Posts Tagged 'school boards'

Who’s in Charge Here?

Slovak_referendum,_2015,_portable_ballot_boxBy Peggy Wuenstel – There is a piece of proposed legislation making its way through the Wisconsin state house that every free-thinking Wisconsinite should be aware of. Bill 355 seeks to put significant limits on the ways in which local school districts can ask for financial assistance from their taxpayers through referenda. It is a drastic move away from the traditional local control of schools to the state government assuming the authority to determine what kinds of schools our children attend. Why should the lack of local control of Wisconsin schools concern you?

  • There is a reason that local governing bodies that direct the policies and funding of schools are called school boards or boards of education and not boards of tax control. The charge of these bodies is to determine the needs of local students and their families and the willingness of the community to meet those needs. While some members seek office with the intent of reducing tax burdens, the majority are motivated by their desire to direct and support education within their political, social, and personal point of view. The service of these individuals is often direct democracy at its best, with these public servants attending meetings, making decisions and meeting directly with constituents in ways that far outpace other representative bodies.
  • School expenses continue to rise as costs of materials, insurance, energy, security, and staffing to meet expanding student needs grow. There are state and federal mandates which much be met. Even after exploring supplemental funding sources like grants, charitable donations, naming rights, and expanded student fees, the gaps remain between what it costs and what state and federal governments provide.
  • State funding has been slashed in Wisconsin over the last few budget cycles. With rising costs, and shrinking state support, local districts are forced to go to property owners to make up the difference. The overall cost of educating children does not go down, the responsibility just shifts from one level to another. Property taxes are often a very unfair way to apportion support for schools.
  • Wisconsin schools are diverse and proudly so. While a common set of standards drives the curriculum and content of instruction, local needs, strengths, and preferences vary widely. Areas of the state have different priorities. Some districts highlight athletic programs. Others demonstrate patronage for the arts. Agricultural programs might meet local community needs and closely bond schools, industry and community governments. The varied cultural and socio-economic needs of home districts require local control to understand, direct, and make these visions reality. Some districts are large and urban in nature serving tens of thousands of students. Some boards of education govern a single school. Wisconsin education has historically been the antithesis of one size fits all.
  • Schools are often the heart of a community, its social life, and its hope for the future. Leadership in government, civic, church, and are connected, nurtured and directed by schools and school personnel. Our buildings, staff, facilities, and initiatives are rich resources for cities, towns, and villages all over Wisconsin. They deserve, and thankfully often receive, community support.
  • The Wisconsin system for financing schools contributes to significant inequities between districts. Property rich districts are well-funded and offer superior facilities and outstanding educators due to the ability to attract and retain employees with salary, benefit, and continuing education packages that support professionals in their work with children. Rural and revenue-challenged districts face the dual challenges of smaller labor pools and limited tax bases. Providing quality education statewide should be the goal of every parent, local community leader, and school official regardless of where they live.

The current proposal before the legislature seeks to reduce how often, what time of year, and how frequently school boards ask their communities for support. It seems to be another example of fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. The ability to ask at a local level for support for education gives that say to voters, not state senators who want to centralize control of Wisconsin schools. One has to wonder if this attempt to limit “the ask” of local school boards is a reaction to a recent up-tick in positive outcomes of local referenda.  An administration that hangs its political hat on the promise of tax reduction might find it hard to convince citizens that shifting responsibility to local school boards from state tax revenues saves anything except politicians’ reputations as being tough on tax increases or as advocates for centralized, depersonalized education for Wisconsin’s children.

In my three decade career I have trained and worked in large districts and small. My own children have attended urban and rural schools. I have had the opportunity to compare per pupil spending, student to teacher ratios, course offerings and extracurricular offerings, all before the expanded school choice system. I have been employed by districts that never passed referenda, and those who have graciously supported the schools every time they were asked. I hope we continue to live in a state where the ask as well as the answer remain local decisions.

Hope Surrounding Wisconsin Act 10: A school board member speaks out

By Becky Gundrum — As we near the one-year anniversary of the implementation of ACT 10 (the legislation that severely curbs collective bargaining rights for public union employees, including teachers) I thought I would take this opportunity to share my observations on the impact of this bill on school board governance and administration in my small exurban district.

It is important to note that the teachers in my district remain under their union contract through June 30, 2013.

In my opinion, this is a God-send because we, the school board, have still another year before we have to go live with the teacher employee handbook: the document that will replace the existing union contract. This extra time has provided us an opportunity to open up dialogue with the administration and the teachers over everything from retirement packages to the school calendar to teacher evaluation.

As we started down the path of the new employee handbooks for support staff, followed by the teachers, what I became keenly aware of is how different operating under a union contract is from my own experience in the private sector. In fact, I am still somewhat surprised at how many times we, the board, say, “How does this happen in the private sector?” when we hit a sticking point. Nowhere has this been more evident than in discussions about paid and unpaid leave, and compensation based on job performance (among other things).

My second observation is that Act 10 may be creating an opportunity for support staff and teachers to have real conversations about life in school with the school board.  Apparently, the union negotiations created a barrier to real and frank conversations about what is important to people in their jobs as school personnel. Although I admit the conversations have been a bit strained and I am still worried about morale, I feel optimistic that the board and the teachers will be able to reach agreements about what is important for the district and teacher and student success.

My third observation relates to how how ACT 10, along with the requisite teacher evaluation implementation, affects the role of the building principal. In this time of rapid change (RTI implementation, core of common standards implementation, rising rates of student poverty, and fewer resources) we are expecting principals to fairly evaluate all of their teachers annually using a new tool and system to do so and to re-imagine the way they might deploy resources.

Once the contract is up, principals will have the opportunity to treat teachers differently based on skills and strength: Maybe a struggling teacher will get two prep periods instead of the standard one, maybe a good employee will receive paid time off for an unexpected event where another lower performing teacher may not, maybe a stellar teacher used to teaching higher level students will now be assigned to the struggling learners and maybe they will not like it!

These are all within a principals purview post ACT 10. Principals will be able to deploy, scaffold and support teachers to help them reach their highest potential without having to be concerned about breaking the contractual rules. But this is a new role, and one I might be nervous about if I found myself in similar circumstances.

Finally, ACT 10 has provided an opportunity for my school board to think through the kind of district it wants to be by virtue of having to discuss what benefits and rights we want to give to the staff who have dedicated themselves to our district’s children. Conversations among members have been tense at times as we walk carefully along ideological lines and deal with the real issues of decreasing budgets and rising costs while at the same time being asked to do the same or more with less.

Without ACT 10 we may never have had to have the difficult conversations — and my hope is that, at the full implementation of the teacher employee handbook on July 1, 2013, we will be a stronger board, a stronger teaching force and a stronger district because we worked together and are equally accountable to the success or failure of the district as a whole.


Becky Gundrum is a Ph.D. student in Educational Policy and Leadership with interests in school board governance and organizational change.  She has served as a member of the Slinger School Board since 2008. Currently, she chairs the curriculum committee and works with both the new personnel committee, tasked with developing the emoter handbooks, and the policy committee.  She spends her free time running, playing soccer and maintaining her two teen-aged daughters. 

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