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Columbia County supervisors, students share table talk

November 14, 2018

Columbia County Supervisor Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville came prepared.

As he sat down to lunch Tuesday with students participating in Columbia County’s Future Leaders Active in Government program, Pufahl showed the students his outline of answers to questions that students in the program typically ask of county officials — an outline with precise margins and snippets highlighted in yellow.

“I’ve heard about you,” Pufahl said to his constituent, Pardeeville High School junior Estella Jisa. “I’ve heard you’re a good student.”

Students and supervisors sharing a meal, and a discussion about issues and the role of government, have been traditional components of FLAG since the first session was inaugurated in January 2009, as a program to give selected students from Columbia County high schools hands-on experience in county government.

Some of the students’ questions are standard, such as “What committees are you on?” and “How long have you held elected office?”

Some answers, like Pufahl’s, are anything but standard.

The students at his table gasped and said, “Oh, wow,” when Pufahl told them of the floods a decade ago that nearly broke the Fox River dam that forms Pardeeville’s Park Lake. In addition to being a county supervisor, Pufahl was Pardeeville village president at the time.

“I turned around, and here came volunteers — volunteers who helped save that lake,” he said. “We made an artificial river. There were teachers, older students, even people from nearby campgrounds. I still get teary just thinking about it.”

At another table, Supervisor Keith Miller of Fall River had a question for his teenage constituent, Fall River High School student Joshua Frank: Why are you involved in Future Leaders Active in Government?

“I joined FLAG because I was kind of interested in government,” Frank replied. “So I got involved — and it’s pretty interesting.”

The students who shared a table with Supervisor Mark Sleger of the town of Lowville wanted to talk about the county government’s role in health care.

Aside from some work done in the Department of Health and Human Services to connect eligible people with the state’s Medicaid program, Sleger said, the county has very little to do with health care. But that doesn’t mean it’s not an important issue.

“I call it disease care, because there’s very little in the way of health care,” he said. “Health care would have a lot more preventive programs, which could be roped into what we’re paying for now.”

The County Board’s newest supervisor, Christopher Polzer of Poynette, participated with students at his table in a lively discussion of the Constitution, and how components such as the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) and the Third Amendment, prohibiting requiring home occupants to quarter soldiers, shaped the nation’s early history.

“You know your Constitution,” he said to the students.

University of Wisconsin-Extension Community Development Educator Kathleen Haas said FLAG has evolved since it was created, based on an idea by then-Supervisor Doug Richmond of the town of West Point.

“It’s fun to see the changes that have happened over the years,” she said. “Every year, it’s revamped. And as we listen to the students, it becomes so much better.”

One of the recent changes that Haas noted was an increased role for the participants who are designated as coaches — seniors who participated in FLAG as juniors, and who come back for another year to be student leaders.

This year’s coaches are Camryn Sundbeck of Cambria-Friesland High School and Grace Murray and Pylar Wheeler of Poynette High School.

Matt Calvert, director of the UW-Extension’s Institute for Positive Youth Development, said he’d heard a great deal about FLAG over the last decade, but Tuesday marked the first time he’d seen it in action.

“I think this is a unique program,” he said. “We have a lot of counties in Wisconsin that do government education in different ways, but I don’t know of any other that does it like this.”

An example of the program’s uniqueness is Opinion Line, in which students practice discussing sometimes controversial issues in a respectful way.

One of the Opinion Line issues raised Tuesday was gun ownership rights.

One of the tips that students get about Opinion Line participation is to speak from their own experience.

That’s what Isaiah Hoege of Portage High School did when he talked about how, in the Alabama community where some of his relatives live, everyone carries weapons, and people who are considering committing criminal acts know it and think twice.

Lodi High School student Zachary O’Connor spoke from his experience of owning three guns.

“I’m responsible, but I don’t know for sure about other people, and I’m not sure I should have the right to own guns when I’m so young,” he said.

Supervisors said they were impressed with how the students approached difficult issues.

“These young adults care,” Sleger said. “They give me a lot of hope that they can pick up where we fall down.”

Supervisor Henry St. Maurice of Columbus said that even in an age where information is abundant, and not all of it is sound information, the students seem well-informed about issues.

Miller observed, “We didn’t’ solve all of the world’s problems, but we got a good start.”

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