Boots & Sabers

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Tag: West Bend School Board

Preferences for West Bend Elections

While I don’t live in West Bend anymore, I do have a strong interest in the community in which I raised my kids and in which I have so many friends. I’ve been asked to share my views on the local elections. So, were I to vote in the local elections there, here’s what I would do:

City of West Bend

The even-numbered Aldermanic seats are up for election. I agree completely with former mayor Kraig Sadownikow. The common council has lurched to the left, or at least, become very pro-government. The council is largely serving the interests of the employees instead of the taxpayers. There are two conservatives on the council of 7. Both of them are up for reelection and should be rewarded for their good work. That’s Randy Koehler in District 4 and Meghan Kennedy in District 8.

The remaining two seats are held by two aldermen who consistently vote to enlarge the scope and expense of government. They should be replaced with two conservative candidates, Chris Thompson for District 2 and Tracy Ahrens in District 6.

The opportunity is there to turn the council to a 4-3 conservative majority in a single election. Don’t pass up that chance, Benders.

West Bend School Board

There are three candidates running for two seats. Both of the incumbents are running for reelection.

The West Bend School Board is in an interesting place. They did a good job with hiring the new superintendent and they managed to be ahead of most other public school districts in opening their doors partially during the pandemic. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that they have continued to raise taxes to most allowed by law and introduced some truly leftist indoctrination into the curriculum. Both of the incumbents advanced the misguided referendum in 2019 that failed and are almost certain to support any future referendum effort. As a whole, the board votes are almost always unanimous while the entrenched special interests and “good ol’ boys” have lined up behind the incumbents. There is a reason for that. Follow the money.

Unfortunately, there is not an opportunity to change the direction of the school board this election, but there is an opportunity to start down that path. At the very least, there is an opportunity to elect someone new to the board who will offer a different perspective and be willing to occasionally break ranks with the majority. Disagreement is healthy in a diverse community with conflicting interests. It should worry you when disagreements in the community are not reflected in elected bodies. It is an indication that the elected board is not representing all stakeholders.

Were I to vote, I’d cast a single vote for Jody Geenen. One of the incumbents will win the other seat. It really doesn’t matter which one. They vote the same way.

Non-Partisan School Board Races

The race for School Board is on in West Bend and, once again, we have some conservatives trying to unseat the lefty-leaning incumbents. I was amused by this letter to the editor in the Washington County Daily News. 

Here we go again. A partisan request to vote for a “conservative” for a School Board position. There are two problems with this request: (1.) School boards are nonpartisan for good reason. Members must be able to work with everyone for the good of the students, community and taxpayers — not represent a particular viewpoint or push an agenda. And (2.) there is no universally accepted definition of what being a “conservative” is.


As the last few years have shown, working to divide the population based on political party has had no lasting benefit to the country as a whole or West Bend in particular. Rather than pushing propaganda and a political point of view, we need to hear why the candidates are able to work with everyone in the community to educate each child to their full potential.


I, for one, don’t care what political party you belong to. I want to know you understand how schools work, teachers teach and students learn. And I want a fair hearing of all points of view. You get no points for wearing your political party or religious beliefs on your sleeve.


— Joan Thompson, West Bend

“Conservative” is not “partisan.” Conservatism is not a political party. It is a philosophy. And while the definition covers a range of variance, it is a useful shorthand to describe a political candidate. It is very telling that no school board candidate in West Bend ever runs as a “liberal,” despite many of them being just that. And “liberal” also covers a range of variance in philosophy, but nobody wants to use it.

In any case, do you know who constantly gripes about school board races being nonpartisan? Liberals. Because they can’t use their label and they want to take the ability of opponents to label themselves. Liberals running for nonpartisan races in conservative areas like to create a great beige slate of candidates so that they don’t have to explain their own philosophy.

West Bend School Board to Restrict Public Participation

In an age of unprecedented government overreach, the little West Bend School Board is proposing to further limit public input at public meetings.

One of the action items on the agenda is a plan to fast track a recommendation to change Policy 187 – public participation at board meetings.

According to the current policy: Participants may comment concerning an agenda item or a non-agenda item. The School Board and administration of the District recognize the value and importance of public input in Board meetings.

The proposed change in policy would strike ‘non-agenda items’ from the language.

For example: In January 2020 students from the West Bend High Schools packed the board meeting to address what they thought were cuts in funding for forensics and debate. The superintendent made clear, after nearly a dozen students spoke, that no cuts had taken place. If the new policy is passed on Monday, April 13 that would mean students would not be able to voice their concerns unless the topic is already on the agenda.

And, of course, since they are virtual meetings, there isn’t even a way for a member of the public to show up and protest verbally or with a sign. How convenient. This is an outrageous and unnecessary policy change that should be rejected.

Vote for Jody Geenen for transparent School Board

Here’s a Letter to the Editor I received.

I believe the West Bend School Board needs a shake-up.  I believe the right person to do so is Jody Geenen.

A recent article in the West Bend Current, the high schools’ online newspaper, made me sure of this (  All candidates running for the School Board were interviewed, but the three incumbents (Justman, Ongert and Schmidt) reminded me once again how often they are misleading with facts, less than transparent, and far from conservative.

Mr. Ongert misleads when he states that the District has “far more AP classes and CTE classes than any other district around us.”  All one has to do is combine the number of students at our two high schools, and West Bend ends up as one of the largest high schools in the whole state.  No wonder our high schools offer more AP and CTE classes– or any other classes for that matter– than schools like Germantown, Slinger or Cedarburg!  How does the number of classes make our district any better?

Ms. Justman is less than transparent when she says the board is “working proactively” on building needs such as roofing repairs.  Roofing is always included in the District budget, and there is a schedule of repairs each summer.  She also says that “attractive and high-functioning schools” will make West Bend “the chosen destination for families to live,” and she is concerned about our community thriving and higher property values.  One would think she works for the Economic Development office of the city rather than serving on the School Board.  What about improving the education of our students?

Ms. Schmidt mentions learning but usually in the context of her own educational experiences.  Her plans for improving the District do not focus on curriculum or test scores.  She wants United Way to step in with their Inspire program (but doesn’t explain how that would improve student achievement), and she borrows a successful concept from Riveredge Nature Center.  Schmidt wants to establish a charter nature school like Riveredge in the District!  Perhaps more disturbing is her attack on former Superintendent Erik Olson.

Since being elected in 2017, the three incumbents have had plenty of time “to move our district forward,” as Ongert states in the Current piece.  Instead, test scores have fallen below neighboring districts, and the Wisconsin State Report Card scores show both East and West High Schools at the bottom of all conference schools.  The school board at great expense pursued a $74 million (including interest) referendum that was too much for this community on top of existing debt of $32 million from previous referendums.  They’ve allowed left-leaning curriculum and lesson plans to persist in the classrooms, even when a national spotlight was shined on the District.

Justman, Ongert, and Schmidt are out of touch with this community.  It’s time to vote for Jody Geenen to add a voice of reason to the School Board.  Jody will respectfully represent your tax dollars, and she’ll welcome input when working to improve student academics.  Because that’s what schools are all about:  learning, not shiny new buildings.  Cast only one vote for School Board; the right choice is Jody Geenen on April 7.

John & Carol Heger

West Bend School Board Member Misrepresents Task Force Findings

In a letter to the editor today in the Washington County Daily News, West Bend School Board Member Paul Fischer said a couple of things that need some discussion. First, he said this:

Regarding our ongoing facilities discussions, various letters to the editor claim the School Board has turned a deaf ear toward the private task force’s recommendations. This statement couldn’t be further from the truth. The School Board agrees with many of their observations and continues to evaluate their suggestions.

Some of you might remember that I was a member of the Private Task Force that spent months evaluating the district’s elementary and high school facilities. I can’t get into the minds of the board members. What I can tell you is that they seemed receptive when we presented the findings to them at a board meeting. I presented the findings for a few groups after we presented to the board and several board members attended those presentations of their own accord. The Task Force offered to come back in committee format to do deeper dives on specific findings and provide all of the backend discovery and data. To my knowledge, the board has not taken up any task force members on that offer. So while the board members may be considering the Task Force’s findings in their deliberations, they have not dug any deeper into the details of those findings. Perhaps that is why Mr. Fischer made this incorrect statement:

Claims have also been made that the task force recommendations included guidance that our facilities issues can be addressed without raising taxes. To be clear, the report NEVER made that statement.

This is not true. The written task force presentation laid out a financial model for how to accomplish the facilities goals without increasing spending or taxes. Furthermore, it was verbally communicated during the school board presentation. It was also verbally presented several times at other presentations that board members attended. I happen to know that because I was the one presenting. Finally, I actually wrote it in the column I did at the time about the findings. I wrote:

Third, once the district has a valid long-range facilities plan and an adequate funding to execute that plan, the School Board must do the work to execute without increasing spending or raising taxes. The Task Force found that there is sufficient money in the current budget to pay for extensive upgrades to the district’s facilities without increasing spending or raising taxes.

I said virtually the same thing in a second column:

The best part is that by taking advantage of the operational efficiencies of a streamlined district infrastructure and making a few other easily identified operational efficiencies, the task force found that the district could do upgrade at the high school, modernize the entire elementary school footprint, and increase the ongoing maintenance budget to adequate levels without spending or taxing a dollar more than they already are.

As a member of the Task Force who participated in the discovery, discussion, and development of the presentations; and as someone who actually presented the findings multiple times; I can say with absolute certainty that the Task Force did find that the West Bend School District could address its facilities needs without raising taxes or spending. Perhaps Fischer wants to dance around how the written report is phrased, but this finding was presented to the Board and communicated multiple times in multiple formats. Again, perhaps if the School Board had taken up the opportunity to dig deeper into the discovery documentation, this fact would have been more clear. But then again, I thought it was already clear. Clearly it is just something that they don’t want to confront.

The complaints from some in the community that the West Bend School Board ignored the Task Force’s findings are well founded. While the board members might be taking the findings into consideration in their heads, they have given no outward indication that that’s the case.

Corono-Schools: Pandemic Response Varies by School District

It has been an interesting view into the preparedness, priorities, and competencies of various school districts in Wisconsin. Senator Duey Stroebel highlighted some:

As COVID-19 closes schools across Wisconsin, I wanted to highlight school districts in the 20th Senate District that are continuing to educate students using the valuable taxpayer resources that we have entrusted to them.  The 20th Senate District includes most of Ozaukee and Washington Counties as well as portions of Calumet, Fond du Lac, and Sheboygan Counties.

The Hartford J1, Holy Hill Area, Northern Ozaukee, Port Washington-Saukville, Plymouth, Random Lake, and Slinger School Districts have already started a virtual learning program for their students in reaction to the current environment.

I applaud their preparation to ensure our students have the resources they need to succeed.  I look forward to other districts joining their ranks to minimize the interruption to our children’s education.

I give a lot of credit, and cut a lot of slack, to school districts for how they are responding. There are a lot of hurdles. For example:

  • Districts can’t assume that all kids have access to a computer and decent internet access.
  • Delivering education via distance learning is vastly different than in person. The curriculum and planning were mostly built for in-person delivery and it is a monumental task to restructure them for distance learning. A few schools are doing this well. Some are just trying to do it the same way, which won’t be effective. Some are not doing anything at all.
  • For the lower grades, distance learning gets much more difficult. It relies heavily on individual support and instruction, which falls on parents – parents who have jobs.
  • If you don’t already have a technology infrastructure that is built for distance learning, you can’t build one overnight. This is easier than it once was with the availability of auto-scaling and elastic load balancing cloud platforms, but it still isn’t immediate.

There are a lot of hurdles. Some districts are jumping over them better than others.

Since they are my local school district, I have been following the West Bend School District and I have been… disappointed. Again, I cut them a lot of slack, but if we are to measure them against neighboring districts, they are coming up short. You will notice that they are noticeably absent from Stroebel’s press release.

While other districts are already up and running online, the West Bend School District is targeting sometime in the middle of next week to start – and it looks like that will involve mostly emailing worksheets:

We now anticipate distance learning beginning mid-next-week. Continue to check your email daily for updates on which day next week this programming will begin.

1. Our district provides a Chromebook to all students in grade 5-9 for use during the school year. Additionally, students in grades 10-12 have always had access to a Chromebook if they needed one. While our elementary age students have numerous electronic devices at their disposal in class, our practice has not been to send those devices home with students. We are currently evaluating the resources and feasibility of handing out devices to elementary students.

2. The distance learning for all grade levels will be provided electronically via email. If a printed copy of the materials are needed, please contact your building principal.

a. Students in grades K-4 will need to print out learning activities. Teachers will be able to support students remotely during this time.

Meanwhile, schools like Kettle Moraine Lutheran High School is already doing full distance learning with a full class schedule via Zoom. That’s probably the best I’ve seen. Slinger and Hartford are already doing distance learning, but it looks like they have not really shifted to a true distance learning methodology.

What the West Bend School Board is making sure is taken care of is paying staff. I expect that this is of particular importance with three board members up for reelection in a few weeks.

WEST BEND — With one board member quarantined after travel, the West Bend School District Board of Education met to discuss how teachers and other staff will be paid during the school closure, all while staying six feet apart from one another.

Board members met on Wednesday, March 18, to discuss employee compensation while schools are closed. They unanimously voted to pay employees their normal salary up to spring break on Monday, April 6.

If the school closure due to COVID-19 is to be extended, the board would reconvene and take

further action if the closure extends after Monday, April 13.

“We have had several employees wanting to know or are very concerned about whether they’re going to be paid during this shutdown or not,” said Superintendent Don Kirkegaard.


“Nobody spends money just to spend money. In this case, we’re spending money to take care of the people who dedicated in many times 10, 15, 20, 30 years of their life to us and we want to treat them the way we’d want to be treated as well,” said Kirkegaard.

Frankly, I’m a little torn on this. We want to ensure that the district is able to retain critical employees after this is over and that we are caring for our community. At the same time, taxpayers are also suffering and it is not unreasonable to expect our public employees to share the pain too. If they aren’t working, we shouldn’t be paying them. And we shouldn’t just make up work for them to have an excuse to pay them. I don’t see any reason to pay coaches, custodial, administrators, and good chunk of the classroom teachers and aides if they aren’t working full time. Yeah, it sucks, but it also sucks for the retail, restaurant, and other workers in town who are idle right now and have to pay that tax bill.

With the way budgeting works, the school district already has the money from the annual property tax, so there wouldn’t be an immediate tax savings. But they could save or reallocate the savings to reduce taxes in the next budget when the taxpayers will still be reeling from the economic impact of this. Or they could reallocate the money to purchase the technology and training needed to do distance learning correctly. It appears that the priority of the West Bend School Board, however, is to keep the district staff whole irrespective of what’s happening to the taxpayers.

We will have to watch the long term effects of this transition. Will distance learning stick for schools? It’s not right for everything, but if 20% of a district moves to distance learning, then we can redirect much of the spending on facilities to classroom instruction. And what does this do for appropriate teacher/student ratios? If kids are learning from home, will the taxpayers still need to provide free meals to them? If so, then can we admit that that is just normal welfare and not use our government school system as an alternate welfare delivery agency?

When all of this is over, we will all have to evaluate how our government institutions responded and render judgment. Some will deserve praise. Some will need a wholesale reform.

Cast your vote based on the record

Speaking of voting, here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

Three incumbent West Bend School Board members are up for re-election on the April 7 ballot. Joel Ongert, Nancy Justman, and Tonnie Schmidt ran as a bloc in 2017 and are running for re-election as a bloc again. In 2017, they ran on conservatism and transparency. Having failed on both counts, this year they are running on their record. It is certainly a record that deserves scrutiny.

Despite promising transparency, the West Bend School District became instantly more opaque when they took office. Individually, these three board members repeatedly refused to respond to questions from media and constituents who did not support them; documents disappeared from the district’s website; and there was a noticeable increase in the number of closed sessions.

This secrecy enveloped the decision in 2017 to split the high school administrations. West Bend has two high schools in one building, but previous boards had combined the administration to be more efficient and economical. Without any public input or discussion, and in the middle of a hiring process for a single principal, the School Board split the position into two expensive principals instead of one. Secrecy and patronage were the new guiding principles with these three.

Under the leadership of the Triad, the district abandoned using Act 10 and reversed course on the implementation of merit pay for school staff. After a year in limbo, the district is implementing a new compensation system that rewards teachers for experience and more education — irrespective of the teacher’s performance.

Who could forget the superintendent shuffle? The district will be hiring its fourth superintendent since the Triad took office three years ago. They forced one out (allegedly), had an interim for a while, and then hired Superintendent Kirkegaard. While Kirkegaard has been a capable superintendent, it did not take much foresight to understand that an administrator nearing the end of his career who spent his entire life in another state would not last long. Along with the superintendent shuffle came the huge turnover of the rest of the administrative staff. The district has cycled through six business managers, five HR directors, and countless other staff positions.

The Triad also ran last time as conservatives. They may be fiscally conservative in their private lives, but they are big-spending liberals with other people’s money. Despite steeply declining enrollment (not the district’s fault), the School Board increased spending by over $5 million, or over 6%, since 2016. That spending brought with it property tax increases. The School Board increased the property tax levy by over 9% over the same period. The spending and taxing decisions of the West Bend School Board are indistinguishable from those of legendarily liberal school boards like Madison or Milwaukee.

The increased spending and taxes were not enough for this crew. Throughout the Triad’s entire tenure, the district has been roiled with referendum debate. After a few months, the Triad pushed through a $74 million (with interest) referendum for a new Jackson Elementary School and work at the high schools. They followed the liberal school referendum playbook to the letter. They manipulated a fake community study committee, conducted a sham survey, rolled out the scare tactics, and were hazy about the details of how the money would be spent.

After the voters rejected the referendum, they are right back at planning the next referendum. Despite the fact that a private task force of local business and facilities leaders (of which I was a member) dug into the data for months and showed a way to restructure facilities with enormous improvements without increasing taxes, the Triad appears determined to ignore those findings and proceed with a rehashed version of the previous referendum – a new Jackson Elementary School and maybe some other fluff thrown in to lure voters from outside of Jackson.

Sadly for the kids of the West Bend School District, the spending, taxing, administrative turmoil, lack of performance incentives for teachers, secrecy, and poor management have only perpetuated a steadily declining performance. None of this has improved educational outcomes or better prepared our kids to enter the world.

If you want higher taxes, more spending, declining performance, and an endless succession of referendums, vote for the Triad. As for me, I will only be voting for one person for the West Bend School Board, Jody Geenen.

Geenen is a solidly conservative mother who had three children go through the West Bend School District. She is committed to doing the hard work of improving transparency, communicating with the public, evaluating the curriculum, being a frugal steward of taxpayer money, and providing a “high-quality, content-rich, truth-and-factbased education for all students.”

There are four candidates for three School Board seats, so two of the three members of the Triad will be re-elected. It does not matter which ones. But it does matter that the voters elect Jody Geenen to be the only conservative on a school board that lurched to the left with the election of the Triad.

Cast your vote based on the record

Isn’t it nice to read about something that isn’t related to Coronovirus? My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s a little taste:

Sadly for the kids of the West Bend School District, the spending, taxing, administrative turmoil, lack of performance incentives for teachers, secrecy, and poor management have only perpetuated a steadily declining performance. None of this has improved educational outcomes or better prepared our kids to enter the world.

If you want higher taxes, more spending, declining performance, and an endless succession of referendums, vote for the Triad. As for me, I will only be voting for one person for the West Bend School Board, Jody Geenen.

Geenen is a solidly conservative mother who had three children go through the West Bend School District. She is committed to doing the hard work of improving transparency, communicating with the public, evaluating the curriculum, being a frugal steward of taxpayer money, and providing a “high-quality, content-rich, truth-and-fact based education for all students.”

There are four candidates for three School Board seats, so two of the three members of the Triad will be re-elected. It does not matter which ones. But it does matter that the voters elect Jody Geenen to be the only conservative on a school board that lurched to the left with the election of the Triad.

Letter to the Editor

Yet another transparency issue with the school district!  As the only new candidate running for School Board, I am frustrated with the district’s deceit in pretending to seek public input regarding new curriculum. For example, the district sent a memo to certain parents/guardians and taxpayers (not me) inviting them to review the new 9th grade biology curriculum.  A friend received the email and was frustrated with the inconvenient times offered ~ 6:45am-8:00am and 2:30pm-4:00pm, when most parents are traveling to work or working. There were no evening or weekend sessions.  I emailed the Curriculum and Instruction Department to request an evening viewing. While they were willing to hold a private viewing, they refused to open it up to the public except to let me invite guests. So I brought four.

Laura Jackson presented the curriculum and was aware the public was not invited to the evening session. Yet, she praised herself at the February 24th School Board Meeting for inviting public  input. She said she offered convenient times to parents who were dropping students off at school or picking them up and that there was an evening session. Really? There were zero (0) people, other than a teacher, who attended the two early sessions, and the five of us who attended the evening session from which she provided our written feedback to the board. Were inconvenient viewing sessions offered because there was something to hide from the public? Were they just pretending to be accommodating to avoid any negative reaction to the curriculum?

If you’re tired of the lack of transparency and you believe children’s education should be a partnership between parents and teachers, then vote for me on or before April 7 for school board.

Jody Geenen – Candidate for West Bend School Board

Letter To the Editor

Dear Editor,

I am writing to share my personal experience with the West Bend school district putting out a new book and curriculum for 9th grade Biology. First, there was an open viewing of the book and curriculum to anyone who pays taxes but the only means of notification to the public was an email to limited audience. I was told that this was open to the public but later found out that whoever was in charge of putting out the invitation refused to let people know there was an evening viewing. What are they trying to hide?  Second, the book filled with non-science and pseudo-science topics such as climate change, population control and evolution.  Instead of teaching the Science of Biology it is a total indoctrination of agenda-driven propaganda. I do not want my taxes paying for this type of brain-washing This situation reminds me of the way the Community Hospital relocation to where it is now was accomplished. Then only after the outcry by many people from this community did an open and faux meeting occur. The move proponents pretended to care what we thought, only to do what they wanted in the end anyway. We need change in our school district so kids learn what they should and not a political agenda.  If you want change in our district vote for Jody Geenen for the School Board on April 7.

Jean Weymier

West Bend

Letter to the Editor from Jody Geenen

From West Bend School Board candidate Jody Geenen.

More school board transparency issues regarding the referendum for November replacing the one that was voted down last April! The board is so determined to pass it that they are purposely muddying the very understandable Policy 615, Disclosure of Financial and Total Costs of All Referendums. They don’t want the public to understand the significant interest cost and total costs. For example, the last referendum was $47-million; but, with interest, it would have actually cost $74-million on top of the $32-million owed on the last two referendums that passed, for a grand total of $106-million. Just before the election, they sent the public a mailing that violated Policy 615 by only mentioning the $47-million.

This time around, the board decided to change Policy 615 by insisting on forcing the mill rate into it to confuse voters. At the Chamber Public Forum on March 4, the 3-incumbents running for school board hoodwinked the public by giving themselves credit for the decreased mill rate. The school district cannot take credit for the decreased mill rate anymore than they can take credit for a booming economy.  The mill rate is the amount of dollars charged per $1000 of assessed property value, so we realize a decrease in mill rate because property values went up. The only way the school board could take credit for reducing the mill rate is if they had a less than maximum revenue budget. However, they have had a tax-to-the- max revenue budget of 2.5% for the last 3-years. By the way, there are about 45 school districts with lower mill rates than West Bend.

If you want honest, independent, and true oversight of our school district — with ALL stakeholder interests properly considered and balanced, then vote for me for school board on or before April 7.

West Bend School District needs a new superintendent

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Go pick up a copy! Here’s a part to whet your appetite.

The search for a new superintendent comes during a time of turmoil in the school district. After Superintendent Ted Nietzke resigned in 2016, the School Board hired a strong replacement, Erik Olsen. 2016 is also when the School Board began its turn to the left when Tiffany Larson was elected. 2017 completed the turn with the election of Joel Ongert, Nancy Justman, and Tonnie Schmidt. With a solid majority, Superintendent Olson was quickly paid a handsome severance to leave. Interim Superintendent Laura Jackson served well until Kirkegaard was hired by the board in 2018 after an expensive search.

Through these years, the school district has burned through four or five HR directors and business managers, ended innovation like the charter school, abandoned merit pay for teachers, stunted community and stakeholder communication, roiled the electorate with a poorly thought-out referendum that failed, and generally regressed from the gains made a few years ago. The results have been distressing as student performance has been stagnant and much of the community is disengaged and disinterested.

Meanwhile, the school district is facing some serious challenges. Due to a general demographic shift, enrollment is declining in the district and is projected to continue to decline for the foreseeable future. A district that once had 7,000 students will likely have less than 5,000 within this decade. This will mean substantially less money and the need to downsize personnel and facilities. The district is also facing competitive pressure with the expansion of school choice and the maturity of online and home-school learning options. These are structural pressures that are not unique to the West Bend School District. They are systemic and unavoidable.

Taking all of this into account, the next superintendent of the West Bend School District needs to be a strong, transformational, visionary change agent. It is exponentially more difficult to properly manage an organization through a contraction than through an expansion. The leader must be a phenomenal communicator who can motivate employees and build support with all of the stakeholders in the district. The West Bend School District does not need a caretaker or a toady. The district needs a strong leader to guide it through a transformation to improve educational outcomes, infuse modern innovations, and reconnect with the community while also consolidating and economizing personnel and facilities. The folks in the West Bend School District deserve a better, if smaller, school district that reflects the values of the community it serves.

To find a superintendent that matches all of those criteria will not be easy, especially given the recent turnover in the position. To do so, the West Bend School Board should follow the lead of the University of Wisconsin System and consider candidates who do not come from the government education- industrial complex. A school district superintendent must have a vision for education, but must also have skills in budgeting, contract negotiation, public relations, personnel management, finance, facilities management, organizational behavior, recruitment, marketing, legal, and more. These are skills that most seasoned, successful business executives have acquired and are not unique to people who have spent their career in education.

Letter to the Editor – Jody Geenen

Here is a letter from West Bend School Board candidate Jody Geenen

The referendum is back!  As a candidate for the West Bend School Board in April, I’ve paid particular attention to the January meetings. The groupthink of the current board appear to promise a more elaborate and expensive referendum for November than was voted down last April.  Instead of one new school plus repairs, there will likely be two new schools, an addition to Green Tree, plus repairs.

Part of the problem, I wondered was why, after hearing all of the pros on Jackson needing it’s very own elementary school situated next to the Boys & Girls Club, we didn’t have anyone lined up to give the cons so there could be a balanced discussion. After all, none of the schools in West Bend are located near the Boys & Girls Club, yet students manage to get there.  In addition, we had a task force months ago that developed an alternative plan that was viable, sensible, and more affordable. Shouldn’t someone from that committee have been given the floor to explain why that plan might be better than the one in the works?

As the only candidate running against the incumbents for school board on April 7, I would like to listen to all options side-by-side in order to formulate what works best for ALL stakeholders in our school district, including the taxpayer. Yes, it does appear that Jackson has the most potential for residential growth, but some of those properties are actually in the Germantown School District. Not only can we contribute declining enrollment to students attending secondary school in Germantown or Slinger, but we are also competing against private schools, home school and virtual school that are becoming more and more popular with each passing year. Please vote for Common Sense on April 7; please vote for me.

Jody Geenen – Candidate for West Bend School Board

West Bend School Board Reconsiders Process to Combine High Schools

Hmmm… from the Washington County Insider.

In October 2019, Superintendent Don Kirkegaard said, “unless there is a change in enrollment trends, the district can expect declining enrollment for the next 8-10 years.”
Click HERE to see predicted enrollment trends, including numbers from the high schools which show a drop in enrollment from 2019 at 2,184 to 1,669 in 2028.

Board member Joel Ongert brought up Policy 188: Should the Board decide to further consider reconfiguration of the high schools, the Board must proceed to a non-binding referendum at the next Gubernatorial or Presidential election balloting. The next Presidential election is Nov. 3, 2020.

Policy 188 was put into place in 2015; it was the last time the district broached the subject of combining the two high schools.

Joel Ongert – “The way this policy reads and all the steps, this could take potentially years…  So I think it’s time we look at this policy. I’m not saying we totally eliminate it, I’m not saying that we … maybe not necessarily start from scratch. I think it’s time we start looking at this policy, just in case in the future the declining enrollment numbers … It would be easier for us to close an elementary school than it would be to combine the two high schools.”

For a little background… West Bend has two high schools in one building. This was done decades ago for the purpose of having all of the benefits of two high schools (primarily, double the extracurricular opportunities) while saving money with a single campus. As currently configured, virtually all of the academic departments operate as a single school. The only things that are separate are the extracurricular and sports teams and we are paying for two administrations.

About every five years – when we have a new batch of parents with kids in the high schools – the community debates whether the district should just have one high school. It is always an emotional and raucous discussion. Personally, I’m a supporter of combining the schools. It is more efficient and the benefits of the current configuration do not outweigh the detriments. But there are generations of Benders who are emotionally invested in being a Sun or a Spartan and don’t want to see them combined. While I disagree with these folks, their perspective is certainly valid and they deserve a voice.

After the last round of debate, the School Board put the referenced policy in place. The purpose was to provide a pre-determined process by which the question of combining the high schools would be considered in a way that provides transparency and community participation. Based on the conversation had by school board members last night, the rapidly declining enrollment if the district is generating a fresh look at the question, but board members may want to revise the process to allow them more latitude in making the decision.

Should they? Maybe. Any policy can be revised by a board. It will depend on what they do. If they want to revise the policy to allow a referendum question to be put on more possible dates, then that’s probably fine. If they want to eliminate the public voice altogether, then it’s not fine.

In any case, I am disappointed that the school board would inject this emotionally-charged discussion into what was already a vigorous debate about the physical infrastructure of the district and the impact of declining enrollment. It could be a poison pill in a comprehensive plan.

West Bend School Board to Discuss Facilities

This could be interesting. From the Washington County Insider.

December 1, 2019 – On Monday, Dec. 2, 2019 the West Bend School District Committee of the Whole will meet at 5:30 p.m. to discuss facilities planning.
A couple bullet points are listed below including student transportation and looking at the configuration of the high schools.

Topic and Background: Administration wishes to resume the discussion surrounding our District’s current and future facilities needs as a continuation of this recent standing agenda item.

This coming Monday evening, Mr. Ross will finish sharing information on our secondary schools and auxiliary buildings. Further, he will be bringing forward summary information on our operational costs.

Additional topics will include:

  • Property values by municipality

  • Property value south of County Road NN (and) property value of the Jackson Elementary attendance area

  • Discussion of building with debt issuance versus lease-to-own through operational dollars

  • An update on student transportation and how this service is structured

  • An identification of our Board policy 188 discussing the configuration of the high school(s) and a change from the existing design

West Bend School District Projects Rapid Decline in Enrollment

The West Bend School Board met last night. One of the items they discussed was new enrollment figures and projections. One might remember that the topic of declining enrollment was a key driver in the findings of the West Bend School District Private Task Force. As it turns out, enrollment is dropping faster than even the projections we used. The Washington County Insider has video and extensive coverage.

October 29, 2019 – West Bend, WI – West Bend School District Superintendent Don Kirkegaard outlined enrollment trends during the Monday night School Board meeting. The district indicated “unless there is a change in enrollment trends, the district can expect declining enrollment for the next 8-10 years.”

Superintendent Kirkegaard:

  • Our enrollment has been going south. It has been for quite a few years and it’s going to go for quite a few more years.
  • We’re down about 600 students since 2006
  • There are about 60 kids that open enroll out of Jackson. Jackson area is the largest open enrolling out of the district.
  • Projections: I made an assumption that the kindergarten class would stay the same and every kid who is in school this year stays in school throughout their whole career.
  • If you go to the high school we’re at 2184 this year. If you look at current students in the school, I added 50 kids every year once they become 9th graders, based on Holy Angels and Cabrini, typically the last few years we picked up 50 parochial kids that come to high school. You’re down to 1669 students with both east and west together.
  • This isn’t doom and gloom, it’s just reality.

II don’t know why he would use flat Kindergarten enrollment as a basis given that Kindergarten enrollment has been declining too, but even with that faulty basis, the overall district is declining.

The reality is that enrollment in the West Bend School District peaked 10 years ago with 6,902 students. This year, there are 6,279. That’s a decline of 623 students or 9%. Even the most generous projections show that the district will have just under 5,000 students ten years from now. That is a decline of almost 30% off of the most recent peak.

Again, this is not the fault of the district. While there are some numbers around the edges that have to do with School Choice or Open Enrollment, the main reason is a national demographic trend of people having fewer kids.

The enrollment trend is going to hit the district hard and fast whether the School Board acts or not. Either they can manage the decline or it will manage them. It’s past time for the citizens of the district to put some big issues on the table. The district can’t be run like it has been in the past.


Task force shows path to build more without spending more

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online and in print. Here’s the main point:

Amongst the Task Force’s findings were three key prerequisites that must be met before putting a shovel in the ground. The district needs to create and maintain a meaningful facilities plan; the facilities must be adequately maintained; and the district must live within its means by creating efficiencies. None of these are easy, but they are necessary to provide the facilities that our kids deserve and our community can afford.


Make a plan. Take care of what we own. Live within our means. These are guiding principles that citizens should expect from our government. They are principles that must be followed as the West Bend School Board considers the future of the district’s facilities.

Pick up a copy to read the whole thing.

Also, as a reminder, the Task Force’s full findings will be presented again at the Moose Lodge in West Bend at 1900 on October 24th courtesy of the Common Sense Citizens of Washington County. All are welcome to attend, listen, and ask questions.

West Bend School Board Members Can’t Imagine Not Increasing Taxes

Wow. Some quality reporting from the Washington County Insider.

A discussion about the mill rate was initiated toward the end of Monday night’s budget discussion.

Board member Ongert: “So are you suggesting the mill rate could go down even more during the 2019-2020 budget?”

Andy Sarnow: “I don’t know yet, so I don’t want to say because I haven’t made that calculation.”

Board member Nancy Justman: “Well considering some of the criticism we endured during the referendum that we need to ‘live within our means’ I would say dropping the levy or not taxing to the max would be detrimental to us. I’m not sure why we would even think about doing that personally.”

Ongert: “Plus I heard loud and clear people think we have too much debt in the West Bend School District and if that’s what’s preventing people from voting ‘yes’ on the referendum then let’s maintain the mill rate and pay down even more debt, if that’s what our community wants. Dropping the mill rate just to see how low we can go, um… I think is detrimental to our facilities to our staff, to our students. I don’t want to tax the crap out of the community but we need to be able to pay down the debt.”

Justman: “Obviously we have a lot of capital things we have put off. The fact we have carpeting in that building we can assume is at least 40 years old* (statement not confirmed) is frightening. Correction, 48 years*(statement not confirmed).. even more frightening. The idea we have put off items but we also need to make sure we have this balance with our students, we still want to be a destination district. I’m just not in favor at all or decreasing the mill rate at all. I guess you’d have to really come up with some amazing plan to sell me on a plan to do that. I think we should look at increasing it and look at some of these projects that we haven’t been able to get done. I see Dave Ross is happy dancing in the background… as I go on with my rant here. But we really need to prioritize some of these things. We can’t have carpeting that’s 48 years old*(statement not confirmed) and we can’t have projects that Dave is holding together with binder twine to try and get things done. I mean we really need to look at some of these things and if that requires us to raise the mill rate than so be it.”

Ongert: “And our taxpayers are telling us we can’t have any debt.”

Justman: “Well the word was ‘live within your means’ but we don’t sell anything so we have no means but apparently some people don’t understand, so I just want to point out I’m not in favor of decreasing the mill rate.”

So the message that these board members took out of a failed referendum was “increase taxes as much as possible.” How about they keep taxes flat – even as enrollment declines – and prioritize better?

West Bend School Board Considers Extending School Year to Allow More Days Off

I heard some scuttlebutt on social media about the School Board meeting a couple of weeks ago where they discussed the proposed new school calendar, so I decided to watch the meeting. I do these things so that you can enjoy time with your families…

Here’s what went down… there is an ad hoc committee that forms every year to recommend the school calendar. They do it a bit in advance, so the one they are looking at now is for the 2020-2021 school year. The committee brought their recommendation to the school board and the school board was supposed to vote on the schedule.

What they recommended is that the school board extend the school year to June 9th so that the teachers can have a paid day off each month in addition to the already scheduled teacher work days and holidays. The committee said that there was a strong desire to have the extra day off each month so that they can be refreshed and at their best. Yes, that was actually the driving force behind the extra days off during the year.

Here’s the video of the exchange. They schedule stuff starts at minute 12:40.

Hats off to board member Nancy Justman for challenging the schedule and saying she would vote against it (as did Ken Schmidt). Justman correctly pointed out that the extra day off during the school year creates a hardship for families who have to arrange for child care. She also pointed out that in the private sector, bosses don’t just give the staff a paid day off every month for the heck of it. Finally, Justman wondered why there was only one parent representative on the committee – a great point. The superintendent and presenter confirmed that this was actually unusual… there wasn’t ANY parent representative the previous two years.

In the end, they tabled the vote for the schedule and gave the committee instructions to come back with two options – the current option and one that takes out the extra days off and ends the school year a week earlier. I believe they were presented those options tonight, but I didn’t make the meeting. We’ll see how it went shortly.

Again, kudos to Nancy Justman for ensuring that the voices of other stakeholders were heard before approving the schedule.

Voters vote ‘no’ on school referendum. Now what?

Here is my full column that ran in the Washington County Daily News yesterday.

The voters in the West Bend School District voiced a definitive “no” to the referendum question to raise taxes and borrow $47 million to build and renovate buildings. Now that the School Board has that answer, they must plan to meet the needs of the district within the taxpayers’ means.

Going into the election, the superintendent and School Board president said that there was not a “plan B” if the referendum did not pass. Such a statement is a gross admission of poor management. That kind of planning is like a guy running up his credit cards and neglecting his house because he plans to win the lottery. Well, the district did not win the referendum lottery. Now they need to manage the taxpayers’ finances responsibly.

When it comes to schools, everything is driven by one number: enrollment. It determines both the revenue and expense side of the equation. According to the most recent enrollment projections prepared for the West Bend School Board by the Applied Population Laboratory at UW-Madison, enrollment for the district will be declining substantially for the foreseeable future. Using four modeling techniques, they project that by the 2027-2028 school year, enrollment will decline between 11.6 percent and 20.3 percent across the district. That is between 772 and 1,345 fewer kids in the district in less than 10 years.

This decline in enrollment is not a reflection on the West Bend School District. It is a trend that is impacting government schools across the state due to the availability of more school options and a demographic shift of young adults having fewer kids. The decline in enrollment is neither good nor bad. It just is. And our government schools are responsible for providing a great education for the kids we have — not the kids they wish we had. This is the reality that the School Board must manage to.

On the revenue side, this means that the district can expect flat to declining revenue every year. Most of the district’s revenue comes from two sources. The property tax levy raises about $38.5 million. Due to revenue limits imposed 25 years ago, the school district is limited by how much they can raise property taxes every year. State taxpayers kick in about $30.7 million to the West Bend School District. Both the revenue limits and state aid are driven by enrollment. As enrollment declines, the School Board can expect less state aid and they will not be able to raise property taxes enough to compensate due to revenue limits.

The good news is that as revenue declines with enrollment, so do expenses. While it is difficult to reduce spending with a decline in enrollment of one child, a reduction in enrollment of 10 percent to 20 percent is a different story. All fixed costs become variable costs with time. Roughly 70 percent of the district’s expenses are for salaries and benefits for employees. The other 30 percent goes to everything else. It is reasonable to expect that the district should reduce the number of employees commensurate to the number of children being educated. Likewise, with 1.14 million square feet of buildings in the district, it is reasonable to expect that the district can reduce the number of buildings to match what the kids need.

What does this mean in real terms? It means that the West Bend School Board should plan on reducing the number of employees in a controlled manner. The easy way is to not backfill retirements and resignations, but if that is not enough, then separations based on the needs of the kids and the district must be done. It is not an attack on teachers to let them go when they are not needed. It is responsible planning to meet the needs of fewer kids.

Similarly, as the buildings in the district become less utilized, the School Board must consider plans to consolidate facilities. The school district has five elementary schools. Would four be enough if there are 20 percent fewer kids? Of course. This is always a contentious issue, but it does not have to be. The mission of the school district is to educate kids — not operate unnecessary buildings.

As the School Board manages a projected decline in enrollment, they should also work to eliminate unnecessary expenses by fully utilizing Act 10. For example, asking employees to pay the same percentage of their health insurance premiums that most taxpayers pay would free up hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. This budgetary liquidity would allow the district to pay great teachers more money by implementing the merit pay system that was abandoned last year.

The voters of the West Bend School District sent a very clear message to the School Board. The voters expect the School Board to work with the money they already have. Knowing that the district is facing a systemic decline in enrollment, the School Board must manage to that reality.



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