Dave Welsch began his first stint serving on a local school board at the Class 1 Star School in Saline County.
“The president of the board had completed his term, and one of the other board members gave me a call and asked if I would like to serve on the board,” Welsch explains. “I said ‘yes,’ and that began a 30-year journey as a school board member.”
Dave and Deb Welsch were married in 1980, and they moved into Dave’s grandparents’ home near Milford, Neb., and began farming. Both University of Nebraska education graduates, they worked off the farm as well, substitute teaching, driving a school bus, working at the drugstore and working for Nebraska Extension.
Farming full time, substitute teaching for Milford Public Schools and serving on the local Class 1 school board seemed like a natural fit at the time. “I learned about school budgets from the treasurer and about the many state forms that need to be filled out from the secretary,” Welsch recalls. “The board also mowed the grass, cleaned the school and emptied the chemical toilet once the outhouses were no longer allowed to be used by the state.”
From that early Class 1 experience, Welsch went on to win a seat on the school board for MPS 23 years ago, and he has been the board president for nearly two decades. Welsch believes that it is important for farmers to serve on local boards of all kinds, including the school board.
This is nothing new. According to a recent Nebraska Association of School Boards survey, about 75% of those serving on school boards are connected to agriculture.
“Farmers bring a longer-term perspective to their school boards,” Welsch says. “Typically, farms are passed from one generation to the next, meaning that the current farmer has often lived his entire life in his school district. They understand the community values and what is expected of their schools. Community members also have a long-term relationship with the farmer, so that they know them better.”
“In Nebraska, where communities are largely comprised of agriculture-related businesses, having farmers serving as board members provides for a strong and meaningful connection between the school and the community,” MPS superintendent Kevin Wingard says. “They are in a leadership position that allows them to advocate for the farming community, and it also allows them to advocate for careers in agriculture.
“With Nebraska schools relying on local property taxes as their main revenue source, farmers that serve on local school boards have the unique opportunity to provide a quality education for our students, as well as being able to stress fiscal responsibility, especially when discussing property taxes.”
“As self-employed businesspersons, farmers are very aware of how property taxes affect their bottom line,” Welsch adds.
In his role on the school board, Welsch continues to bring the farming perspective to the table. In 1993, the Welsch family farm became certified organic. “We knew that we wanted to choose a road of getting smarter and staying smaller,” Welsch says. “While there wasn’t much of a premium for organic crops at that time, we knew that farming organically was the way we wanted to take care of the land.”
Eventually, Dave and Deb were farming 600 acres of organic crops and had 200 acres of pasture. Due to the extra labor requirements of farming organically — without using conventional chemical weed control and fertility tools, for instance — that’s about the equivalent of farming 2,000 acres conventionally.
“We also raised beef cattle, chickens, sheep and a few hogs,” Welsch says. “In 1990, we started to direct-market all of these meat products and eventually reached the point that nearly all of the meat we raised went directly to our consumer customers. As the organic premiums grew and the direct marketing grew to serving 500 families, our financial situation improved as well.”
As a farmer, a student of agriculture and a lifelong educator, Welsch has used these opportunities to share his farming knowledge.
“Our high school science teacher asked me a few years ago to come in and share how nitrogen is used in agriculture,” Welsch says. “The class was studying the nitrogen cycle, but she wanted some real-life experience on how nitrogen is used, so I was able to share about soil testing and how that information is used when applying nitrogen. I also talked about how soil testing can be used for lawns and gardens, so that more students can relate to the application.”
Dave and Deb started making changes in 2005. “My dad was turning 75 and wanted to slow down,” Welsch says. “Dad was a great mechanic, a hard worker, and he allowed me to make my own decisions on the land that I was renting from the very beginning.”
Welsch says that without help from his dad, Eugene, and mother, Louise, their farming operation would never have been as successful as it was.
With their own children working toward their own careers, the Welschs looked outside the family for help.
“A few years ago, when we were looking to retire, Joe Yeackley, who had worked on our farm for a few years previously before setting out on his own, and his wife, Shanae, took over our direct-marketing operation,” Welsch says. “Recently, they have taken over all of the crop operation as well, and continue to operate under the West Blue Farm name that we began using in 1990.”
Balancing education and taxes
Welsch believes deeply in Milford. “I graduated from Milford High School in 1976,” he says. “Our two kids graduated from MHS.” The schools in Milford place great emphasis on hiring the best they can, regardless of the financial cost, Welsch says.
“In the past five years, our student population has grown by over 100 students, and we currently have a K-12 enrollment of just under 800 students,” he says.
The theme for MPS is, “Everyone has a story. Make yours worth telling.” The emphasis for the entire school is on character building. “We emphasize this through our Eagle Pride program from pre-K through our senior class,” Welsch says.
But property taxes continue to be a vital issue in Welsch’s mind. “Ag land values across Nebraska doubled in value from 2010 to 2015,” he explains. “The state aid formula was not able to handle this drastic change in valuations, and therefore there was a dramatic shift toward ag land in providing funding for our schools and away from residential and commercial property. Rural schools lost a lot of state funding support during this time.”
He notes that the Property Tax Credit and the new School Property Tax Income Tax Credit have helped to lower the overall reliance on property taxes, but they have not addressed the shift in tax burden toward ag land.
“Over the past five years, I’ve become more active in representing our school at the state capital by giving testimony at bill hearings and also talking with senators,” Welsch says.
Wingard adds, “Dave is a strong advocate for fiscal responsibility and an advocate for tax reform, as well as being a huge supporter of providing outstanding learning opportunities for our students and staff.”
MPS has always had a great school board, Welsch says. “We have great discussions, take a vote — sometimes not unanimous — and then we all agree to support the decision that has been made,” he explains. “The board’s work is made easier by having superintendents who understand the Milford community and the high priority that we place on a quality education.”
Great administrators, caring teachers and support staff, along with parental and community support, help to lead the school system in the right direction.
“One of the rewards in serving on the school board is knowing that you are helping to provide for a quality education for the children in your community,” Welsch says. “Hearing positive feedback from a parent about the administration, teachers or support staff is also rewarding.”
Learn more about MPS at milfordpublicschools.org.