen to the views of the people."
Gieseke says she believes in a thoughtful approach to the problems facing the district.
"Mr. Jim Zetah explained to me how to solve a problem," says Gieseke. "State the problem and write it down on paper. Then list all the pros (for) and then list all the cons (against). Which list has more? And what are the consequences of each decision? Make your decision after careful thought..."
She says that she needs to learn more before deciding what her personal areas of interest would be, if elected to the board.
"I will need to visit more board meetings to find what I am interested in/care about the most. People living in the rural areas never see coverage of the school board meetings."