Natrona County School Board Interviews: Michael Stedillie
This is the eighth article in a series of interviews on the 15 candidates running for the Natrona County School District (NCSD) Board of Trustees.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
- Ulysses, by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Michael Stedillie is seeking his first term as a school board member, after serving as a teacher in the Natrona County School District for 30 years.
"I started teaching in 1974, in Nebraska," Stedillie stated. "And then I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to take over the Department of Educational Theater at Kelly Walsh. And I hoped to shape it in such a way that I hoped my students would leave the program feeling good about their contribution and knowing its value."
While Stedillie did primarily teach drama, that wasn't the extent of the classes and subjects he taught.
"I taught public speaking," he said. "I taught all the classes in theater and stagecraft. I taught most of the classes in the language arts department. Also, my minor was in history and government, so I really enjoyed substituting in those classes, when somebody needed a cover. I taught literature and composition at Casper College as an adjunct for about 20 years, one night a week."
Stedillie officially retired in 2016 but, unofficially, he hasn't retired at all.
"I couldn't stay retired," Stedillie said. "I have friends who have retired and who've said 'That's it, I'm done. I'm never going back.' And they think maybe I'm a little crazy for doing so, but it's so much fun."
Stedillie currently substitutes for teachers in the school district but he knows that, if elected to be a member of the NCSD Board of Trustees, he'll have to put his substitution plans on hold for the entirety of his term.
For decades, Stedillie has been invested in the lives of the students of Natrona County and by serving as a member of the Board, he hopes to continue to invest in their lives, albeit in a different kind of way.
"People ask questions like, 'How are kids today different from when you started?'" Stedillie shared. "They're not. They're kids. Technology has changed. They have, on their device, access to the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the human race. But that's the only difference. Kids are kids, with all that is good about that. They are the future. They are the manifestation of all that is good. And we need to love them. We need to teach them. We need to show them the way as well as we can. We have an absolute obligation to care for their education, for their wellbeing; to help them grow up, to help them become part of this world. And if we fail in that obligation, we fail them."
Stedillie referenced Sergio Maldonado, who is currently running to be Wyoming's Superintendent of Public Instruction.
"Sergio calls it a 'Divine Inspiration; I call it a sacred obligation," Stedillie said. "We have a sacred obligation to take care of kids."
A big component of the teaching, and the taking care of kids, is not just the teachers and school staff, Stedillie said. It's also the school board - those who decide curriculum and policies. Stedillie believes that he would be an excellent addition to the NCSD Board of Trustees, because of his experience and because of his vision.
"Having taught somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 students, having taught quite a variety of subjects, and having served on dozens of committees over the years - everything from teachers' supervision to curriculum development, to school district business and finance - I think that even though a beginning board member will face a learning curve that's incredibly steep, I think I bring to it a set of skills, and a set of experiences that qualify me to step from the classroom to boardroom," Stedillie offered. "From following policy, to helping create that policy, I want to help create the vision of a school district that exists for one reason; and that is to make a better world for our students."
Stedillie said that the recent contention in school board meetings, regarding topics like banning books in school libraries, and even last years' mask policies, have not swayed him from wanting to serve. In fact, he said, those are some of the reasons he thinks he would be an asset to the Board.
"I compliment the district leadership for their willingness to listen to so many different points of view to create policy that helps guide the district through many different challenges to do what they think is right for kids," he said. "In terms of contentiousness, I like to say that I am cursed with the blessing or blessed with the curse of being able to see more than one side, or other points of view. In terms of what people are saying, if that is what they believe - if they really believe that - they not only have the right to say what they think, and to express their concerns, perhaps they even have the obligation to do so. Anyone can stand back and complain. It takes having the courage of one's convictions to try to do something about it. Having said that is not the same thing as saying that I agree with particular points of view. I agree with some, I disagree with others. But I do not object to their expressing their point of view."
Several parents, and current school board nominees, have stated that they want to see the school district "get back to the basics" of what they believe school should be. Stedillie believes they've never left the basics.
"I get awfully tired of hearing people say, 'The schools have to get back to the basics' because we never left the basics," he stated. "I get tired of hearing people say 'Teachers aren't teaching this' when I was there doing it, and the other language arts teachers were doing it. They were meeting every day to come up with a strategy to improve the quality of education that they were presenting to the kids, because they want to help the kids. But guess what? It wasn't just that group. You walk down the hallway, you hear math being taught. You hear government and history being taught. You hear kids learning the things that people say they aren't learning. But they are."
Policies in the school district are becoming more and more scrutinized by parents and Stedillie said it's the responsibility of the board to create policies, implement them, and edit them if need be.
"One of the biggest responsibilities of board members is creating the policies that guide the district," he said. "The game plan, if you will. There are more policies than you could count, but they are all written for particular reasons, and they work. Take the policy for when someone challenges a book. This policy has been in place since 1982. And it's been refined over the years. And it works like this: If a concern is raised, you create a group of people to investigate and make a recommendation. The board could accept or reject that recommendation whenever they wish. But if an appeal of the recommendation is made, as what happened recently, then the board itself will take up the mantle of responsibility and make the final decision."
There's more to it than that, however.
"That's just one tiny, infant, decimal thing that the board does," Stedillie continued. "The board exists to come up with the game plan, implement the game plan, and then run a district that is so diverse as to boggle the imagination, and to try to anticipate every conceivable thing that may come up. Is that possible? I don't know, but I think they're doing a pretty good job."
Of course, as with most things, creating and sustaining those policies requires the right type of financing.
"So, they create the policy, implement the policy, and then refine it as necessary," he said. "And that's not something that can be done overnight. It's an ongoing process. So, they have a very good policy committee, but now let's deal with finance. How do you pay for all of this? The school district doesn't get to determine how much money they have to operate. There isn't a magic money tree in the parking lot at Central Services where they can go and just pull of bills whenever they want them. The amount of money they receive from the community is set. It changes from year to year, based upon the economy. The amount of money they get from the legislature is set. The amount of money they get from the federal government is set. And that's what they have to work with. And they have to live within those very real economic limitations."
Stedillie said that it's a hard job, but that it's one that the current school board has done remarkably well over the years.
"I am frequently amazed that they can do it, but they do, year after year after year," he said. "I admire the people who step up and are willing to take that responsibility. There are school districts all over the country that don't have people that will do that. And look at what we have now. We have a nine-member board that functions incredibly well, and we have 15 candidates who want to become part of that process. Isn't that incredible?"
While some candidates argue that they want less government involvement in schools, Stedillie said it's a necessary aspect.
"What are some of the big challenges in funding? Well, naturally you have to pay for all those programs, and we're not just talking about instruction," he stated. "We're talking about all the enrichment programs. We're talking about all the social programs. A huge percentage of what we get from the federal government pays for those social programs; programs that would largely go unfunded if the federal government did not provide the wherewithal to run them. So when you hear things like, 'Well, we need to get the government off our back, we need to get the feds out of our lives, we need to reject federal funding,' and then, in the same breath, say 'I like this social program, I like this one, and this one and this one,' then you must ask the question: If we reject that funding, how are we going to pay for those programs?
"Are there strings attached? Certainly. Certainly there are strings attached. But I like to think they're good strings. The government doesn't just say, 'Here's a pot of money.' The government says, 'Here's money and with that money, we want you to do this and do this and do this.'"
Of course, one of the big issues that candidates are focusing on, is the free and reduced lunch program. As an educator, Stedillie says he knows how important the issue of food insecurity in students actually is.
"How important is the free and reduced lunch program?" he asked. "It's incredibly important. A kid who is food insecure isn't thinking about dangling participles and pronoun antecedents. The kid is not thinking about algebraic functions and lesions. The kid is thinking about food. I'm not going to say it's easy to teach a kid that has had a good breakfast, but it's a heck of a lot easier than teaching a hungry student."
Stedillie continued, stating that "It amazes me that someone would even consider not wanting to feed kids. I don't understand it. I am very much in favor of the free and reduced lunch program. As a matter of fact, I'd rather just get rid of the words 'and reduced' and just say free breakfast and lunch for everybody."
This program is just one of the programs that Stedillie thinks should be implemented. But, he said, with this program and every other, you need the people to be able to implement them. And that's currently a problem, not just within Natrona County, but within the country as a whole.
"We face all these programs, we have all these classes, we have all these goals, we have all these objectives," Stedille said. "We have all of these things that we want to accomplish, but where do we get the people to do it? It's all very nice to say we have all of these objectives. But how do you achieve them? You need the people. And that's getting harder and harder these days."
Stedillie said that, currently, Natrona County is having a hard time hiring teachers.
"When I came to Wyoming to teach back in 1986, Wyoming ranked sixth in the nation for teacher salaries and benefits.," Stedillie said. "There were so many applicants for every job. It was incredible. Over the years, for various reasons, other states overtook Wyoming and at one point, Wyoming ranked 42nd. It has since crawled its way back out of that and seems to fluctuate between 15th and 20th. It went from having a plethora of applicants for every position to, at times, wondering who in the heck are we going to get to teach this?
"So the district has its goal to provide competent instructors, and not just teachers, but all school employees. By the way, I believe that every school employee is a teacher. Anybody who interacts with kids is a teacher. If you see a custodian working hard to keep an area clean, that custodian is teaching you something. If you see a custodian walk by and pick up a piece of garbage and throw it away, that costodian is teaching something. Now it's up to the kids to learn the lessons, but it's up to the district to make itself attractive, so that they can get the applicants that they need."
Stedillie said the way to do that is to offer satisfactory salaries and benefits which, again, comes back to funding.
Stedillie mentioned the various social issues that are currently being discussed at school board meetings, and he offered a simple blanket answer to all of those issues.
"We are here to teach everyone to the best of our ability," Stedillie stated. " No one should come to school feeling unwelcome. No one should be marginalized. Everyone should feel that school is home. I believe very strongly in inclusion. I believe very strongly that we have to meet every child where the child is, when the child comes to us, and start there.
"And if we can't give them everything they need, we at least need to give them everything we have."
To read K2 Radio News' coverage of the other Natrona County School District Board of Trustees candidates, visit this link.