Whether discussing a new curriculum, a move to create an intermediate school, difficult budget decisions or other initiatives, longtime Altoona school board member Helen Drawbert’s focus was on students, those who have worked with her said.
Drawbert is leaving the school board after 16 years, she said Tuesday, ending a run she found at times challenging but ultimately enjoyable and rewarding.
“Being a school board member isn’t easy,” she said during an interview from the Black Hills in South Dakota, where she is vacationing with her husband, John. “But you do it because you want to make a difference. ... You’ve got to take care of others. That is why we do this.”
Drawbert, 60, was first elected to the school board in 2002 after she sought the position hoping to help improve students’ education. In 2012 she was named by her peers as board president, replacing longtime President Ed Bohn. She remained in that position for four years.
During her time on the board, Drawbert was part of such efforts as hiring superintendents, helping garner approval of referendums, reconfiguring district schools and budget cuts. She worked diligently to learn more about being an effective board member — she attained the highest training level available through the state school board association — and urged her colleagues be similarly conscientious.
“For me it is always about learning. I always want to learn more, learn how to do things better,” she said.
Ron Walsh, interim Altoona schools superintendent, praised Drawbert’s dedication to being the best board member she could and helping others do the same. He frequently interacted with her in recent years when he was Elk Mound schools superintendent.
“She wanted to make sure she and her board members were doing a good job,” Walsh said. “She was a strong leader, and she showed others how to lead.”
Bohn, a school board member for 20 years, including 11 with Drawbert, said she was dedicated to student achievement.
“She always wanted what was best for all of our kids,” he said.
He recalled Drawbert attending every school board training session she could to learn more about how to be an effective board member.
“Anything to make her better, she did,” Bohn said.
Leaving the board “was a very difficult decision,” Drawbert said, noting she did not decide to step down because of difficulties last school year that ultimately led to the forced resignation of former Altoona schools Superintendent Connie Biedron.
That situation was extremely difficult, Drawbert acknowledged, as were past budget challenges and other matters she was a part of. Being in the public eye and making controversial choices require thick skin and can be draining, she said.
“It is always hard when you have to make the difficult decisions,” she said. “People are going to disagree with you. ... Not everybody understands those decisions or agrees with them. But you have to make them anyway.”
Drawbert described herself as “an education advocate” and said she has taken that role especially seriously in recent years amid funding cutbacks for public schools in Wisconsin and the growth of voucher schools. She won’t be a board member any longer but won’t stop caring about those issues, she said.
With school-related matters taking up fewer of her hours, Drawbert said she looks forward to spending more time with John. She eagerly anticipates not having to plan her life around meetings.
“Perhaps I’ll sleep a little better,” she said with a laugh when asked what she plans to do now that she is not a board member. “There will be new things waiting, and I’m looking forward to that.”
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