From: Darrell Downs
The WAPS School Board is setting a poor example in leadership. The board members have a hard job and I respect their work. However, the board will not earn public trust if it continues to surrender its priorities to un-elected administrators.
For example, consider how administration portrays enrollment declines as an existential crisis. You would think the district is a heartbeat away from financial ruin because of the elementary schools. Not true.
It is true that enrollment has declined across the district. According to WAPS’ data, from 2005 to 2015, the steepest enrollment declines were at the middle school and the high school. With preschool students joining the elementary schools in recent years, the total number of students served by the elementary schools is essentially stable. We should not ignore even the smallest degree of enrollment slippage at the elementary schools, but it is wrong and shortsighted to punish elementary schools and the communities they serve because the district-wide enrollment is a product of declines at the middle school and high school. Listening to the administration, one would think that enrollment is an unmanageable force of nature, and short of closing elementary schools, nothing less than a plague of locusts, floods, and flying monkeys are around the corner.
Closing elementary schools is not a fiscal necessity. It is a flawed political choice driven by an administration that has not provided budget alternatives that support existing schools.
It is also a lie of omission for district leaders to claim the district’s “footprint” is out-of-sync with today’s enrollment. There is no ideal ratio for square footage per student. In other words, there is no standard to be in sync with, beyond what a community deems best for its students. Among the things that are best for students, a phony square footage standard doesn’t even compare. Support for teachers, academic programs, small class sizes, small schools, accessibility of schools, healthy lunch programs, pre-kindergarten programming, etc., are all vastly more important measures of quality. Quality is not free, and closing schools does not make quality more affordable. Closing schools only sends more families to charter or private schools, or urges some families to live outside the district precisely because they want the quality of smaller elementary schools.
So why has the administration failed to offer options to sustain smaller elementary schools?
This is about administrative power. If administration agreed that elementary schools were worth preserving, they would have already turned the long knives of budget cutting in their own direction. Short of hari-kari, it is unlikely that administration will tender deep cuts in non-classroom spending without real leadership from the board. The fact that the board has not exercised this type of leadership indicates who’s in charge of District 861, and it is not who we elected.
The district administration should just tell the truth. It should admit that it has not prioritized our small elementary schools, nor has it even attempted to measure their value or the community benefits associated with them. It has presented elementary school closures as district “savings” only because salary savings result from laying off teachers. This shell game puts non-classroom spending on a higher pedestal than quality education.
WAPS faces serious problems. I agree with board chair Ben Baratto that bake sales are not a solution. But neither is school closure. Both are failed ideas that keep on failing to recruit and retain students, and they’re failing to gain the support of the public. When WAPS made the 2017 pitch to reinvent the closure wheel with an $82-million referendum, voters overwhelmingly said “no,” with more than a 90-percent rejection. Did the board learn from that? I will answer that by saying that recently, Superintendent Dahman “briefed” the board on the next round of elementary school closure hearings for Madison and Rollingstone on February 20 ... here we go again.