Category Archives: Education

West Bend School Superintendent On Leave

This story was in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

After more than three months away from his job, West Bend School District Superintendent Erik Olson remains absent from his role. Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Laura Jackson continues to lead in his place.After Monday’s Board of Education meeting, President Tiffany Larson wouldn’t state the reason for the absence, but said “he is on paid administrative leave.” Olson’s last appearance at a meeting was July 24. Since then he has been on vacation, sick leave and administrative leave and continues to receive payment from the district. His administrative leave began at the beginning of October.

I haven’t commented on this because, frankly, I thought it was common knowledge. He hasn’t been at any official meetings for months and the School Board has spoken about it a couple of times. If you email his school address, someone else will respond. But based on my emails and some reaction I’m seeing on social media, this has come as a surprise.

It is frustrating people because the School Board is not telling anyone why he is out. My understanding is that it is due to personal/medical reasons, which is why state and federal regulations prohibit the School Board from commenting on the reason for his leave. If it is because of a personal/medical reason, all we can do is hope for a speedy and successful resolution for Olson and prod the School Board to consider a succession plan.

Problems in Beloit

This is an interesting story by the Beloit Daily News. The Beloit School District is seeing the same thing as many other districts – terrible kids who disrupt classes – and the administration is apparently doing a poor job of handling it. Here’s on teacher’s story:

Another former BMHS teacher who also left to work in another district loves Beloit and misses its kids. This teacher said 99 percent of students are well behaved, staff is excellent and there are many great programs.

But the teacher said Beloit Memorial High School has a group of around 25 repeat offenders who frequently cause great disruption, preventing teachers from teaching and students from learning. The teacher said most districts have kids with similar issues, but Beloit has suffered from poor administrator response.

“There is a revolving door policy. You send them out, and 5-10 minutes later they are back, sometimes with a bag of chips and a smile on their face,” the teacher said.

Some students, the teacher said, try to get suspended or expelled, and the threat of action does nothing to deter their behavior.

This teacher called the town hall meeting a “joke” and “publicity stunt” because no meaningful action followed it. Although the teacher said the school board asked some good questions, there was no change in approach by administration.

The code of conduct is solid, the teacher said, but it is inconsistently applied and some administrators make deals with students.

You know one thing that’s interesting? Before Act 10, it was much more difficult for teachers to leave for another district without losing things like their seniority. Not only has Act 10 made it easier for teachers to go to another district when they feel unsafe or are dissatisfied, but the outflow of dissatisfied teachers will put pressure on the school district to get their act together. Whether or not the school board responds to that pressure is another story, but at least Act 10 has introduced some natural market forces that push our school to be better for everyone.

UW Regents Vote to Merge Universities and Colleges

Whoa. This seems like it went from an idea being floated by Cross to a vote at lightening speed.

Wisconsin’s two-year UW Colleges are set to become branch campuses of nearby four-year universities by the start of the 2018 school year after the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents approved a sweeping and controversial reorganization of the schools Thursday.

The Regents backed the proposal from System President Ray Cross over concerns from former UW Colleges officials, student and faculty groups, Democratic lawmakers and two board members that it lacks key details and was made with minimal input from those  affected by the mergers.

Cross and the plan’s supporters say it will change the unsustainable structure of the UW Colleges while ensuring the predominantly rural communities those institutions serve still have access to local higher education.

A motion to move forward with planning for the reorganization, which would also shift functions of UW Extension under UW-Madison and central System administration, was approved on a voice vote during Thursday’s Regents meeting in Madison.

I’m not a fan of this plan because it does not address the underlying problem. The problem is the demand for most the colleges is dramatically down. This is due to a variety of factors including demographics, the proliferation of online education, and cultural preferences. But instead of addressing the issue, the UW Regents are choosing to try to prop up an expensive and increasingly irrelevant campus infrastructure for the purpose of saving the campuses instead of serving the students.

Teacher Protection Act

I hesitate to say this for fear of the Texans protesting, but it is time to put more power back in the hands of teachers and not let the inmates run the asylum.

The so-called “Teacher Protection Act” would make a series of changes so teachers could find out when one of their students has been arrested for a violent crime. It would allow teachers to discipline students more severely. Its author says 12 lawmakers have signed on to support it, all of them Republicans.

The issue of attacks against teachers bubbled over when video of a student beating a teacher at South Division High School in August surfaced. The video sparked outcry in Milwaukee, but according to federal data, it’s far from the only incident.

In Wisconsin, 11.3 percent of teachers said they were physically attacked in the 2011-2012 school year, the highest percentage in the country, according to federal data from the National Center for Education Statistics (page 150). And 13.7 percent of Wisconsin teachers said they had been threatened with injury that year, which is the most recent data available.

[…]

Thiesfeldt’s bill would force police to tell school districts when they arrest a student for a violent crime, and require administrators to tell teachers before they have that student in class.

Districts would have to report assaults on teachers to police within 24 hours. If administrators won’t suspend a student, teachers could appeal to the school board. The bill would also require districts to tell teachers annually of their rights, including the use of reasonable force against a violent student.

 

Nine Wisconsin School Districts Seek More Money From Taxpayers

Milton’s is the biggest.

MILTON — Classrooms remain crowded, enrollment continues to rise and, just like a year ago, the Milton School District is back with a referendum to build a new high school.

Only this time around the plan is less expensive, a bit smaller and is the only item on the Nov. 7 ballot.

Officials in this Rock County community are hopeful that the changes and the timing will be enough to persuade voters to approve a $69.9 million question. The plan would convert the existing high school to a middle school, and the middle school to an intermediate school, and reconfigure the grades in the district’s four elementary schools. In November 2016, an $87 million plan was defeated by 287 votes out of 10,895 ballots cast.

School Board Sets Budget and Looks at Teacher Compensation

There’s some good, some bad, and some worrisome stuff at the meeting of the West Bend School Board last night.

First, the good… The School Board held the property tax levy flat. Actually, it was a $21 decrease, but it’s statistically flat. This is the most important number when looking at the property tax burden. The levy is the amount of taxes the district will be demanding from taxpayers. Once that number is set, the tax rate (mill rate) is a function of the aggregate property values. At that levy, the tax rate is expected to drop by 5.8% with a 6.1% increase in property values.

Second, the bad. The approved budget has about $1 million more revenue than expenditures. According to the story in the Daily News:

It was also explained that the current budget had a revenue with more than $1 million than expected expidentures.

It was recommended that the cushion of funding go to the fund to rebuild the Jackson Elementary school.

Board members Tim Stellmacher and Ken Schmidt liked the recommendation.

Board Vice President Nancy Justman suggested a smaller amount go toward the Jackson fund and Board President Tiffany Larson asked if some of the funds could go toward current needs.

Ummmnnnn…. did it not occur to anyone to just not spend it and let the taxpayers keep it? By definition, if something did not make it into the budget, then one can’t call it a “current need.” If it was needed, they would have budgeted it. The School Board had an opportunity to actually reduce spending and taxes and chose to just keep the money as a slush fund. That’s not cool.

On a side note, the school district spends about $2 MILLION per year on travel. Where the heck are they all going?

Third, the worrisome… the school board heard a committee report about changes to teachers compensation. The Washington County Insider has a very good rundown with video of the presentation. I’ve asked for a copy of the presentation, but haven’t seen it yet.

The plan is to rework the compensation plan for teachers for the 2017-2018 school year. They plan to present and approve a new plan in January. The committee that has been evaluating and putting together the new plan is comprised of teachers. More specifically, it is comprised of some of the most activist, union, liberal teachers in the district like WBEA President and Washington County Democratic Party Chair Tanya Lohr and WBEA representatives Jason Penterman, Kara Petzhold, and Shelly Krueger. As one would expect, the compensation framework they are advocating is a teachers union’s wishlist.

It is also questionable how in a district with hundreds and hundreds of teachers, the WBEA leadership ended up with so many people on this committee. It stinks of an end-around of the Act 10 prohibition of the School Board negotiating with the union. Specifically, Act 10 says:

The municipal employer is prohibited from bargaining collectively with a collective bargaining unit containing a general municipal employee with respect to any of the following: 1. Any factor or condition of employment except wages, which includes only total base wages and excludes any other compensation, which includes, but is not limited to, overtime, premium pay, merit pay, performance pay, supplemental compensation, pay schedules, and automatic pay progressions.

While the union dominating this committee does not appear to be a direct violation of Act 10, it sure is a fig leaf of a difference.

Board member Monte Schmiege made the excellent point after the presentation that there was a lot of talk about teachers and not much talk about students or student outcomes. I would encourage the school board to evaluate any compensation plan on the basis of driving better student outcomes. And those evaluations should be based on actual performance data and not on a subjective “happy teachers = good teaching” equation.

West Bend School District Considers Facilities Needs

I had the opportunity to attend the West Bend School District’s Citizens Facility Advisory Committee (CFAC) meeting a couple of nights ago. If you would like to see the raw videos of what happened, please check our Judy Steffes’ YouTube channel and look for the CFAC videos. Steffes is a member of the committee in her role as a citizen and taxpayer, but she was also the only member of a media outlet to attend. Thankfully, she recorded most of the meeting so people can be involved even if they can’t attend.

Before commenting further, let me remind you of my bias going into the meeting. I believe that the school board really wants to push a referendum to get money to replace Jackson Elementary and make substantial expenditures on the High School. To that end, they hired a firm, Bray Architects, that specializes in running a biased process to end at that result. I can’t say that my beliefs were disproved by participating in the meeting.

The flow of the meeting was relatively simple. The first half of the meeting was just a recap of the previous meeting and some additional information. Then we took about an hour to tour some of the key infrastructure elements in the building. The focus this meeting was on “behind the scenes” items like the boiler room, server room, etc. The next meeting will tour classrooms and learning areas. After the tour, the CFAC members broke into small groups to discuss and respond to specific questions from the facilitators.

Here are of my observations in no particular order of priority or importance:

  • I am incredibly thankful for the members of the community who participate in these things. They are long, often boring, and require a lot of personal time and effort to participate. Same goes to school board members. Two of them, Joel Ongert and Tonnie Schmidt, attended the first half of the CFAC meeting and ducked out during the tour.
  • The above nature of these kinds of process also skews the participation. People with a direct interest in the outcome – like district employees, relatives, etc. – are more likely to make the personal sacrifice to participate. The membership of the committee reflects this systemic bias.
  • That being said, there were some excellent questions and excellent discussions. For example, in discussing buildings, one of the CFAC members mentioned that the test results disclosed at the School Board meeting earlier this week did not seem to correlate with the age of the buildings. In other words, some of the best results came out of the oldest buildings. She asked if there was a general correlation between building age, etc. and educational outcomes? The answer, by the way, is no. Once basic thresholds of space and safety are met, the rest has little impact on outcomes.
  • The entire process reminded me of a maxim that Mark Belling frequently touts. Namely, you can only react to the news you know. Let me explain… the tour took us to the server room which serves as the hub in a hub-and-spoke network for the district. I’ve seen a lot of server rooms and this one wasn’t great, but there wasn’t anything surprising. Clearly it was located in a less-than-ideal location years ago without much thought. It lacks a raised floor and industry-standard cooling, but it’s fine and I’ve seen a lot worse in private companies.The tour guide explained that there is a large hot water unit above the room that would essentially shut down the district if it leaked into the server room. OK, good to know. At the end of the meeting, the CFAC small groups were asked to list the “items in most need of improvement?” What made the top of the list? The risk of the server room being flooded, of course. The small groups largely just parroted the concerns and perceived risks from the district employees back to the Bray people running the meeting. But as you can see, now those concerns and risks have been laundered from employees’ concerns to citizens’ concerns. When presented to the public, these concerns will be labeled as coming from the CFAC.
  • Going to the point above, some of the great questions from some of the committee members highlighted the difference between theoretical risks and real risks. For example, when asked during the tour of the server room if the server room had ever actually flooded, the answer was that it had almost flooded once in the last five years. Watch this video about 2:15 in. And then later in the meeting, an audience member went into great detail about other mitigation techniques that could be used to prevent flooding. Watch this video about 1:45 in. In short, while there is a theoretical threat of the server room flooding, it hasn’t ever happened in anyone’s memory and there are some simple things that can be done to prevent it.
  • Going back to the way the meeting is designed to get a specific result, once the tour was complete and the CFAC members broke into small groups, the two questions they were asked to respond to were, “What surprised you the most?” and “What items were in most need of improvement?” As expected, the responses were a reflection of what district employees told them during the tour.
  • At least at the high school, the district facilities staff seems to do an excellent job. All of the equipment look well maintained and on a regular maintenance/replacement schedule.

The process continues in a couple of weeks. The next meeting on the 25th, the CFAC members will get a briefing on the latest trends in school design, a lesson in School Funding 101, and a tour of the educational areas of the building. The design of the meeting is intended to show CFAC members how neat new schools look, compare that to our “old crappy” schools, and show how there isn’t any way to build new cool stuff within the confines of the existing budget.

I encourage the committee members to continue to ask tough questions. When presented with a theoretical risk, they should ask questions like, “has that ever happened?” and “what can be done to mitigate the risk?” That way, they can discern if it is a serious concern or not. Also, I encourage committee members to figure out if and how any suggested proposals tie into improving educational outcomes. As I said, once the basic standards of safety and space are met, how do buildings correlate to better education? Frankly, I’d rather hire and pay for great teachers than build different-looking buildings.

Cross Floats Merging UW Colleges with Universities

I didn’t realize that demand had shrunk that much.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The University of Wisconsin System’s two-year schools would merge with its four-year campuses under a plan system President Ray Cross announced Wednesday in hopes of boosting flagging enrollment.

The plan calls for making the system’s 13 two-year schools open regional branches of the 13 four-year schools. Students would still be able to earn associate degrees but they would bear the name of the four-year school. Students would get a wider range of courses to choose from and be able to take third- and fourth-year courses at the branch campus.

For example, two-year school UW-Barron County would cease to exist. Its buildings, faculty and staff would become a branch of UW-Eau Claire. Students who attend the branch campus would earn associate degrees from UW-Eau Claire and could complete four-year degrees through UW-Eau Claire.

The plan is designed to combat declining enrollment at the two-year schools and keep them open. According to a news release from the university system announcing the plan, enrollment at the schools has dropped 32 percent since 2010, costing the schools tuition and fees.

What’s more, system officials fear the number of college-age students will shrink over the next 20 years as Wisconsin’s population ages. The number of people in the state ages 65 to 84 is expected to increase by more than 90 percent by 2040, according to projections from UW-Milwaukee.

[…]

“The dramatic demographic declines in this state are undeniable and we have been working hard to ensure the future viability and sustainability of our small campuses,” Cathy Sandeen, UW Colleges and Extension chancellor, said in the news release.

As a taxpayer-funded public institution, that seems like exactly the wrong focus. If demand is shrinking and the public is moving away from the colleges, then close them down and rein in spending. Especially in this age, it seems that fewer campuses and more online and “branch” style educational offerings would be more appropriate than looking for ways to prop up underused campuses.

UW Madison to Accept Food Stamps

Lovely.

MADISON, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin-Madison now accepts food stamps as payment for eligible items at one of its campus convenience stores after student campaigns urging the school to do so to alleviate food insecurity.

Users of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, can buy federally eligible grocery items at the Flamingo Run store located within the Gordon Dining & Event center.

UW Policy to Enforce Civil Protests

This policy looks good.

University of Wisconsin System leaders approved a policy Friday that calls for suspending and expelling students who disrupt campus speeches and presentations, saying students need to listen to all sides of issues and arguments.

The Board of Regents adopted the language on a voice vote during a meeting at UW-Stout in Menomonie.

The policy states that students found to have twice engaged in violence or other disorderly conduct that disrupts others’ free speech would be suspended. Students found to have disrupted others’ free expression three times would be expelled.

“Perhaps the most important thing we can do as a university is to teach students how to engage and listen to those with whom they differ,” system President Ray Cross told the regents. “If we don’t show students how to do this, who will? Without civil discourse and a willingness to listen and engage with different voices, all we are doing is reinforcing our existing values.”

That is an incredibly healthy and appropriate statement from Ray Cross. Good for him. Nobody is saying that students can’t protest or express their views. All they are saying is that they can’t bully others into silence without consequences. For the record, that’s how it works in the real world.

UWO Wants to Force Taxpayers to Back Bad Investments

Argh.

OSHKOSH – The bankrupt University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Foundation is asking a judge to force the UW System to help cover its debt from what the state calls improperly funded real estate deals.

In a complaint filed Tuesday in federal bankruptcy court, the UW-Oshkosh Foundation argues that a series of loan guarantees signed by former UWO Chancellor Richard Wells and former Vice Chancellor Tom Sonnleitner commit the system to back the foundation’s debt on a string of showpiece building projects, including the Alumni Welcome and Conference Center.

The foundation filed for bankruptcy in August after becoming buried in debt on the center and four other building projects. The case could cost taxpayers millions if a judge agrees that Wells’ so-called “comfort letters” commit the system to that debt.

It’s likely that the case will turn on whether or not Wells had the legal authority, and if the foundation people knew that he didn’t have that authority, to obligate the taxpayers to back a private investment.

And this is just infuriating.

In its complaint, the foundation argues it would never have embarked on the building projects without the system’s backing, and banks wouldn’t have lent money for them.

So let’s think this through… the UWO Foundation is admitting that these were crappy investments that they wouldn’t have made with their own money – nor would any bank – and yet they were willing to move ahead with them if the taxpayers were willing to pick up the bill. That kind of reckless disregard for the taxpayers’ hard-earned money is far too common.

West Bend School District to Require Personal Finance Education

This is excellent.

Personal financial literacy is set to become a required class for the district.

During an August board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Laura Jackson said the personal financial literacy course is already in place and making it a requirement would affect the freshman class and all subsequent classes.

East High School business education teacher Allison Holtzer said the course is currently elective, but she has heard support for making it a required course. Allison explained some young people “are making mistakes (financial) early on, which is just setting them up for failure later on.”

The goal of making it a required class would be to give all students a solid financial literacy foundation.

“We are trying to help this upcoming generation,” Holtzer said. She explained in the last decade there has been an increase in non-traditional credit use with interest rates between 300-1,000 percent and that 54 percent of Wisconsin residents live paycheck to paycheck.

The course is typically taken by juniors and seniors, but is open to sophomores. More than half of Wisconsin school districts make the course a requirement.

There are some other good additions and changes to the course catalog, but financial literacy is critical. I’m glad to see the coming change.

Harvard Welcomes Traitor

Disgusting behavior from Harvard.

Ex-acting CIA director Michael Morell has resigned from his post at Harvard over its hiring of Chelsea Manning.

Announcing his resignation as a senior fellow, Mr Morell said he could not be part of an institution “that honours a convicted felon and leaker of classified information”.

Harvard later withdrew Ms Manning’s invitation as a visiting fellow, but said she remained welcome as a speaker.

She was convicted of espionage in 2013 after leaking secret documents.

Manning is a traitor and should be treated as such.

Bill Would Slightly Reform Referendum Process

These seem like some pretty small and reasonable reforms. They also don’t seem like they’ll matter much one way or the other.

Wisconsin school districts will have to adjust to new restrictions on when they can hold referenda votes, under a provision added to the state budget earlier this week.

The change restricts votes on requests by schools to exceed revenue limits or issue bonds to regularly scheduled elections or the 2nd Tuesday of November in non-election years, and also limits districts to holding two votes in a single year.

Sleaze and corruption on the West Bend School Board

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

Several weeks ago, I raised serious concerns regarding the capricious, unethical and arguably illegal process by which the West Bend School Board created, and then appointed, two high school principals. After receiving 444 pages of public documents from the school district, those concerns have been confirmed and heightened.

As a brief background, West Bend had two high schools with one principal. The district was working on hiring that principal when, in a matter of days and with virtually no public input, the school board split the administration into two principals — one for each high school. Then the school board appointed two existing district employees to those positions without posting the jobs, accepting applications, conducting interviews or engaging in anything that resembles a typical hiring process. The entire fiasco was government at its worst.

Now we get a look at the new principals the school board appointed, and there are some alarming red flags. Ralph Schlass was appointed principal for West High School. Schlass has been an administrator in the district since 1999 and has served in various roles — most recently as an assistant principal for West. His tenure and performance evaluations indicate that until recently, Schlass was a relatively pedestrian employee going about his job. Then, in 2015, his performance began to deteriorate.

In December 2015, Schlass was accused of threatening and intimidating teachers regarding a petition being circulated. He was accused of telling a group of teachers something akin to, “I am the person who does your performance evaluations. If I find your name on that petition, I won’t be happy. … I am telling you, don’t sign it.”

Schlass denied making that statement, but a statement to that effect was corroborated by several staff members. Schlass was suspended three days without pay in January 2016 and told to refrain from actions that “engages staff in a threatening or intimidating manner.”

In July 2016, Schlass was put on a one year Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). A PIP is a plan given to an employee who is underperforming. It is usually meant as a “shape up or ship out” employee performance tool. The PIP indicated that, among other things, Schlass, “has inconsistently demonstrate(ed) leadership for student learning,” “failed to consistently support staff development” and “failed to follow policies, rules, regulations and routines.”

Schlass was combative through the year and accused the process of being “discriminatory, arbitrary, and capricious.” After March, he stopped completing the documentation required by the PIP. At the end of June, the recommended outcome for Schlass after the PIP was to “remain on a Performance Improvement Plan.”

Three weeks after that recommendation, Schlass was promoted by the West Bend School Board to be the principal of West Bend West High School.

The new principal of West Bend East High School is Darci Vanadestine. Vanadestine joined the district as an assistant principal in 2014 and was promoted to director of teaching and learning a year later. Unlike Schlass, Vanadestine’s employment history is impeccable and reflects career of progressive growth and advancement.

Vanadestine is so well regarded that in June she applied to be the high school principal — when there was to be just one. After a rigorous interview process, indications were good for Vanadestine. On July 14, she was informed that the district was checking final references and the superintendent would follow up the following week. On July 20, Vanadestine found out “through a posting” that the school board was going to meet that evening to “hear public comments on the reconfiguration of the HS configuration.” Several hours later, the school board voted to have two principals instead of one and, as a consequence, eliminated Vanadestine’s job.

The next morning, July 21, Vanadestine was told by the superintendent that he recommended her for the job to be principal of both high schools on July 18. The superintendent then told Vanadestine that the board had split the position into two principals and instructed them to give her one of the jobs. On July 23, Schlass and Vanadestine were introduced as the new principals and their contracts were ratified Aug. 14.

Vanadestine writes, “This is not the job I originally applied for and knowing that my current job was eliminated due to the decision to have two principals I struggled greatly with the poor ethics and lack of process with the appointment.” Indeed. Any ethical person would.

Although it was necessary, the point of this narrative is not to dwell in the employment histories of either Schlass or Vanadestine. The point is that through their unscrupulous and erratic actions, the West Bend School Board has chosen to promote one male employee who had been suspended and flagged for poor performance and deprive a female employee of the larger job for which she was eminently qualified and had been recommended. Such actions are not only an incredible disservice to the children of the district who deserve the best possible leadership, but they erode employee morale, sow distrust with the citizens and expose the taxpayers to considerable legal liability.

School Board President Tiffany Larson did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the board’s actions.

In an effort to “show my work,” here are a few of the public documents that were mentioned in this column:

Here’s the letter where Schlass was suspended.

Whenever you do an open record’s request like this, the person involved is informed and allowed to include any commentary. Here is Schlass’ letter that he included. I would note that while he blames the former superintendent, he was suspended under the former superintendent, but put on a PIP under the current one.

Here is Sclass’ PIP conclusion.

Here is Schlass’ official reflection about his performance plan.

Just like Schlass, VanAdestine included a note with her released documents. Here is Page One and Page Two.


Finally, I want to emphasize again what I said in the column. It isn’t really about Schlass or VanAdestine. They are both just district employees doing their work to the best of their abilities, I’m sure. But diving into their employment histories was necessary to show why the school board’s actions were so egregious. This new majority on the school board that ran on a platform of “transparency” and “running the district like a business” is running it like Enron. I truly hope that the board members reassess their actions and live up to the rhetoric they used to get elected.

 

New Property For Sale Next to West Bend High Schools

Well, this is curious. A couple of weeks ago the West Bend School District started down the process to a referendum(s). They want to look at Jackson Elementary School, which has been brought up as an issue in the past, but then they also threw in a look at the High Schools, which hasn’t. Here’s the charter:

As part of the 17-18 Strategic Plan, the district has committed to evaluating the district’s options to address an aging Jackson Elementary School and the East/West High School facility. To that end, the district has hired Bray Architects to assist in the process.

Three days ago, a large parcel of land that borders the high schools went on the market. Here it is:

property

Long time Benders might remember that this exact property was for sale once before. Several years ago the West Bend School District was asking the voters to pass a huge school referendum. In fact, it was the largest referendum in Wisconsin at the time. As part of that referendum, the district wanted to buy this parcel and build a new middle school on it. That referendum failed and this property hasn’t been for sale since. Until now…

Timing is everything, isn’t it?

West Allis-West Milwaukee Ignores Voters and Jacks Up Taxes

What a slap in the face to the taxpayers.

Four months after rejecting a $12.5 million increase in spending for operations, residents in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District will see their taxes rise anyway after the district’s requests for $15.8 million in state loans were approved Wednesday.

The state’s three-member Board of Commissioners of Public Lands voted 2-1 to approve the loans: $12.8 million to pay for energy efficiency improvements and an additional $3 million for capital projects.

The loans will nearly double the debt of the suburban Milwaukee County district, which has been struggling to regain its financial footing after blowing through $17.5 million in reserves in recent years before posting a $2.1 million deficit in 2016.

RELATED: West Allis school district turns to taxpayers after blowing through $17.5 million in reserves

Andy Chromy, director of finance and operations for the district, defended the School Board’s decision to seek the loans after residents rejected extra spending in a referendum.

“We have 17 schools that are at least 46 years old and we are not able to replace all of them,” Chromy said. “So, this is an avenue to help us at least try to keep the schools we have in the best condition we can.”

To Andy Chromy… that may be true, but you already made that case to the voters and they said “no.” It’s unconscionable to just ram a tax increase through a loophole after the voters said no.

I would also add that there are many, many buildings still in very good use that are older than 46 years old (*cough* capitol building; Lambeau Field; hundreds of churches; etc. *cough*). The only reason they would need to be replaced is with gross mismanagement of their upkeep. Obviously, the voters of that district came to the same conclusion.

UWO Foundation Goes Bankrupt

Ummmm

The embattled UW-Oshkosh Foundation filed for bankruptcy Thursday, with leaders saying their hand was forced by a “flip flop and ill-advised political gamesmanship” from University of Wisconsin System officials who backed out of a potential settlement with the foundation’s creditors.

The System faced pressure from state lawmakers not to use taxpayer money to settle the private nonprofit’s debts — which stem from real estate projects that UW officials say were improperly financed with public money and credit — when the discussions came to light earlier this year.

In a blistering news release Thursday, leaders of the foundation, which oversees fundraising for UW-Oshkosh, said those talks had produced “a fair and reasonable settlement” agreement.

But, they said, the System’s Board of Regents bowed to political pressure and withdrew its support for the settlement, leading to the federal bankruptcy filing.

Remember that this came about because the former Chancellor illegally used taxpayer funds to back risky private building projects of the foundation. Oh, and meanwhile, the foundation bought the Chancellor’s house for roughly $120,000 more than it was worth as he moved on (*cough* kickback *cough*).

The UWO Foundation got caught dealing dirty with its hand in the taxpayers’ cookie jar. They deserve to go bankrupt. Unfortunately, it is their creditors who are left holding the bag.

West Bend School Board earns detention

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

You can see the signs all around. The Wisconsin State Fair is in full swing. The first Packers preseason game is this week. You can’t drive three blocks without finding the stand full of delicious sweet corn for sale. The signs are undeniable. Summer is coming to an end, and that means that school will be back in session in a few short weeks. But while the kids have been enjoying their summer, the West Bend School Board has been very busy running roughshod over any semblance of good governance.

In less than a week, the West Bend School Board abandoned the search for a new principal for the West Bend High Schools, restructured the administration into two high school principals and appointed two people to be those principals. Let’s look at the timeline.

Sometime late in the day on July 19, the School Board gave notice of a special meeting to happen the next day at 5 p.m. Special meetings are rare and usually only called for emergencies, but the opaque agenda referenced “review and consideration of high school administrative assignments.”

At the meeting on the 20th, two board members were absent and the attendance was sparse. Board President Tiffany Larson read a lengthy prepared statement saying that they wanted to create two high school principal positions out of the one. After a short 35 minutes and only board member Monte Schmeige asking any serious questions, the majority rammed through the decision. West Bend now has two high school principals. Several things are untoward about this.

First, this was the first time the issue had been addressed at a public meeting and the school board was already acting on the move. There had been no public outcry for the change and the issue of two principals was not even mentioned in the superintendent’s list of concerns identified after canvassing the community, teachers, parents and students. The School Board acted on a significant change to the district’s structure in a special session with no notice and without inviting any public discussion.

Second, Larson and Schmeige both referenced that the board did discuss the issue of two principals in a closed session earlier in the week. Closed sessions are only allowed to discuss very specific things like personnel issues and legal matters. Also, the agenda for that closed session did not reference a change to the organizational structure. Such a discussion in closed session would appear to run afoul of Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law. One of the principles of good governance is for our elected representatives to conduct their business in public view.

Third, the decision appears to have been made with no research, thought or planning. Nobody on the board asked the superintendent for his input during the meeting. The board did not share any cost estimates (yes, it will cost more), reporting structure, job descriptions, ideal candidate qualifications, etc. Either the board acted rashly in utter ignorance of the impact of their decision, which would be an abominable act of incompetence, or they had vetted these issues in private, which would have been a violation of the principle of open government.

Two business days after the special session in which the School Board created the two principal positions, the board appointed two district assistant principals, Ralph Schlass and Darci VanAdestine, to be those principals. Once again, the board has acted in complete opposition to any sense of good governance, transparency or propriety. And in this case, they have likely exposed the district and the taxpayers to significant legal liability.

Normally an employer like the school district would initiate a defined and legal hiring process whereby they post the positions, solicit applications, filter down to final candidates, conduct interviews and then make a selection. The purpose of such a process is to ensure that the employer finds the best possible person for the position and to make sure the process is fair, thus insulating the employer from accusations of discrimination. By scrapping a real hiring process in favor of a snap appointment, and by completely bypassing the superintendent and human resource processes in place, the School Board has made itself the hiring manager and is engaging in exceedingly risky behavior.

Why were Schlass and VanAdestine selected? Is the board clairvoyant that they know these two people to be the best possible people to lead the high schools? Do any of the board members have a personal relationship with either of them? Were minorities given a fair shot at the jobs? What process was used to decide on these two? Who was involved in that process? Given that the board members did not discuss who to appoint in open session and these two were presented as a fait accompli, when did they decide on these two? Why were other district employees not considered? Did either of these appointees have any disciplinary issues in their current roles?

Incidentally, I have asked the School Board president for insight and filed several open records requests to answer some of these questions. So far, nobody has seen fit to illuminate the process. The school board seems intent on obfuscation and obstruction despite duplicitous protestations to the contrary.

It is entirely possible that having two high school principals is better than one and that Schlass and VanAdestine are the best people to lead our high schools. But the citizens of the West Bend School District will never know. The School Board’s insistence on abandoning any normal, deliberative, competent, open process has robbed the public of ever knowing for sure and has disavowed any expectation of good governance.

The final act in this bad school play is that the School Board is planning to ratify the contracts for Schlass and VanAdestine at the regular meeting on Monday. They still have the opportunity to correct course and allow for an open, fair, and legal hiring process to commence. They should seize that opportunity.

 

Promoting Friends

An anonymous reader alerted me to a possible conflict of interest on the West Bend School Board. You may recall that the West Bend School Board has been on a tear recently. With no public input or discussion, and after apparently illegally discussing the matter in closed session, the school board split the high schools principal position into two positions and appointed two vice principals to those positions. The board bypassed any semblance of a hiring process. They did not post the positions internally or externally. They did not accept any applications. To date, nobody on the school board has explained why the two new principals were chosen over their peers or why the district did not solicit applications for the jobs.

We may be getting closer to an explanation.

The two appointees are Ralph Schlass and Darci VanAdestine. I have been told by multiple sources that Board President Tiffany Larson and her husband, Ron Larson, are friends with Ralph Schlass. Larson has been the one responsible for driving the hiring process and bypassing normal hiring procedures or best practices. The anonymous reader who contacted me is a graduate of West Bend West and has access to the yearbooks from 1989-1990. Mr. Schlass and Mr. Larson were both graduates of West Bend East (classes of 1990 and 1989, respectively) and both played on the basketball, football, and baseball teams their entire high school careers. In short, these two spent a lot of time together and it is not much of a jump to think that they were close acquaintances if not fast friends.

So… given the apparent close personal relationship between the Larsons and Schlass, is it appropriate for Tiffany Larson, in her role as the West Bend School Board President, to bypass a fair hiring process to appoint promote Schlass? Schlass may indeed be the best candidate for the job, but we will never know if there isn’t a fair process that is open to all applicants.

The School Board has not executed the contracts to appoint Schlass or VanAdestine. That is on the schedule for the August 14th meeting. I have also heard whispers that they might call another “emergency” special session and do it earlier. In either case, it is not too late for the School Board to slow down and allow for a fair, open process to find the best possible principals to lead the West Bend High Schools forward.

I have contacted Larson for comment, but she has refused to respond to me on previous inquiries.