States

Mich. School Board Member Serves From Abroad

By Bess Keller — February 19, 2003 3 min read
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When you work at home, you have to tolerate certain interruptions.

Take a winter day in the life of Michigan state school board member Eileen Lappin Weiser. She was listening to a board meeting by speakerphone when she saw the door handle work ominously. With that, 2-year-old Danny burst into her home office.

“Mommy, Mommy, I need you!” he shrieked.

The next day, the three-year veteran of the board gazed through gray mist at the Danube River, trying to figure out what apologies might be in order. “I think he was on statewide television also,” laughed Ms. Weiser, who is married to the U.S. ambassador to the Slovak Republic.

Bridging the more than 4,000 miles that separate the ambassadorial residence in Bratislava from the education department in Lansing, she says, is surprisingly easy these days. What’s harder is balancing home and work responsibilities on two continents.

Still, she has no doubts that she made the right decision to continue on the state board when her husband, Ronald Weiser, an early supporter and successful fund- raiser for George W. Bush in his race for the presidency, was named ambassador in fall 2001. No less a can-doer than Secretary of State Colin L. Powell encouraged the trained pianist and former foundation head to stay for the full eight-year term she won in 1998, despite the move abroad.

Two-Way Learning

Some of her seven colleagues weren’t sure initially about the wisdom of her choice, but since then, the routines have fallen into place. “It’s just marvelous what the communication links allow,” said Herbert S. Moyer, one of six Democrats on the elected board.

“I thought she was a very effective board member,” agreed Michael David Warren, like Ms. Weiser a Republican, who sat on the board until last fall and now is a state judge. “She was always well prepared.”

Ms. Weiser, 52, has made it a point to attend in person about half the monthly board meetings, but she participates in the others by means of a new conference-call system in the Lansing boardroom. E-mail and faxes also keep her in the loop.

During board meetings when she is invisible, “I’ve had to learn how to butt in,” she said in a recent telephone interview. Her colleagues, in turn, “have been very polite,” even when they may have felt interrupted.

An ebullient woman, who jumps nimbly between subjects as varied as art-infused classrooms and U.S. security measures abroad, Ms. Weiser may be the ideal candidate to juggle priorities.

One day, it’s light fixtures and window treatments for the new ambassadorial residence that will soon replace the house the Weisers now occupy. Another, it’s an all-day school board meeting, which starts at 9 a.m. in Michigan but 3 p.m. in Bratislava.

Yet she insists that her dual life as diplomatic spouse and board member has had far more advantages than disadvantages. Regular trips home for board meetings have made it easier to keep up with stateside relatives, including a 2-year-old grandson. And her interest in education, which dates back at least to her days as a music instructor and substitute teacher in the Saginaw, Mich., schools has added to the life she lives abroad.

Visiting notables such as Cindy McCain, U.S. Sen. John McCain’s wife, wanted to talk about education matters with her. And she was able to accelerate a collaboration between the Michigan-based Center for Civic Education through Law and a Slovak teachers group.

Ms. Weiser hopes she’ll also be able to broker an exchange between top officials of Michigan school districts and educators in Slovakia, where a new system of regional government poses challenges for schools. Slovaks “are trying to figure out,” she said, “how much citizen oversight should take place” beyond the boards of local schools, and Michigan could provide one model for that.

Lessons From Abroad

She adds that Slovakia has lessons to teach the more populous Michigan. Before the new regional system in Slovakia, schools were almost entirely autonomous, each school with its own board. “Michigan can recognize you can have very important knowledge gains for schoolchildren with no administration at all.”

By the time the Weisers return to their Ann Arbor home, where Ronald Weiser formerly headed a real-estate-investment and - management firm, Ms. Weiser hopes Michigan’s education system will have made headway in two areas of passionate interest to her: teaching quality and the incorporation of brain-science advances into preparing teachers.

Meanwhile, she’s also got a residence to run and a toddler to watch over. But it all overlaps in Eileen Weiser’s very wide world. “Danny,” she said proudly, “is the most visible argument I can possibly make for dual-language learning.”

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