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New Roxana school board member is 19

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 24, 2009 - At an age when some college students are looking to distance themselves from their high schools and hometowns, Justin Sandbach, 19, is doing the exact opposite. Not only has he returned to Roxana, but he's on the school board.

Sandbach, a sophomore studying history and secondary education at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, was elected to the board earlier this month. The election makes him one of the - if not the - youngest school board member in Illinois history.

"There's still some debate," he said.

On Wednesday, Sandbach looked like any other college student, wearing a St. Louis Cardinals ball cap and sitting comfortably on a couch in SIUE's Morris University Center. By the following evening, he had traded his khaki shorts for a black suit and blue tie for his swearing-in.

Standing in the board room at Roxana Junior High Thursday evening, Sandbach held a piece of paper and chewed a piece of gum as James Taylor, president pro tempore, administered the oath of office to the four recently elected members of the board. As soon as the oath was complete, Sandbach settled into his seat at the board table to begin the three-plus hour meeting - the first of his four-year term in the 2,054-student district.

Since the April 7 election, Sandbach has become something of a public figure, featured on St. Louis-area news channels, newspapers and in the Associated Press. However, he insists, gaining attention was never his goal.

"I didn't think it was a big deal," he said. "I still don't think it's a big deal."

The filing deadline was roughly two weeks away when Sandbach decided to run, meaning he had to gather the same number of signatures as his opponents who had started their petitions months earlier. "I decided pretty late in the game," Sandbach said.

His mother, Debbie Sandbach, said her son had considered running for office for about six months before making his final decision.

"I thought, 'You know how kids are, they talk about stuff,' " she said. "But he's pretty driven, and he came back and talked to us, and we got behind him and said, 'We'll see where it takes you.' "

Though his age became a topic of conversation, Sandbach said he worked to convince area residents to take him seriously. In addition to participating in a local forum and posting campaign signs, Sandbach knocked on doors in 17 of the school district's 19 precincts.

"I thought that would do a lot more than just give people a yard sign with my name on it," he said.

Sandbach was pitted against seven other candidates in the April 7 consolidated election. Four incumbents and four challengers were in the race for four seats on the seven-member board.

Beth Dudley and Terri Yerkes joined Sandbach in being newly elected to the board. Jim Smith, the board president, was the lone incumbent to be re-elected. Sandbach garnered 1,163 votes, coming in third behind Dudley and Smith.

Sandbach said he had worked with Dudley and Yerkes in the weeks leading up to the election. In fact, he, Dudley and their families gathered at a local restaurant as results came in on election night.

"I felt if one of us got in, we were all going to get in," he said.

Dudley said she originally learned of Sandbach's intentions to run from her son, Michael, who had been his teammate while playing football for the Roxana Shells.

"He said, 'He just wants to run against you, Mom,' just as kind of a joke," Dudley said. "That's commendable, for someone 19 years old to want to get into politics, and I was glad when I found out it wasn't just a joke."

Smith, who is also the Roxana police chief, was the DARE officer for Sandbach's class. Despite Sandbach's age, Smith said he "never had any doubts about his ability."

"He went to the high school, went through the school district, and I didn't see a problem," Smith said.

Debra Kreutztrager, now the superintendent of Roxana schools, was Sandbach's fourth-grade teacher at Central Elementary in Roxana.

"I think that's the case with all our board members," Kreutztrager said of the interpersonal connections within a small-town atmosphere. "There are opportunities in the community to build relationships."

Kreutztrager said she was proud of Sandbach. "I saw it being more of an accolade of our district, of the product of our students," she said.

Sandbach's lives with his family in Wood River, but will graduate from college halfway through his term and must continue living in the Roxana school district to remain on the board.

"I didn't anticipate doing that for the next four years," he said. "That's just something that comes with it."

As a 2007 graduate, Sandbach went to school with some of those who are still in Roxana High School. When the class of 2009 graduates, Sandbach will be sitting with the administration.

"I don't think it's all going to set in, really, until graduation," he said.

Vance Wilhelm, one of Sandbach's friends and former football teammates, is a senior at Roxana High School. He said he was excited about Sandbach's victory and would like to have Sandbach present him with his diploma at commencement.

"I was very shocked," Wilhelm said. "I was happy for him, to know that people are starting to take the younger society seriously."

Sandbach's responsibilities will include serving on committees, hiring, drafting curriculum and other tasks.

He said his greatest concern is with upgrading school district facilities. At the same time, however, he is concerned about staffing issues in a recession economy.

"We also have to be concerned with keeping people in jobs," he said.

Sandbach acknowledged that adjusting to the board will entail a "sharp learning curve."

Orientation will begin next week for new board members.

Sandbach's mother has also offered him advice.  "I think he's going to find out and learn a lot, and we've told him to sit back, to listen," Debbie Sandbach said.

Acknowledging the unusual nature of the situation, she also expressed enthusiasm for her son's political aspirations.

"I think, once they [area residents] talk to Justin, they realize this is not just your average teenager," she said. "At 19 years old, I sure wasn't thinking about running for public office."

Megan McClure is a senior in the mass communications program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

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