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FROSTMAN COLUMN: Concerns about schools call for greater public engagement

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A degree of discord with the direction of our schools was shown at the Nov. 25 Baraboo School Board meeting. Detailed in a Dec. 2 story in the Baraboo News Republic, more than 50 former Baraboo educators presented a statement about concerns with the district.

“Many community members, including local professionals, substitute teachers, educational assistants, former co-workers and parents of students in the Baraboo School District are questioning policies that have been enacted in recent years. We are concerned that retention of teachers has been influenced by low staff morale and lack of respect by administration as well as students.”

Criticism has been growing after a Sept. 24 Baraboo News Republic story, where a former teacher “requested certified staff turnover rates from five districts: Baraboo, Portage, Reedsburg, Sauk Prairie and Wisconsin Dells. The results showed Baraboo lost more than double the number of teachers since last year—48, which was almost 20% of its staff—than any of the other districts.”

I was on the Baraboo School Board from 2009-2011. I have remained active, an occasional board advocate, but also a board and district critic, therefore excluding me from many meaningful discussions.

Community members and former educators asked for my take. Ultimately, most school boards are essentially chosen by staff. They are active, and have the most at stake. Its ironic that educators who worked to get someone like myself distanced from any involvement want my input.

District officials were taken aback by criticism. School Board President Kevin Vodak reacted by saying, “Quite frankly, I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed that a community that recently passed the largest referendum in our history — $40-plus million — in my opinion is being torn apart by actions that are beyond the district’s control in a lot of cases.”

Time to dispel myths.

It’s not Act 10. Act 10’s needed reforms are followed by every district. I was “educated” about interrelationships by current board members. Based on their aspirations, I supported Act 10. When becoming law, other board members shrank from supporting the reforms they had privately sought.

It’s not School Choice. Every district has students choosing what they determine to be their best environment. It’s common for districts to vilify and demonize those choices. Budget impacts are minimal when compared to overall costs. Rather than see the School Choice program as some sort of threat or scapegoat, the district needs to reflect on the environment created for students making those choices, particularly students whose faith makes them unwelcome in public schools.

It’s not referendums. Referendums are purely within the individual district’s control, and support for facility updates should not be construed as an unequivocal endorsement of the state of the district. In the past decade, more than $70 million in debt has been added, twice the annual amount of the budget, and the board is prepping for the next referendum, the elementary schools.

Directives? Common Core and further federal intrusion into schools was seen as the solution to all school ills, but I believe it has brought a further morass of entangling requirements, and not allowed teachers to teach. A Nov. 12 Patch story, detailed the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s rankings for all districts. Baraboo ranked 368 out of 419 districts statewide. There are a whole host of metrics by which schools are measured, but does anything change?

Leadership? It really depends on who you ask, and I haven’t been allowed to be involved enough to share my opinion herein. The public has the right and duty to raise concerns without fear of retribution, particularly of the board. Teachers and staff are really those upon whom you rely to ascertain whether leadership styles promote cohesion or discord, but strident concerns of former staff about retention and lack of respect should foster attention.

Complacency/incumbency? Since the tumultuous 2011 election have we had just one election with one challenger for school board. Long-term incumbents rely simply upon their last name or standing in the community, giving little or no effort. They presume most just recognize the name, and will support them just because. No consequence or any accountability exists in that scenario. Feedback from staff and the community should be welcomed, and not considered an affront. If no one else runs, the board remains unchanged, with no obligation or reason to do anything about concerns.

This isn’t a wholesale criticism. There are lots of great teachers, dedicated staff, concerned parents, and tons of great kids in Baraboo schools, capable of soaring achievements. I don’t have magical answers. Solutions rely on efforts by members of the community getting engaged and involved in your schools, whether it’s Baraboo, or any other community. You can make the difference for our kids.

Scott Frostman lives in Baraboo and has roots throughout Wisconsin. He believes anyone can make a difference and can be reached at scfrostman@gmail.com.

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