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Cook reflects on 12 years with school board

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River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

After 12 years on the Hudson Board of Education, Annette Cook is ready to move on. She will not be a candidate for re-election in April.

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Cook said her decision should not be a surprise. "I never planned to stay on the board after my children graduated. It's not that having kids in the district is a necessary qualification for school board, but I never intended to stay on after my youngest was through. I've had a good, long experience, but now it's time to do something different."

Cook learned public service from her parents. In an interview before her first election in 1993, Cook said she grew up hearing "school board talk" around her Tomahawk home. Her father was a member of the area board of education for 27 years.

"With 13 kids in the family, he had to stay on until he saw all of us graduate."

Cook has been president of the school board for the past five years. She has also served all 12 years on the finance and personnel committees, as well as time on other committees including the district curriculum council, pupil services advisory, and transportation. She has also served as board treasurer.

Cook said she is proud of the Hudson School District and everything that has been accomplished during her tenure on the board. "But this district has been well run for a long time. Back in the '80s we had to deal with some administration issues but since 1989 we have had an excellent administration and staff and excellent teachers as well as committed board members who served for multiple terms. In a district that has seen as much change as we have in Hudson, they have always been there to provide stability."

Cook said her philosophy as a board member centers around one question. "Who are you serving?" For her the answer has always been easy.

"First and foremost, it is the students. Our job has always been and will continue to be to provide the best quality education we can for them. We do that while being fiscally responsible and mindful of our duty to the taxpayers, but our primary responsibility is to the students. We need to be accountable to the taxpayers, but our job is to do what is best for students."

Contentious times

Back in 1993 Cook said one of the skills she could bring to the board was her ability to listen. She's had lots of opportunity to hone that skill but never more so than in the past five years as board president. The board has come under increased scrutiny in the last several years and it has been Cook's job not only to listen but also to respond to the criticism.

What she said 12 years ago has served her well. "I don't fly off the handle easily or make decisions too quickly. I have always had the ability to listen neutrally to both sides of an issue. I have a genuine interest in finding out more whenever I can," said Cook.

While board meetings have often been contentious in recent years, Cook said she has worked to maintain good communications among the residents of the district, board and administrators.

Part of her job as the leader of the board has been to create an atmosphere allowing for more input from her fellow board members and to respond to the community's concerns.

"I believe we have a good relationship on the board and with the community, as well, for the most part. As issues come up, we deal with them and we welcome all public input."

Of the board's harshest critics, Cook said she understands their concerns as taxpayers and parents of children in the district, but doesn't understand their "combative nature."

"People are welcome to and should ask any questions they want, but then they need to be ready and willing to listen to the answers they get and talk over disagreements civilly. I understand that people feel frustrated and that our community has different factions that look at the issues of taxes and education differently. We can disagree, but at the end of the day, our goal should be the same - to provide the best education possible to our children."

Cook said she has confidence in the district's new superintendent, Mary Bowen-Eggebraaten. "The transition to her leadership has been very smooth. She has reached out to the board, the staff, the community and the students, and she is doing all she can for this district."

She also had high praise for outgoing fiscal director Arnie Fett. "The district will miss Arnie. He has attended to our finances in a very responsible manner, anticipating changes from the state and heading us in the right direction. School finance is very complex, and he is very well respected around the state for his work."

Cook said that under his guidance, the district's cost per student is in the lowest 25 percent of districts statewide and $1,000 less than the state average. "And we have done that while maintaining our class size, providing our students with textbooks and excellent technology and keeping our buildings well maintained and operating efficiently."

Cook said growth in the Hudson School District and the strain it already has put on district facilities will continue to be the biggest challenge facing the board and the taxpayers. As for the chances of a new building referendum, Cook said time will tell.

"I can't say if there will be a referendum. With new board members and new information, there needs to be serious dialogue with the public, and together the community needs to decide what will be done. We're not at that point now, and I can't say when we will be."

Cook hopes the new board president and the other members will reach out to other districts to see how they are handling issues similar to those faced in Hudson.

"We're not the only ones facing these issues. There are a lot of great things being done out there. It might just be beneficial to see how other districts are handling things."

But whatever challenges are facing the district, Cook believes in the education provided in Hudson schools.

"Our students are among the best in the state. I have seen their accomplishments first hand, and we can all take pride in the students here. They work hard and with the help of a great administration and great teachers and staff, that effort will continue to pay off not only for them but for all of us."

Meg Heaton can be reached at mheaton@rivertowns.net.

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