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Michelle Witte talks with District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus after she won appointment to a vacant School Board seat by coin toss. Witte was among seven candidates for the seat being vacated by Jim Gelbmann. (Bulletin photo by Scott Wente)

Witte wins District 833 School Board appointment on coin flip

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Witte wins District 833 School Board appointment on coin flip
Woodbury Minnesota 8420 City Centre Drive 55125

School budget issues drew Michelle Witte to seek a South Washington County School Board seat.

Money -- a quarter, to be precise -- put her on the board.

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Witte will fill a vacant seat on the seven-member board after winning a coin flip that settled an appointment process deadlocked after three ballots.

Witte, a Woodbury resident with deep school and community volunteer experience, won the coin toss Thursday after the six board members could not decide between her and Joe Slavin. They were the two finalists from seven applicants.

Slavin, also of Woodbury, is a middle school principal in neighboring District 622 and is involved in the East Ridge Athletic Association softball program.

Witte, who has been involved in a variety of District 833 initiatives, said she applied for the vacancy because she felt called by budget challenges facing the district. The district passed a referendum last fall but continues to use depleting reserve funds to stave off deeper budget cuts and will face school space constraints as the district’s population grows.

“To me it means there’s really going to be some big decisions made, and I’d really love to be part of that conversation,” Witte said after the selection process.

Witte said she was humbled to earn the support she did when considered alongside “so many great candidates,” but admitted the outcome wasn’t expected.

“It feels a little bizarre,” she said of the coin-flip ending, adding: “I’m so grateful, and I feel for Joe.”

The board’s appointment policy calls for a coin toss if a candidate does not receive a majority of votes after three rounds of voting between the final two candidates.

“This is testimony to how tough the decision was,” said School Board Chairman Ron Kath, who complimented all of the applicants.

The vacancy was created when board member Jim Gelbmann announced he would resign in the middle of his term, which ends December 2015. He did not participate in the selection of his successor.

Witte will be sworn into office July 17.

Coin flip decisions are rare but have been used to fill past vacant seats. Board member Tracy Brunnette lost a coin toss for an appointment in 1998. She was elected the following year.

“Having been through that, it’s just not a good way to do this,” she said during balloting.

In the first two ballots between the finalists, Witte was supported by Laurie Johnson, Katy McElwee-Stevens and Brunnette. Kath, Sharon Van Leer and Katie Schwartz voted for Slavin.

In an apparent attempt to break the tie and avoid a coin toss, Johnson and Kath switched their votes on the third ballot, but it remained evenly split. The flip of a quarter settled it.

District ‘life of the community’

Witte and her husband, Eric, have two daughters, one in college and the youngest entering ninth grade at Woodbury High School. While she lives in Woodbury, Witte said her girls have attended eight schools in the district, including in Woodbury and Cottage Grove. They twice have been affected by district boundary changes and have taken advantage of District 833 choice programs such as Spanish immersion, she said.

Witte said her experiences and her daughters’ education have allowed her to see the value of what’s provided by the school district and how it is the “life of the community.”

In 2006 and 2007, Witte worked on a citizen committee that campaigned for passage of school bond and levy measures. She served on a district budget committee, was involved in the design of East Ridge High School and co-founded booster clubs for East Ridge girls hockey and the school’s robotics team. She serves on the district’s curriculum advisory committee and the strategic planning team for the Nuevas Fronteras Spanish immersion school.

Witte is director of operations for the Merrill Community Arts Center, which includes the Black Box Theatre at East Ridge. She was the lead fundraiser for the multi-million-dollar project. She’s also been involved in other community organizations and served for a time on an east-metro local DFL Party board.

Among the five questions applicants were asked during the interview process was what area they feel the district needs to immediately address.

Witte said there has been a lot of change in the district, including administrative departures and new hires. She called it “natural change” but said the board and the district’s top administrators should demonstrate to the community that they are united.

“That is a really good opportunity now to show that we have a really strong group in place,” Witte said, and a strong commitment to doing what’s best for the district’s children.

Witte said she sees the board’s role as one that makes policy and looks ahead strategically. She also said she fits the culture of the board and district and she works collaboratively.

“I’m a positive person and I believe, and my life as proven to me, that you get a lot further by working with people,” she said.

Other candidates

The others applicants were Kim Graff of Cottage Grove; Molly Lutz of Woodbury; Leslee Boyd of Woodbury; Michael Edman of Cottage Grove; and Jonathan Hunt of Woodbury.

They were dropped from consideration through the first five rounds of balloting in this order: Graff, Edman, Boyd, Lutz and then Hunt, leaving Witte and Slavin.

Edman and Lutz ran unsuccessfully for the board last fall. Lutz lost to Van Leer by six votes in a recount. Hunt had applied for a previous open seat on the board.

Boyd is a former board member who resigned in the middle of her term in December 2012 because her family moved to Oklahoma. She recently returned to Minnesota so her youngest son could complete high school.

Boyd fell out of the running after the three board members who had served with her -- Kath, Brunnette and Johnson -- cast ballots for her but the three members elected after her resignation -- Schwartz, Van Leer and McElwee-Stevens -- did not.

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Scott Wente
Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
(651) 459-7600
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