Back in 1988, Michael Sullivan’s son wanted to take the PSAT, but his high school had run out of tests.
Sullivan was flabbergasted by that failure and so he did some investigating, made some phone calls, wrote a few letters and found a way to get tests delivered so that every student who wanted to could take the test.
Weeks later, telling a friend the story of his PSAT test-providing mission Sullivan, a resident of Ham Lake, was encouraged to run for a seat on the Anoka-Hennepin School Board.
Sure enough, he won by a “landslide of 30 votes” over the incumbent and four or five other candidates.
Sullivan’s commitment and service to the students and families has continued ever since. Every time his name has been on the ballot for re-election, District 4 voters have chosen Sullivan as their representative on the school board.
But now, after a quarter-century of school board service, Sullivan recently announced that he will not seek re-election on this November’s ballot.
“Over the years it just goes from one crisis to the next. It becomes a part of the pace of life, but you step back and say, ‘wow!’ Twenty-five years is a long time,” Sullivan said.
And colleagues will tell you the energy and commitment with which Sullivan served in his first years on the board have not diminished over the past 25 years.
“Mike is truly a person that cares about kids and the communities he serves. He has been an anchor on the board and a great mentor to me,” said School Board Chairman Tom Heidemann, who took that role when Sullivan stepped down from the chairmanship in 2007 after serving in that capacity for 17 years.
Superintendent Dennis Carlson echoed Heidemann’s praise for Sullivan.
“Michael served … with always the best intentions for the children of this district. He never wavered in that commitment,” Carlson said.
That dedicated commitment fueled Sullivan’s service through many controversial, high profile issues over the years.
Carlson listed some of the toughest issues Sullivan has had to face over the past quarter-century.
“Hirings, firings, budget cuts, school closings, controversial curriculum and policies and others too numerous to mention,” he said.
Describing Sullivan’s valuable gifts and perspective, Carlson said, “Mike is always the voice of calm, the voice of reason and the voice of experience.”
And Sullivan will tell you the source of that reason is “listening.”
“Once you get in, you learn how very big and how very complicated (Anoka-Hennepin School District) is. And you learn the value of listening,” Sullivan said.
“You have to let everyone have a voice, let everyone have a chance to have their say – and when you listen, you find a grain of common ground, you see a possible solution, a compromise. You gain deeper understanding of the big picture.”
It’s not an easy task, but Carlson and Heidemann and others on the board agree that Sullivan has faithfully and consistently accomplished that task.
“He is always reasonable, unbiased, thoughtful and fair in his leadership and his decision-making,” Carlson said.
“He has seen it all and he has heard it all. He doesn’t get flustered or rushed or pressured. He is a solid person and one you can count on in very difficult circumstances.”
For the next six months, Sullivan will continue to serve his constituents in Anoka-Hennepin’s fourth district, representing residents of Andover, Ham Lake, Nowthen, Oak Grove and Ramsey.
And then Sullivan’s seat will be occupied by a newly-elected representative.
“The fact that he gave 25 years is a testament to his calm demeanor when under pressure, his determination to find the right answer for kids and his dedication to the communities and students he serves,” Heidemann said. “His advice and wise counsel have been very important to me. He will be greatly missed.”
Once his term ends at the close of this calendar year, Sullivan, who is retired as executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, plans to “play at the game of golf,” do some gardening, attend more of his grandchildren’s athletic contests and travel.
In fact, Sullivan’s bucket list includes a visit to his Irish homeland, the village of Bandon, County Cork, Ireland.
“I’ve already done a couple of my bucket list items: Jumped out of an airplane – with a parachute on my back – and traced the pilgrimage to Gettysburg,” he said. “But I’d really like to visit Ireland, that’s still on my list.”
As for his hopes for his successor, Sullivan said he’d like to see District 11 remain open and accessible to its people.
“Just because we’re big doesn’t mean we have to feel that way and even though we’re the largest district in the state, we must continue to do a very good job providing feedback and accessibility,” Sullivan said.
“It’s critical to develop a sense of trust between what you do and the people you serve. You have to listen, listen, listen. You’ll find a grain of common ground, a glimpse of a solution and then you have to do what’s best for the students. No matter where you stand, no matter your personal beliefs. You do what’s best for students no matter what.”
Other district seats on November’s ballot include District 3 – Coon Rapids, Champlin and Dayton (Bill Harvey was appointed to that seat in January when John Hoffman was elected to the Minnesota Senate) and District 6 – Coon Rapids and Andover (Jeff Simon was appointed to that seat in July 2012 when Kathy Tingelstad resigned).
Sue Austreng is at [email protected]