When Matt Mohr filed for the Luther School Board five years ago, he was unopposed. It took no election for him to join the board. This time, as board president, he’s an incumbent with two challengers. When school district voters go to the polls for the February 14, 2017, election – they’ll choose between Mohr, Tony Rumpl (featured here) and Gerald McCauley.
Before the FFA/4H banquet at Luther High school last week, Mohr sat down with The Luther Register for a conversation about the board election, his service and the future of the school district. Questions and answers are edited for clarity and to accommodate for the pauses in our interview, to visit with friends and neighbors who stopped by the table before the banquet.
LR: Tell us about when you first ran for the board in 2013.
“I had been in contact with (Luther attorney) Bob Craig. He was a longtime friend and had been talking about getting off of the board. He encouraged me to run and knew I had been interested in serving on the board. I ran for his seat. and no one else ran against me,” he said.
“The reason I’m running now, I haven’t fulfilled my personal conviction to the school. I really haven’t. I have six kids that will be served by the school and I need to serve in some capacity.”
LR: If elected, what would you like to do in the next five years?
“Currently, we have no way as a district for a quality management system, no formal way of asking our customers, which is the students, how we are accommodating them, whether it’s worthwhile to them. We never go back after a class or after graduation and ask them, ‘did we serve you well?’
“If you don’t ask, you’ll never improve. It’s taking the business philosophy and applying it to education. We just lack having it here, a formal quality management system. It’s a matter of instituting policies that people understand and abiding by them, maintaining the policies and going back and reflecting how good your policy is. We do this in business all of the time. In education, it’s an after-thought.
“We have a whole lot of people; the school is full from faculty to administration to volunteers to the board, everyone is committed to serving the school in the best way they can. But it’s disjointed.
“Whether I’m serving on the board or not, I wish Luther and the new leadership would get behind a quality management system.”
LR: What are parents talking to you about?
“They’re pretty quiet. I don’t know if it’s out of respect of my time with my kids, but parents are respectful at events, they really are. I don’t get approached with single person issues. I really don’t. I don’t think it’s from lack of being out there. I’m at a lot of school events!
LR: Looking at your first term, do you have any “do-over” wishes? In October 2015, voters in the district rejected a $32 million bond issue that would have addressed space issues, improved athletic facilities and many other things. The measure failed with 85% “no” votes from 735 voters, according to the Oklahoma State Election Board.
“It was too large. Charles (DeFuria, fellow board member) and I both were pretty strong when we were discussing it. Charles and I both thought it was too big for the Town of Luther. But majority rules so we rallied around it and offered it to the public. But in retrospect, it was way too large.
“I don’t have any do-overs. I completely believe in the board’s function. Everyone has one input vote. If you are in the minority, you take it and go to the next issue. Don’t make it personal. You know, make that next decision best for the school.”
LR: What about another bond issue?
“To that end, what I’d like to do is go back and pick out what is really needed, and try to pass a bond and do an election later in 2017. What the public told us was pretty clear. I would like to go back to the public and ask for their support. There is a still a need there, we’re still busing kids to three different campuses. And feeding at three different campuses. There’s a need we need to look back on and try to fill.
“I think the biggest need from the last one was the cafeteria at the middle school, and the safety surrounding that is accessible through a controlled point, instead of having multiple open access doors. Those are the things I remember from the last bond issue. But back then you were dealing with 950+ students. and growing, now we’re dealing with 870 and shrinking. So you have to go back and see what your need is now.
LR: Do you think this is temporary shrinking?
“I do. We lost a lot of transfer students. We had been enrolling all that we could get. We lost a significant number to homeschooling families.”
LR: During the time of the bond election, and when the board began discussing money problems and potential Reductions in Force, and Four-Day School weeks, it wasn’t long until a public outcry came in the form of a citizens’ petition to call for a State Audit. How do you reflect on that and how’s the climate now?
“I think it will get better. A number of things have changed and will soon change which is exactly what the opposition has been voicing. It’s a painful thing. Regardless of your stand on any issue, it’s painful to see the district go through such an emotional roller coaster that divides the community.
When you volunteer for the good of the community and see the fallout of controversy, it’s tough.
LR: Did you ever want to quit?
“No. But it has made me more resolved that on each decision, make the best decision you can make and then get over it immediatley. Don’t take it personally. Move on.”
LR: Were you surprised about the call for the audit?
“I was surprised at the call for it. I guess my surprise came in my naiveté. I believe especially in a small community, if you have questions, the administration and board is accessible enough to get things done. If you don’t get it from one administrator, go to a board member. Ask those questions.
“I think questions were asked and when it was an unsatisfactory answer to them. … they immediately jumped to the conclusion that there must be something under the covers. Yes, keep digging. But do it in a less formal, less malicious – malicious might not be the right word, way. Everybody has the right to investigate on their own what’s going on.
“I think we could have resulted in the same outcome if the opposition would have looked at the previous audit findings … because I think this audit will reflect some of the previous findings. The cost (of the state audit) to the district is enormous …it’s a $40 thousand bill for an audit the school does every single year.
“I don’t think there was a realization that we do get audited every year. I don’t think that was well-known. Hopefully it is now.”
LR: Tell us about your job. There has been some comments about your career with Xerox and the school’s contract with the copier supplier. What is the background on that?
“I’m an engineering manager at our manufacturing plant in Yukon. I manage a group of five engineers.
“If whoever brought up that (allegation of conflict of interest) had looked at my voting record and listened to what I said at board meetings, they would’ve understood. I was against changing to Xerox. I abstained every time the issue came up, not because of a potential conflict, I get no commission. I work for a salary. I get zero monetary benefit or future job security out of the contract. 2014.
“Part of the deal when Dr. Buxton came was to challenge annual contracts. He wanted to see where he could get the best deal .. that was one of the ones he challenged. And Xerox was the low bidder. I can remember before a board meeting and he told me the issue would come up. I told him, ‘you do realize I work for Xerox.’ He replied, ‘Xerox bid the lowest and you were not part of the decision.’
“There’s so many of those things. Just properly vetted, just ask the right person and it could have saved the district a lot of money and eased the tension in the community and in the board room. Each individual has to do their part in maintaining the school. It’s the community. If you want a successful school, you’ve go to do your part.
LR: Does your family support your service on the board?
Laughing, “They don’t like it. They took an extreme distaste to me serving on the board when we got the death threats. In retrospect, if whoever has the issue would come to a board meeting … I have no knowledge, but only imagine it was fueled by lack of information. So show up and get the information.
“This is the town where I grew up. My wife and I used to live in Edmond but we saw it as valuable to move out here. I’m not giving up on it.”
LR: From the State Capitol, looks like education funding is going to be the same or worse than this last year. How does it look for Luther?
“The hope came from the report from our treasurer at the last meeting. We are 50 percent finished with the year and have only spent 32.8% of the budget.”
He said mid-year adjustment affecting next school year might result in up to another $200,000 loss because that number will reflect the lower enrollment number.
“Although it was painful at the time, the cuts we’ve made in personnel were deep enough we wont have to go through that again. That’s hopeful. We’ll do this budgeting until we recover, until theres a bright future out there.”
Mohr said one of his best memories serving on the board is getting to stand on stage at both the eighth grade and high school graduation ceremonies in May.
“Because that day, every kid that shakes your hand is smiling with this nervous fear. It’s great being part of it with them. That one day, no one is talking about bad news. Every one of those kids is hopeful.”