Winter hampers Columbia County student government leadership activities

February 27, 2019

Harsh and relentless winter weather has wreaked unprecedented havoc on a decade-old Columbia County program designed to connect high school students with local government.

Since the 2009 inception of Future Leaders Active in Government, a weather-related cancellation in any of the participating schools on the day of a scheduled group activity results in the cancellation of the activity as well.

Kathleen Haas, University of Wisconsin-Extension Columbia County community resources development educator, said the weather forced two key sessions to be canceled.

On Jan. 30, the 18 group participants were supposed to visit the lawmakers who represent them at the Capitol in Madison. But the polar vortex froze that out.

On Feb. 13, the students were scheduled to participate in a mock land-use planning exercise. But that, too, was a snow day.

Never before has the weather resulted in the cancellation of two sessions, Haas said.

“But then, we are all at the mercy of the weather,” she said.

The group includes selected juniors and seniors from Columbia County high schools who this year were scheduled to attend eight all-day sessions from October through April, and participate in hands-on activities designed to help them understand the workings of government and practice participation in it.

The exact activities vary from year to year, and this year’s principal activity entails teams of students exploring government’s role in specific issues, including:

Destigmatizing mental illness.Providing inclusive, affordable and accessible high-quality health care.Local solutions addressing climate change.Updating first responder systems.Impacts of legalizing marijuana.

Haas said the Jan. 30 visit to the Legislature, and to the Wisconsin Counties Association offices in Madison, was intended to connect the students with people who could offer perspectives on all these issues.

A past Capitol visit has been called off on account of weather at least once before in the group’s history, Haas said, but that session was rescheduled. This year there’s not enough time before the scheduled wrap-up of activities in April, she said.

Students will get the opportunity to take part in the land-use planning activity, which as been rescheduled to March 13 in place of a public open house.

Despite the lack of an open house this year, issue-oriented “capstone” projects will proceed.

On Jan. 9, students addressed their assigned issues by setting up a conversation, over lunch, between people with various perspectives.

For example, the group exploring the legalization of marijuana invited a representative of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws; state Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, who has been on record as favoring legalizing marijuana; and Portage Police Chief Ken Manthey and the new Portage school resource officer, Pete Warning to speak about the issue.

One of the goals of Future Leaders Active in Government is to show participants how to engage in their communities, and how to express their opinions effectively to people in power.

An alumnus of one of the earliest programs has reached out to the current group on its Facebook page, to share that the lessons learned in the program helped him in his community involvement.

Garrett Patrick is a 2011 Columbus High School graduate, who was in the second class in 2009-10, and returned as a student coach for the following year’s program.

Patrick is in his third year studying for his MD and Ph.D at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Patrick, who contacted the Daily Register via email, said he was elected to his neighborhood board in Baltimore, a local government body that he said is comparable to a Wisconsin common council or village board.

Patrick said he recently spoke before the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate in Annapolis, in favor of a proposal for Johns Hopkins to create its own police force to address a high incidence of crimes such as vehicle and home break-ins, and the thefts of bags belonging to medical students and faculty.

“FLAG was one of the first things I thought of as I spent my day in Annapolis,” Patrick wrote Tuesday. “I was able to directly connect our experiences meeting with legislators in FLAG to advocating for an issue in front of the whole legislative body… I also think FLAG played a role in getting involved in the very local branch of government, the neighborhood association, which, like county board of supervisors is often underrepresented.”