Sheboygan Press: Millennial newcomer easily earns seat on SASD board

SHEBOYGAN – Early results from this week’s election show newcomer Kyle Whelton, 24, with a significant lead over four Sheboygan Area School District Board of Education incumbents, and perhaps no one was more surprised than the man himself.

“I was not expecting to come in first in the unofficial results,” Whelton said on Wednesday. “My reaction? It’s humbling.”

Whelton, a graduate of Marquette University and product of the Sheboygan Area School District, said his political science studies taught him to expect that incumbents will have the upper hand in most races. “So, I knew that I had to work two or three times as hard,” he said.

While votes will not be certified for several days, Whelton’s lead will earn him a spot on one of the board’s four open seats. As of Wednesday afternoon, unofficial totals showed Whelton with 4,609 votes.

His four incumbent opponents included: Jennifer Pothast — 4,137; David Gallianetti — 4,073; Larry M. Samet — 3807; Peter Madden — 3797. Due to the close nature of the race, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin will not call the winners until official results are certified.

Whelton primarily attributes his success to what he calls “a grassroots effort” that saw him and his volunteers knocking on about 2,700 doors to connect with voters personally. His alum status with the district also helped.

“And for other folks it was in part the excitement over a younger person running,” Whelton said. “I’ve been hearing a lot about how my generation is too disconnected from what is going on locally and nationally.”

Whelton will be seated at the April 25 school board meeting. The board will also hold its annual reorganization meeting to vote on officers that day.

Millennial sweep in the city

Whelton, a business analyst at Acuity, believes that having a millennial on the board could help address one major complaint that he’s heard—a lack of young voices when the district or city is seeking community feedback and solutions.

“I have a duty to bring in and engage my generation when there aren’t enough people my age at the table,” Whelton said.

Growing up as a teen in Sheboygan, Whelton said he had the same mindset as some young people that Sheboygan isn’t an ideal place to live unless one is a parent or a retiree.

However, upon returning from Marquette as a young professional, he’s discovered “all kinds of opportunities here,” especially thanks to his involvement with the Coastal Young Professionals group, and now hopes to combat the stereotype that Sheboygan has nothing to offer young people.

He is encouraged by other millennials’ strong showing in the April 4 election, noting how Sheboygan aldermanic candidates Markus Savaglio and Ryan Sorenson are also about his age. Early results show both men easily sweeping their respective races against incumbent opponents.

Whelton said his generation is starting to emerge in the community as new parents with young children who will be joining the district, and it is important for their voices to be represented in leadership. He also looks forward to being representative of someone who grew up in the digital age and offering that viewpoint.

David Gallianetti, longtime veteran and current vice president of the board, was shown retaining his seat in early results. He said Wednesday that the ability to continue serving is “exciting,” especially with a strong showing from his opponents.

“We have some exciting things ahead of us and we’re in pretty good shape,” Gallianetti said.

Both Whelton and Gallianetti agreed that the superintendent search and creating a game plan for Joe Sheehan’s replacement will be a priority for board members, along with continued focus on academic career planning.

Gallianetti does not believe there's been a board member under 30 years old in recent years and thinks Whelton may be one of the youngest ever in the district's history.

“I think it’s great,” he said of Whelton's addition. “He has a lot of energy and did a great job running his campaign. He’s also a Sheboygan kid and has that perspective, along with leadership experience at Marquette.”

“There’s always a yearlong learning curve; it really takes about a year to get your feet wet,” he said. “But, his experience has prepared him well and I expect him to be a solid board member.”

Whelton is looking forward to working with other members. “It’s not healthy for one person to go rogue — you really need to function as a board,” he said. “I’m excited for the work and humbled to be a part of it.”

Abby Kiefer