The Grand Island Public Schools Board of Education has a new board member.

At a special board meeting Wednesday night, the board voted 8-0 to appoint Julie Gortemaker to its open ward C position. Gortemaker fills the remainder of term for former board member Roger Harms, who resigned. Patsy Steenson, a former GIPS teacher, was also interviewed for the vacant seat.

Harms’ resignation letter to Superintendent Tawana Grover states “I am resigning my position on the GIPS Board of Education.” No reason for his resignation is given. He did not respond to requests for comment from The Independent.

Board Vice President Dan Brosz told both Gortemaker and Steenson at the conclusion of their interviews that they would be filling Harms’ term, which ends on Dec. 31, 2020. He said Gortemaker would need to file for re-election as an incumbent by Feb. 17, 2020, if she intends to seek election.

Gortemaker said she lived in Grand Island for 11 years and lived her entire life in Omaha prior. She said her 8-year-old son attends Seedling Mile Elementary School, where she serves as PTA president.

Steenson said she taught for 39 years, including nine at Gates Elementary and 24 years overseas in Germany.

Board member Terry Brown asked both finalists what their experiences are in public education. Steenson cited her experience as a former classroom teacher and as a board member of Clean Community Systems, where she educates local children about recycling.

Gortemaker said her experience with public education is an unconventional one. As a child growing up in Omaha, she attended Omaha Catholic Schools and did not know much about public education because everyone in her family had attended Catholic schools. She said that when she and her husband moved to Grand Island, they learned that GIPS is “excellent” and felt confident sending her son to Seedling Mile — her first exposure to public education.

Brown also asked how these experiences would influence both finalists work as a potential GIPS board member. Gortemaker said growing up in a Catholic school system, parents were always involved, whether it was volunteering for art teachers, at science fairs or making lunches for teachers during teacher appreciation week.

“I really think that was a huge part of my upbringing and is something I would like to see in my child’s upbringing,” she said. “I think it is very important for students to see their parents involved in school and that they support the teachers.”

Steenson said as a teacher, she was motivated, dependable and conscientious, which are qualities she would have as a board member.

“I have lots of energy; I may be retired but I still have energy,” she said. “I have always loved teaching and working with kids, so this is an offshoot of that where I am still involved, but not right there in the classroom.”

Board member Erika Wolfe asked both Gortemaker and Steenson what the district’s mission statement, “Every student. Every day. A success” means to them. Steenson said it is about taking a student from where they are at and ensuring they progress in their learning.

“Every student is not at the same place. You give them a variety of activities and different types of learning activities,” she said. “Everybody is so different in their learning. Some are visual, some have to hear it and others are hands-on. You need to find out where that child is at and move forward from there.”

Gortemaker said GIPS’ mission statement means that every student is worth something, is valued for their voice every day and can be a success at school.

“It is not a cookie-cutter formula of every student needing to go to college or graduate with such a degree,” she said. “It is a success for that student and whatever that student needs to be successful. It is a win for them during the day and having them feel worth something. They can go home and have that feeling that if something were to happen at home, they can go to school and tell their teacher. That is a success to me.”

Board member Carlos Barcenas asked the finalists what their visions for education in Grand Island are. Steenson said she wants to see the graduation rate to improve to ensure good workers, motivated people and people to “take care of us when we get old.” She added the school district plays “a big part” in this.

Gortemaker said one of the things she enjoys about GIPS is its diversity. She is proud that her son is able to experience that at Seedling Mile. She said her vision is to have every student in Grand Island embrace their community’s diversity.

“The school my child goes to is so diverse and so different than the upbringing my husband and I had,” Gortemaker said. “We both have a very non-diverse school background. I am so proud that, from the very beginning, my son knows what diversity looks like, he knows to be accepting of other students and he knows that everyone is worth something no matter what color their skin is or what language they speak; everyone is equal.”

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