The recent death of Prosser School Board member Gayle Wheeler is forcing the board and district officials to move quickly and with heavy hearts to fill her seat.
Wheeler, 72, died March 28, more than a year after being diagnosed with lung cancer. She last attended a board meeting Jan. 20, though Superintendent Ray Tolcacher had a computer set up at her home to allow her to receive board materials and keep up on district business.
“She’d come to board meetings through her chemo treatment,” Tolcacher said. “That was the kind of person she was.”
Wheeler’s four-year term was set to end in December and the board agreed Tuesday to fill the seat within the next three months. It’s never easy to find, interview and install new board members in such a tight timeframe, but Wheeler’s successor will need as much time on the board as possible if he or she plans to seek re-election this fall, Tolcacher said.
A longtime rancher, Wheeler also was involved in the Prosser Rotary Club and FFA. She was the longtime executive director of the Prosser Economic Development Association and executive director of the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center from 2004-06.
She served as school board chairwoman in 2014 and was a member of a committee in 20013 that reviewed a controversial Housel Middle School library book challenged by a former teacher for its content. She and the committee recommended that book, A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer, remain available to students.
Wheeler was a big advocate of the district’s vocational and agricultural education programs. She’d also taken particular interest in efforts to have a new Prosser High School built.
“She was a class act,” said board member Bruce Matsumura. “She carried herself very well.”
Districts typically have 90 days to fill board vacancies before the state can step in and appoint new board members.
This isn’t the first time the district has had to fill sudden vacancies. The board had three board members resign in 2013, the result of them moving out of the district entirely or just their assigned areas of the district.
Anyone who wants to run for the seat’s next term starting in January has to file for election between May 11-15, putting pressure on the board to find someone quickly so the candidate can decide whether to try and hold on to the position.
“We didn’t want to get into it so fast after her death but we had to,” said board Chairman Bill Jenkin.
Wheeler’s district was north and east of Prosser. Detailed maps are available at the school district’s offices at 1126 Meade Ave. in Prosser.
In addition to living in the appropriate part of the district, applicants must be U.S. citizens and registered to vote. The board will accept applications until April 24, will select five finalists by May 1, conduct interviews May 4 and appoint the new member no later than May 5.
“The board is looking for candidates who will work together with the board, staff and community to set a vision of future programs, facilities and academic success for all students,” the district said in its official announcement of the opening.