Gibraltar School Board candidates talk about issues in the district before the election

FISH CREEK - Two seats are up for election on the Gibraltar School Board in what's been a tumultuous year for the board and school district.

The board saw two members resign toward the end of the year: board clerk Angela Sherman from her second term and first-term member Amie Carriere. Also, district Superintendent Tina Van Meer is retiring after 10 years at the helm and a search is underway to find her replacement.

The seats up for grabs in the election are not the seats Sherman and Carriere resigned; those were filled by appointment. Instead, these are the seats currently held by board treasurer Don Helm, who is seeking reelection, and vice president Mike Peot, who isn't running.

Heim is among four candidates who survived a six-way primary held Feb. 15 to advance to the April election, along with Jessica Sauter, James Smasal and Patrick Voight. Sauter is on a school committee and has served on the boards of several organizations in the county, Smasal has spent his professional career in education and Voight is a veteran who worked on cyber education while in the U.S. Navy.

The Advocate asked candidates to answer a short survey to let readers know who they are, why they're running and what issues are important to them. Candidates are listed in alphabetical order; some answers have been edited for length or style but not for content.

Don Helm

Don Helm
Don Helm

Age: 59

Current occupation: Owner, Door County Nature Works/Designworks

Education: Not answered

Family: Wife, Polly; daughters, Ellie, Hannah

How long have you lived in your community? 28 years

Public service experience: Current Gibraltar School Board member, serving as treasurer; chair of Finance Planning and Campus Maintenance committees; member of Extracurricular and Community Relations committees

Contact information:

Jessica Sauter

Jessica Sauter
Jessica Sauter

Age: 43

Current occupation: Self-employed at e-tailer, inc.

Education: University of Colorado

Family: Husband, Steve Sauter; two children enrolled at Gibraltar

How long have you lived in your community? 20 years

Public service experience: Current member of Gibraltar Student Learning and Instruction Committee. Current board member, Gibraltar Booster Club. Past president, Peninsula Preschool Board of Directors. Former board member, Door County YMCA and Door Community Auditorium.

Contact information: Not answered

James Smasal

James Smasal
James Smasal

Age: 61

Current occupation: Retired from public school education after 34 years; my last position was superintendent of the Kewaskum School District

Education: Specialist certification in Administration and Leadership, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh; Master's in Educational Leadership, UW-Milwaukee; B.S. in Physical Education, coaching certification, UW-Eau Claire

Family: Wife, Lori; five grown children

How long have you lived in your community? We built our retirement home in Baileys Harbor last October

Public service experience: Kewaskum School District administrator, 2012-21. Winneconne High School principal, 2001-12. Associate high school principal and district athletic director, Neenah School District, 1998-01. Assistant principal/athletic director, Little Chute High School, 1995-98. Physical education/health teacher, varsity coach and middle school athletic director, Mequon-Thiensville School District, 1989-95.

Contact information: 262-685-8047,

Patrick Voight

Patrick Voight
Patrick Voight

Age: 39

Current occupation: Senior cyber security consultant

Education: High school diploma; some college, military and professional certifications

Family: Wife, Christina Voight; three children

How long have you lived in your community? I’m a native of Ellison Bay and Gibraltar graduate. After high school, I served in the U.S. Navy for the last 21 years and moved back here last summer upon retiring from active duty.

Public service experience: As a senior enlisted leader in the Navy, I continually facilitated instruction to sailors that supported cyber security, information technology and program management training programs. While serving as a senior program manager, I partnered with the National Cryptologic School to create a universal cyber skill development and training program for over 1,500 U.S. service members. That program provides a pathway that takes new military recruits from an apprentice to expert-level skills proficiency across the National Security Agency.

Contact information:

Why are you running for the board?

Helm: I have gained extensive knowledge and experience on how the district operates and how best to be impactful for our students, staff, faculty and community. Both of my daughters received an excellent education at Gibraltar and I am very interested in maintaining that level of excellence.

Sauter: To serve our community in a positive and constructive manner while advocating for continuous improvement in our students’ educational opportunities by facilitating open communication between the administration, school board and the Gibraltar community.

Smasal: I have 34 years of public education experience in Wisconsin, starting as a support staff person, then athletic coach, teacher, assistant high school principal, athletic director, high school principal, and the last nine years as a superintendent. I retired and my wife and I built a house in Baileys Harbor so I feel very blessed and want to give back to the educational system and continue to help children. Additionally, there seems to be a lack of transparency by the current board. Board members resigning, appointments being made in private, is not in line with creating transparency.

Voight: My primary motivation for running is to ensure that a parents’ right to decide what is best for their child is upheld and to find solutions for the challenges facing our school.

What makes you the better candidate for the board?

Helm: I believe I am the best candidate because of my willingness to listen to all points of view before making any decisions. I am fair-minded and dedicated to the school, serving as a board officer and on several committees. Since I have joined the board, we have become more fiscally responsible, increasing our reserve fund and lowering our mill rate.

Sauter: I have had strong involvement in both the Gibraltar school community and the wider Door County community. My capacity for listening to all sides and inclination to seek collaborative consensus, along with using creative thinking to find solutions to unique challenges, will help the district as we proceed through the next three years.

Smasal: Passed a $28.4 million capital referendum with 61% support. Issued debt while lowering the district mill rate. Raised academic achievement on the Wisconsin Forward Exam to 16.4% above the state average in English/Language Arts and 15.1% above the state average in math. Designed and implemented multi-age, project-based charter elementary school. Developed the “Above and Beyond” Teacher Compensation Model in collaboration with teachers, board members, administration and MRA Consulting. Created district-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and Social Emotional Learning programs. Developed Career Pathways for students as part of academic and career planning. Cultivated community partnerships with Boys and Girls Club, Chamber of Commerce and Moraine Park Technical College. Developed a K-12 coding and STEAM curriculum.

Voight: I grew up here and understand the values and challenges of the local communities. My background would provide much-needed leadership and accountability for the board to the community. My military background has equipped me with the skills to assess risks, analyze complex situations and make data difficult decisions. The board needs leaders that can voice unpopular questions, make tough decisions, and provide accountability of those decisions to the community.

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On which issues do you plan to focus when in office?

Helm: Transitioning from a pandemic to an endemic environment and hiring a new school superintendent, we will hopefully continue to make decisions regarding the pandemic that are in the best interest of our district. We will continue to listen to input from our community and faculty to keep our school safe. We will conduct an exhaustive search for the right candidate for superintendent.

We also will be challenged by declining enrollment and maintaining excellent academic standards. We need to study other districts and their methods of addressing this issue to understand how to best tackle this situation.

Sauter: Fostering respectful cooperation between the board, administration, staff and the community as we seek to safely return to pre-pandemic levels of achievement and classroom environments is essential to the district's well-earned reputation of excellence. We must continue to evolve our curriculum, facilities and team in order to offer the best learning environment and opportunities to our students, thereby ensuring that we provide a well-rounded and successful educational experience for every individual Gibraltar student.

Maintaining the financial health of the district, which is currently in good condition, as we face uncertain economic times is also a priority.

Smasal: Create innovative programs to attract and retain students while preparing them for college, career and life. Create high expectations for all students and develop programs to reduce achievement gaps.

Collaborate to create a culture of pride, trust and transparency. Develop relationships with technical colleges and universities to increase opportunities for students and staff.

Increase communication and transparency and improve public relations for the district. Develop a long-range plan to maintain facilities and create innovative learning spaces.

Attract and retain high-quality staff by creating a culture of trust and engagement; provide development opportunities to staff.

Partner with businesses and workforce development agencies to provide meaningful work experiences for students; network with organizations and faith communities to build a community approach to teaching values for students.

Voight: We saw with the COVID protocols here and in national news stories how easily school boards voted to ignore parents’ rights to decide what was in your child’s best interest, from masking to gender identity and grooming initiatives. It’s a slippery slope that’s gone too far. I will move to amend existing policies for increased reliance on parental consent and transparency for classroom lessons and student group activities.

I would also advocate for more special needs resources for Gibraltar. It’s already a highly competitive landscape to attract teachers, and there are much fewer teachers with that type of background. As a parent of a child with special needs, this concern is very close to my heart.

How do you feel the district has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, and should some things remain in place if the pandemic continues to subside?

Helm: The pandemic has been challenging for everyone in our community; the school is no exception. As a board, we focused on keeping students and staff safe and continuing the educational process. I feel we supported our faculty, staff and students to the best of our ability. We installed an ionization system in the school building for air quality control, offered optional remote learning, and mandatory masking has been required for a majority of the school year to date.

Sauter: I believe that the school board and administration acted in the manner they deemed most appropriate for the entire school community at each stage of this global crisis. I commend all those involved in the decision-making process for the huge amount of time they spent looking into as many options as possible and managing these tough decisions.

As we continue to navigate through the educational consequences of the past 24 months, incorporating lessons learned about the importance of in-person learning; consistent attention to the social, emotional, and mental health of students and staff; and a commitment to incorporating the viewpoints of all stakeholders will make Gibraltar a stronger, more effective school community.

Smasal: I’m not one to point fingers or lay blame, nor judge the actions done previously. The community has resoundingly stated the need for children to be in school, not educated remotely.

With that, we have a duty to do what needs to be done, within our power, to keep students in school. Balancing personal freedom versus school system success is difficult and cannot be taken lightly, yet this is what a board member is elected or appointed to do. We need to choose to do something for the common good of the organization. Consequently, wearing a mask is not a political issue, it is about achieving our goal. Masking amid highly contagious periods of a viral pandemic is a tough but responsible course of action. I believe we are all hoping the worst is behind us and we can set a “new normal” focused on student learning.

Voight: I believe many school districts around the country did what they thought was best at the beginning of the pandemic. However, they overreached their authority by requiring mandatory masking for all children. As parents, you should be making the decisions about what is best for your children.

Now we’re seeing the results of these decisions play out with our kids as masking and remote learning have been shown to cause delays in development. It confirms what we have witnessed in our homes as parents over the last two years. I’ll work with stakeholders to get our kids back to Gibraltar standards.

Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Gibraltar School Board candidates talk about issues in the district