Gussie Lewis school board interview

Gussie Lewis responds to a question from DeForest Area School Board member Sue Esser in an interview to fill an interim board position. At the Oct. 11 meeting, Lewis was selected by a vote of five-to-two.

The DeForest Area School District’s Board of Education again has all seats filled with the selection of interim member Gussie Lewis.

The selection process was relatively brief in the Board’s meeting on Monday evening, with only two applicants. Both candidates were asked prepared questions by each of the Board members and given time to ask the Board their own questions before the Board deliberated and voted.

The first candidate was former teacher and early education specialist Beth McKay, followed by Lewis. In open deliberation board members agreed that although there was anxiety in having only two applicants, both were suitable strong candidates. The only comment pushing one way or the other came from board member Jeff Hahn, who pointed out that McKay’s experience on the district’s referendum committee showed prior interest and involvement and should be accounted-for in weighing the candidates.

This seat is the second interim seat to be filled in less than two months. At the end of August, in a much longer meeting with five candidates, Stephanie Sarr was selected to replace Steve Tenpas, who moved out of the district earlier in the summer.

Not long after Tenpas officially announced his resignation, board member Jeff Miller, who was re-elected in an uncontested April election, announced he would be resigning from the board. Both interim positions will be up for election in April 2022.

As happened in the previous selection process, the board agreed to take a vote with a presumption that if there was not a clear winner, deliberation would continue with subsequent rounds of voting. In what appeared to be a surprise to board members in August, Sarr was selected in the first round, by a vote of six-to-one. Lewis was chosen in the first round, by a vote of five-to-two.

“It first started when I saw that they had a Windsor position open, but I’m from DeForest,” said Lewis in an interview following the meeting. “My girls have been in this school a long time--more than a decade--and so I thought it’s time. A lot is going on right now and I need to get out there and help. So this is it.”

Lewis is a DeForest resident formerly of Gary, Indiana, and originally from Lavonia, Georgia, in the northern part of the state, near the border of South Carolina.

Lewis moved to the Midwest to pursue a Master’s Degree in Biology at Purdue University and later moved to the Madison area with her husband, who is a Madison police officer. Moving to DeForest became a question of the best place to raise their family and for their children to go to school, Lewis said.

“We asked, ‘Where is the place to be?’ and everyone said, ‘DeForest,’” said Lewis.

Lewis is now a research scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Waisman Center, which focuses on the study of human development, developmental disabilities, and neurodegenerative disease.

Lewis arrives at a time in which school boards nationwide have been the focus of intense public interest, at times incorporated into broad partisan political strategy, and with escalation at times that has led to board members, including in districts in Wisconsin, resigning citing concerns for the safety of their families.

“It is rather contentious, isn’t it?” said Lewis, asked if such developments had given her any second thoughts. “I just didn’t see DeForest being that way, not our residents. We may have difference of opinions, but I think that we’re civil, so I wasn’t really concerned about that.”

A frequent concern among school districts and local government at large, is that of community representation in leadership positions. Whereas the school board had been made up of all Caucasian members, Lewis and Sarr shift that demographics to include two Black female board members.

“DeForest never ceases to amaze me,” said Lewis. “I think here they really put the children first and they see the need for change and they go with that and that is very important. Our children are watching and like I said before, you can’t be what you never see. So I’m just really proud, very, very, proud of the board.”

The Board are looking to fast-track Lewis’s swearing-in a bit so that her first meeting would be an evening “retreat” session on Monday Oct. 18.

Although Lewis has a lot on her plate getting up to speed with the rest of the board, she will soon be deciding whether she would like to compete for the seat in an open election.

“I just want to do the work of the board to the best of my ability and as that gets closer, I’ll start to work on that,” said Lewis. “But I think that I would run.”

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