With last week’s appointment of Market & Johnson vice president Jason Plante to the UW System Board of Regents, Eau Claire will be well-represented on the governing body of Wisconsin’s public university system.
Assuming he is confirmed, Plante will join RegentsPresident John Behling of Eau Claire and UW-Eau Claire student Regent Ryan Ring on the board, giving the state’s eighth-largest city three of the 18 seats on the panel.
Plante, 43, one of five owners of Eau Claire-based contractor Market & Johnson, was one of three appointments to the Board of Regents announced last week by GOP Gov. Scott Walker. The governor also appointed Cris Peterson, owner and chief financial officer of Four Cubs Farm in Grantsburg, and reappointed former Wisconsin Labor and Health and Human Services Secretary Gerald Whitburn of Wausau.
In an interview, Plante identified workforce developmentand finding ways to combat the brain drain and rising student debt as his priorities in advance of his expected official start date of March 20. He is replacing former Lt. Gov. Margaret Farrow, who resigned in December, and will serve the remainder of her term, which expires May 1, 2020.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to represent the Chippewa Valley,” Plante said. “But more importantly, the training and development of young people is going to be the biggest challenge that almost all business owners face, and so if I can somehow play a little part in helping form solutions that make things better for them and for employers throughout Wisconsin, I think that’s a fantastic opportunity.”
Finding solutions to the labor shortage, in part by persuading more talented young college graduates to stay in their home markets or in the communities where they attend UW System campuses, is important for Wisconsin’s economy, as is helping students avoid ever-expanding debt loads, he said.
“Tuition is rising, student debt is rising, and it’s going to have a huge economic impact, so it’s really important to try to find the sweet spot between getting kids ready for future careers and getting them out into those careers as fast as they can with the highest quality education they can and not building up huge debt that they’re trying to overcome for years after graduation,” Plante said.
After substantial funding cuts for the UW System over the past decade, Plante acknowledged the system budget will present one of the biggest challenges of his new position.
“The budget is the million-dollar question, probably literally and figuratively,” Plante said. “I think being responsible to the taxpayers and balancing the wants and needs of the universities is probably the most challenging thing the board does. ... Making sure, first and foremost, that the universities have the budgets allotted to provide the services and the training and education for the students has to be top priority, and balancing all the other needs is kind of that close second.”
Behling, who encouraged Plante to apply to be a regent, said he has worked with Plante in business and through the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce and HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital board.
“I know he’ll be a great advocate for the UW System, and it will be great to have another member of the Blugold family on the board,” Behling said.
North High grad
Plante, who graduated from North High School in 1992 and from UW-Eau Claire in 1997 with a degree in marketing, has deep roots in the field of education. Not only did he begin his career as a sales manager for Spectrum Industries in the education market and help run the Northwestern Wisconsin Education Association teachers convention in Eau Claire for several years, but his grandfather once headed the English department at Memorial High School, his father worked in the school district and his wife is a teacher.
Market & Johnson also executes a number of school construction projects for levels ranging from K-12 to the UW System.
As for potential conflicts of interest related to his work at Market & Johnson, Plante said he doesn’t believe that will be a major issue because he views the Board of Regents’ role as more about providing vision and policy guidance than approving individual construction projects. However, he said he would abstain from voting if a conflict arises.
Rural area voice
Behling said Plante’s presence on the board, as the only member hailing from the construction industry, will make it more representative of the state economy as well as providing another voice from rural Wisconsin. The Board of Regents historically was composed primarily of members from the Madison and Milwaukee areas, so the regional balance is a welcome change, Behling noted.
“With more representation from western Wisconsin, we can call attention to projects that are part of the local economy,” Behling said.
While Plante approaches the position with a global mindset, he acknowledged the presence of three regents from Eau Claire, one from Grantsburg and one from Woodville (OEM Fabricators President S. Mark Tyler), has the potential to benefit west-central Wisconsin.
“Obviously we all have biases in our geographic areas,” he said, “and you’re going to fight for what’s right for the entire system but also what’s right for the universities in this area in particular.”
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