Borsuk’s Annual Education Awards

Alan Borsuk, Senior Fellow in Law and Public Policy at Marquette Law School, recently published The year’s education winners and losers (12.31.16) and More winners and losers in education awards (1.1.17). He expresses his gratitude: “Thank you to all the people (especially politicians) who give me so much material. This is not necessarily a compliment, but you keep me well-supplied. I am in your debt.”

Of his winners and losers (combining both lists), these recipients seem especially noteworthy:

Schools of the Year: Milwaukee College Prep. Five schools in Milwaukee earned the top rating when the state’s new school report cards were unveiled recently.  Four of them were the four Milwaukee College Prep charter schools on the north side. They earned the ratings by doing a thousand things that make schools outstanding, starting with a strong commitment to excellent leaders and teachers….

Book of the Year: “Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond. The book has made several national lists of best books of the year, including the one in the New York Times. The book is not directly about schools. But it is all about Milwaukee and you can’t read it without seeing how much the unstable lives of children here affect their education. Desmond says that if you lose stable housing, everything else falls apart. This is a major truth that needs to be kept in mind….

The Stuck Needle Award: The state’s new accountability systems. The first results of the Forward test were released in 2016, along with the first round of revised school report cards. The results were not much different from those using the old tests and report cards. Overall, fewer than half of the state’s third- through eighth-graders were rated proficient in reading and language arts. Is this satisfactory? Tell me again, how are we going to move forward in 2017 and beyond?….

The Quiet Giant Award: Is it just me or did the Common Core learning standards controversy sort of fall off everyone’s radar in 2016, even as the implementation of the standards generally proceeds? Maybe they were actually not such a big and terrible thing.

It’s worth noting that no one who committed to a marketing-first approach won from Borsuk even a single laudatory mention. There are two reasons for this: (1) no one who commits to a marketing-first approach deserves to win praise for his or her work, and (2) Borsuk has the good sense to see as much.

Update: James Surowiecki on What the Press Missed About Trump’s Win

I posted yesterday on James Surowiecki’s contention that Trump’s success with non-college whites was predictable, but that Trump’s better-than-expected success with college-educated whites is what the press missed. SeeJames Surowiecki on What the Press Missed About Trump’s Win.

Surowiecki makes a few follow-up remarks to his tweet-stream of yesterday. First, Surowiecki is not saying that college makes whites more liberal: “I’m actually not saying anything about education making people liberals. I understand why college-ed. whites voted for Romney.” (6:03 PM – 5 Jan 2017.) On the contrary, he contends that “I don’t agree with them [Romney voters]. But I can see why they did it. Romney was a rational, experienced politician who would protect their interests.” (6:06 PM – 5 Jan 2017.)

It’s Trump’s better than expected showing with college-educated voters that surprises Surowiecki: “Trump is irrational, has no experience, ran an avowedly racist and nativist campaign and acted horribly toward women” (6:08 PM – 5 Jan 2017) “[s]o yes, I did assume that would make him much less popular with college-ed voters, who have a lot invested in keeping the system stable.” (6:09 PM – 5 Jan 2017.)

But Surowiecki acknowledges that some college-educated communities did abandon Trump, and Trump fared poorly with them as the press expected: “This seems exactly right. In places like Westchester and Fairfield County, Boston suburbs, college-ed whites did abandon Trump.” (6:54 PM – 5 Jan 2017.)

Surowiecki’s tweets from yesterday seem right to me: (1) Trump did predictably well with non-college whites, (2) college-educated voters aren’t necessarily more liberal, but they are stability-oriented, even so (3) Trump did better than expected with college-educated white voters, but (4) still did (predictably) poorly in some college-educated white communities (e.g.,Westchester and Fairfield County, Boston suburbs).

There are no local data to show how college-educated whites (here I mean those already graduated) in the Whitewater area voted. It’s an interesting question: did they vote for Trump in relatively-low numbers like college-educated whites in the suburban areas Surowiecki lists, or did college-educated whites in this area vote for Trump in greater-than-expected numbers?

I’ve written before that Whitewater seems a community divided by college and non-college educated residents.  See, One Degree of Separation. They are, though, perhaps not so divided in their votes (or as different as they might wish to think) this last election.

Design, Late 2016

Whitewater’s local public school district held a board meeting last night, and one of the topics was physical change to the schools following a successful construction referendum in November.

The district administrator gave an overview of some design possibilities, that one could characterize into two broad categories: design changes for students’ safety (e.g., more secure entrances) and everything else. Of the changes for security, there’s not much to suggest, as one supposes that those prudent alternations have been well-reviewed.

For the other changes, there’s far more play between form and function, so to speak. One has more room to choose between one style or another, and this seems especially true as one departs from elementary school choices. Watching the presentation (with illustrations showing what other schools have or will soon do), I thought that I might comment on the aesthetic of the possibilities.

Thought, but only for a moment: does one aesthetic or another make that much difference now, to America, in late 2016? Will light or dark, or eastward or westward facing objects matter now?

Perhaps so, but not so much as many other choices: a day learning principles of liberty in a shack is preferable to a year ignoring them while in a palace. I see, of course, that one can have both, but we have over-emphasized the material over the ideal (security being the prudent exception).

I’m reminded of a scene from one of Orwell’s essays, where a man facing tragedy still takes a moment to step aside from a puddle. In this, Orwell saw a common humanity between himself and the man, and I’ll surely not disagree.

Yet where Orwell’s account led to only one outcome, we have even now – as a society – more than one possible future, some being destinies, and others mere fates.

The place or size of the puddles before us surely isn’t our principal concern, however much we might wish it to be otherwise.

On Lake, McHenry, and Walworth Counties

In August, I wrote that dorm-construction wasn’t the big story at UW-Whitewater, but rather it was the federal lawsuit against former Chancellor Telfer and [then-current] Athletic Director Amy Edmonds.   Even in her mundane story of residence-construction, the Journal Sentinel‘s Karen Herzog got it wrong: the bigger story was an increasing number of out-of-state students (now about 1-6 of all students), including many from Lake and McHenry Counties in Illinois.

Why does that matter?  Because many of those students are coming from out-of-state counties more affluent than Walworth County.  They and their families are likely to have different expectations.

The figures on median household income and poverty are striking.

For median household income (in 2015 dollars), 2011-2015: Walworth County $53,445, United States $53,889, McHenry County $77,222, and Lake County $78,026.  For persons in poverty, percent:  McHenry County 6.9%, and Lake County 9.5%, United States 13.5%, Walworth County 13.7%.

The superficial answer (one that Whitewater has tried for a generation) would be to use public money to build more, in the (false) hope that the town will look better, and so be more attractive to outsiders.  (That’s been mostly the search for young families, but some of the same standards apply to young, non-married residents.)

That’s not, however, the solution if one wants to keep attracting this kind of student, or successful families. (One knows public-funding of construction isn’t the solution; if it were, Whitewater would already be Brentwood.)  The expectations and gap from them are cultural, and only a change in campus & community relations – especially in the attitude of those in authority – will assure Whitewater is a desirable destination for those accustomed to a different level of care and opportunity.

How Big Averts Bad

If it should be true that small-town Whitewater faces a choice between difficult times now or an extended decline before an out-of-town-led gentrification, that her decline will otherwise be slow but no less signficant as a result, that stakeholder (special interest) politics grips the city, and that this stakeholder politics is really an identity politics that offers no uplift, then what is to be done?

(On identity politics – it’s comfortable for a few, but only in the way that it’s comfortable for a pig to sit in the mud: the animal’s momentary ease won’t forestall a trip to the butcher shop.)

There’s the possibility of restructuring committees and city functions to assure a streamlined – and unified – direction, but the effort presents some legitimate policy questions, and more relevantly would require additional work from some who just don’t want to expend that effort. (Although I share policy doubts about the idea, if I can guess the motivation correctly – and it’s just a guess – I would say that the idea seems born of a desire to motivate the city in a positive direction. One can be opposed to an idea yet sympathetic to a perceived, underlying goal.)

Unfortunately, an alternative to streamlining is even more difficult – far more difficult – to do: the city could undertake a comprehensive review of its entire political culture, setting aside much of the last generation’s approach, in citywide meetings and supporting referendums. (Think of something like a broad-based convention and the resolutions that might come from it.)

Because this approach would require setting aside most of what has been tried ineffectually, and stubborn pride abhors a new course, the likely acceptance of this approach is about the same as convincing wolves to eat broccoli. (They might be persuaded to try some, but they’d be more likely to eat a person’s hand or arm during the effort.)

The scene: Whitewater’s local government advanced a resolution on Citizens United, but the community lacks the unity to advance a series of broad resolutions or votes on reducing local government’s size and thirst for revenue, ending government-goosed business deals, paring back even further zoning restrictions that are still too burdensome, a genuine community relations to replace adversarial enforcement, ending the transparently deceptive practice of publishing cherry-picked data and dodgy studies (a problem for the city, school district, and local campus), rather than honestly presenting the city to all the state not as a paradise but as a work-in-progress that could use every last talented newcomer we could find.

This would be a big project, but the city’s in a spot where, to avoid an extended period of relative decline, Whitewater needs big to avert bad.  The long-term future of this city will yet prove bright, but why delay for many years that better day, for the sake of a few officials’ selfish pride?

Plain-Spoken in a Small Town? Not Most Leaders

localThere’s a quaint – but false – notion that people in small towns are uncommonly plain-spoken, even blunt.  One sometimes sees examples of this in films or books, where residents are depicted as folksy straight-talkers (“shucks, I don’t cotton to no one abusing nobody,” etc.).  I’ve never heard anyone in Whitewater speak so colorfully, and I’ve doubts that anyone not on a Hollywood set actually speaks like this.

Most people – and certainly most leaders – in this small town don’t often speak bluntly and openly.  On the contrary, there’s bias against mentioning problems publicly, even if they stem from intentional, grievous misconduct.

Now, and in the years ahead, one can expect that a multi-ethic community such as this one will see heightened slurs and abuse, overuse of force against a few, and (much) official quiescence in the face of it. (Some will even encourage this, convinced that pressure is justified against others and feeling that it is cathartic for themselves.)

Early on, perhaps a few officials will try to stress the positive, hiding others’ wrongful conduct from view, on the theory that the worst of all this will go away.

It won’t.  Those who keep their heads down may later find that they’ve no longer the strength to lift them up again.  A difficult near-term for Whitewater is likely to get worse.  These actions will prove wrong in-and-of themselves, and secondarily will prove an effective retardant against discerning, prosperous newcomers. Such newcomers – much sought by local development officials – will go elsewhere.

No matter, sadly: most locally will carry on as they have been.

For communities choosing the quieter response, including this one, the die is cast.

That From Which Dreams Are Made

local Wisconsin, like most states, publishes sets of scorecards measuring students’ progress. (The overwhelming majority of school districts – 91% – at least meet expectations. Our local district falls within this common group; a few particular schools are admirably above it.)

Yesterday, the district announced the latest results, after the state’s Department of Public Instruction made them public twelve days earlier. The district announcement brings two points to mind, one small and one large.

First the small: an obvious coordination in the announcement on the same day (district news release, district automated calls announcing the release, and school board member’s use of his ersatz news site to promote uncritically that same release) offers yet another example supporting my view from yesterday on conflicts of interest (seeConflicts of Interest Don’t Explode, They Corrode).  I almost feel as though I should offer my thanks to all concerned.

And yet, and yet, there’s a second, larger point: these state scores are not the substantive learning – often immeasurable – on which hopeful adventure and exploration depend.  Last month, I wrote about James Fallows’ Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed, and his eighth sign seems especially relevant:

8. They have unusual schools. Early in our stay, we would ask what was the most distinctive school to visit at the K–12 level. If four or five answers came quickly to mind, that was a good sign.

The examples people suggested ranged widely. Some were “normal” public schools. Some were charters. Some emphasized career and technical training, like Camden County High School, in Georgia. Some were statewide public boarding schools, like the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, and the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Sciences. Some were religious or private schools. The common theme was intensity of experimentation.

(See, from this website, James Fallows on ‘Eleven Signs a City Will Succeed’ (Part 1) and (Part 2).)

There it is, honest to goodness: success for students – and so for a community – comes from distinctive programs and distinctive study, from which particular scores are merely imperfect (sometimes misleading) measurements.

This community – like countless misguided communities – mistakes the map for the terrain. People don’t walk through a map, of course: they walk, variously, through woods, fields, mountains, or beaches.

Scholastic scores like these are touted in communities either through ignorance, a pandering to the ignorance of others, or for futile competitive advantage (which often combines the first two reasons).   Whitewater’s been using this public-relations approach for years, to no clear advantage for students or the community.

There are so many subjects, considered so many times, that are more important than a few charts from a state agency.

The academic exploration that underlies a mere chart is that from which dreams are, truly, made.

Conflicts of Interest Don’t Explode, They Corrode

local Akin to fake news at the local level are myriad conflicts of interest tolerated in struggling communities. Like fake news, they often take their toll slowly.

Conflicts of interest, in small towns as elsewhere, seldom lead to sudden fiscal or economic changes. Neither government (fiscal) nor a community (economic) is immediately touched. Local conflicts of interest, for example, don’t cause explosions; they cause a slow corrosion of quality, leading to an equally slow decline in fiscal policy and of a community’s economy.

A house fire, a flood, or a violent crime is sudden, with immediately obvious and tragic results. That’s not true for conflicts of interest – they degrade slowly, as rust relentlessly eats through even the strongest iron.

Consider the following example, from Whitewater’s local school district. The district administration wanted a referendum, and in support of that referendum, placed links on its website to local sources of information where one might learn about the proposal. One of those links was to a self-described local news site (whitewaterbanner.com) whose publisher is a very member of the school board that voted unanimously for the referendum:

referendum-2016-whitewater-unified-school-district
Via http://www.wwusd.org/page/3039.

The district might as well have simply linked to its own referendum materials, over which its school board member had responsibility, rather than to his publication.

There is this difference, though: had the district used its own site, it would have presented these materials honestly, at the institutional site that created them.  Using additionally a school board member’s site gains nothing in original content, and offers only a false pretense of independent, conflict-free publication. (Other, nearby publications are little better, but at least their ‘correspondents’ are not simultaneously officeholders.)

I’m sometimes asked if this sort of conflict concerns me. When I am so asked, I’ll answer that it does concern me, but not in its immediacy. The damage from conflicts is like corrosion, leading to a stagnating economy, and to a relative decline.

That’s where Whitewater now is, and the acceptance of lesser standards is one reason for it.

At Whitewater’s Common Council Meeting, 10.4.16

There are a few moments from last night’s Common Council meeting that I’ll consider briefly today.

Budget.  It’s fall, and so for Whitewater’s local government that means a proposed budget rollout, and  Council sessions principally occupied with that subject through November.

On efficiency of government services, City Manager Clapper remarked that one can expect municipal services to cost more each year, in the way that Christmas presents for his children seem to cost more each year.  The two are not analogous, of course: city work is a day-in, day-out provision of services, unlike holiday-season demand for retail toys.  It’s an inapt comparison.

In any event, a successful, functioning market produces lower-cost, higher-quality goods and services year over year.  America’s most competitive industries function this way, in goods or services (cheaper data storage, increased computing power, improved call quality, more advanced automobiles, etc.).

What City Manager Clapper is contending is that Whitewater’s local government will not, or cannot, meet the standards of the most productive private enterprises, but will look more like toymakers who rely on higher prices through seasonal demand.

It is, if nothing else, an honest admission.

There’s also something odd about reliance on efficiency comparisons to cities of similar size when some – but not all – of those cities receive vast sums of public money for infrastructure, operations, etc.  It’s easy to claim local government functions at relatively lower cost when one’s city is awash in public money, to subsidize city government or to support a public university.

Our full-time staff might reply that they need some measure of state subsidy to function in a city that has a university that places infrastructure demands on local government.

Fair enough.

Would municipal officials live with the need for a subsidy while there is a university in town, or forgo the subsidy and ask UW-Whitewater to leave?

It’s a rhetorical question:  if UW-Whitewater became UW-Palmyra, so to speak, this city’s economy would collapse.  Crying about the need to maintain a university amounts to crocodile tears; the university gives more than she takes from Whitewater.

There’s also the question of Mr. Clapper’s search for revenue (fees, charges, surcharges, tipping fees for imported filth) to keep city government functioning at the ever-larger level he’d like (money for chosen businesses, running an aquatic center, spending big – millions – on infrastructure).

Over two million for the East Gateway project – do you feel two million better off?   (Funny, then-councilmember Kidd wanted hundreds of thousands more for buried wires along the project site.)

If Mr. Clapper didn’t spend so much, and didn’t seek to acquire so much under city control, he wouldn’t need so much.

As for supposed revenue streams, there’s still a lingering, eighteen-month window to find a partner to deliver waste into Whitewater, in the absurd theory that the tipping fees would make Whitewater better off.  Lynn Binnie helpfully turned out a majority for Clapper to continue along this path (Binnie, Kidd, Wellnitz, Grady).

There was no duress in any of this, of course – politicians choose freely, sometimes well, sometimes poorly.  There are those who, no doubt, experience duress in life, but that unfortunate pressure doesn’t weigh on middle-aged men while sitting on Whitewater’s Common Council.

The Schools Presentation.   The session last night began with a presentation from the Whitewater Schools’ new district administrator, Dr. Mark Elworthy, and Director of Business Services Nathan Jaeger.

It can’t be an easy time to arrive – Dr. Elworthy started this summer, with a construction referendum in the works, and a Board that went out of its way to mention at Dr. Elworthy’s introduction that he had been successful with prior referenda at other districts.  One day, this district and her leaders (and other districts) will be able to lead with something other than the budget.

Honestly, I wish that had happened last night.  There’s value in a PowerPoint for Council, but I think it would have been even more effective to listen to Dr. Elworthy alone, without a presentation, simply talking about what he wanted to accomplish (operational, capital, curricular, all of it).

Finally, there’s Business Director Jaeger’s reliance on a school construction survey from the spring to consider.

I’ll take two days next week first to discuss the survey and then to show, apart from the survey but relying on better information, that the referendum is likely to pass.

Lock Box.  Better to place the matter – new ordinance, repeal of old, etc. – on an upcoming agenda.  The friction over this issue shows that full-time municipal staff have a problem listening to merchants and appreciating their concerns.  It also shows that full-time municipal staff think that it’s legitimate to circumvent those concerns through an ad hoc committee composed of obliging insiders.

All in all, we’re a small town, but never a dull one.

About a Survey 

I promised last week that I would write about a recent survey that seemed to rely on a skewed, unrepresentative sample. The survey and some printed accounts of it have been available, but the recording of the 6.6.16 meeting at which the results were initially presented does not seem to be available online for readers. 

I’ll say now that the conclusions of the survey seem to be right (that a school referendum would likely pass) but that the sample the survey uses to reach that conclusion is strangely unrepresentative of the community it purports to describe. That matters because the right conclusion with the wrong data is little more than guesswork.  Surveys are not meant to be paid guesswork.

It also matters because although the primary conclusion may be right despite a weak sampling of the community, other inferences drawn from the survey may not be similarly accurate. 

Looking at actual election data, actual demographic data, and past referendum results will produce a better assessment than relying on the recent community survey’s data sample.  

It seems fair to the survey authors (an outside vendor), however, to include for readers their full, 6.6.16 meeting remarks.  If they’re published online soon I’ll include them when publishing my assessment; if they’re not available I’ll go ahead with the post with the published information that is available.

(News accounts of the survey only reveal that those accounts’ authors either don’t understand or don’t care how unrepresentative the survey sample is of the electorate that would be considering a referendum, or even the community as it is now.)

It’s worth coming to the right conclusion with the right data; anything less is less than this community deserves. 

More to come.

The Masking Effect of Act 10 

We’ve had Act 10 for several years now, and during that time in no sector has that law been more discussed or felt than in K12 public education. Whitewater has avoided some of the Act 10 strife that has gripped other parts of the state, and that’s been to our advantage, whatever one thinks of the provision. 

(I am opposed to Act 10 on traditional libertarian grounds: any person in any occupation should be free to associate with others and bargain against, and in opposition to, the government. Those who hold office locally or statewide have too much authority as it is; they don’t need more tools, but rather deserve fewer.)

Yet whatever one thinks of the direct consequences of Act 10, it’s had a second, masking effect: all the attention to decisions involving resources has almost certainly obscured the sound of other decisions unrelated to fiscal policy.

(I’m not describing choices not made for lack of money, but choices made yet not heard for all the attention Act 10 has received.)

As we drift farther from Act 10’s beginning, and that law is either attenuated or people become inured to discussion of it, attention is likely to shift to policies over these last several years of which we’ve heard less. Act 10 has masked the sound of these other policies, but it’s a masking effect that will not endure: other subjects will come to residents’ hearing, no matter how loud Act 10 has been.

Whitewater Chooses a New Administrator

This morning, the Whitewater Unified School District announced the selection of Dr. Mark Elworthy, currently administrator of the Wisconsin Heights School District, as Whitewater’s next district administrator. 

One wishes him truly the very best in our community.  We have proud accomplishments, with some significant challenges ahead, but that work ahead is among the best work anyone in this community might undertake. 

The cities and towns of this district are small and beautiful, if sometimes struggling.  For it all, there is no better place to be; what waits for us, here, is the work of a lifetime.

One should, and happily does, welcome Dr. Elworthy and all those who would join us in this common endeavor. 

The Other Hiring Decisions

The Whitewater Schools will soon select a new district administrator.  It’s an important decision, but one that’s made easier by its consequent infrequency: there are few positions available at that level, and always a few candidates for each available position.

Across our state, however, hiring teachers in sufficient numbers and of sufficient quality is a more difficult matter:

According to the most recent figures available, there were 8,867 people enrolled in teacher preparation programs in Wisconsin in the 2013-’14 school year. In itself, that would be enough to fill all the expected teacher openings in coming years.

But things aren’t so simple. As Riggle [professor at St. Norbert College in DePere and president of theWisconsin Association of Colleges of Teacher Education] said, the interests students have don’t fully match what’s needed out there.

There is also the delicate but important matter of who is going into teaching. In many cases, the upcoming teachers are hardworking, capable, talented and idealistic. And in some cases, they aren’t so strong in at least a couple of those areas.

And then there is the matter of how to do better in preparing people to become teachers.

SeeMath problem facing schools: How to get enough teachers? @ JSOnline.

These challenges are more than cyclical, as the article’s author, Alan Borsuk of Marquette Law, notes.

After we’ve hired a new administrator, we will yet face the persistent – but now aggravated – Wisconsin problem of finding sufficient numbers of teachers.  It’s neither an accident nor an insoluble mystery why faculty hiring is more difficult in some states than others.   That’s a long subject for another day, but a subject and a day that cannot seriously be treated as a surprise, nor postponed indefinitely.

Our next administrator’s hiring will leave before us other hiring challenges, of many more people over many more years, yet to be resolved.

Hiring a District Administrator

Over the next few days, Whitewater’s school board will interview candidates for district administrator.  For the district, these last several years have been relatively tranquil if fiscally difficult. I’ve observed that, as against other districts, we have been fortunate to avoid the labor-management tension that has plagued too many districts. (‘One or more’ would be the correct definition of too many.)

And yet, and yet, this question presents itself: Is recent administrative practice a suitable model for future administrative policy?  Should we keep doing merely what we have been doing?

Old Whitewater – a state of mind rather than a person or age bracket – loves nothing so much as stability, even if it should be the stability of mediocrity.  (That Leslie Steinhaus received two contractual terms as administrator confirms my contention.) 

In the coverage of this hiring decision, we are sure to hear all one could want, and more, concerning who, yet the most  pressing concerns will always be what and how.

The Whitewater Schools’ Motto

The Whitewater Unified School District has a motto, a very good one:

Every graduate an engaged lifelong learner.

If our schools achieve this result – graduates who are engaged, lifelong learners – that engagement and that learning will take different forms for different people. People are and should be, to borrow a title from a fine book, free to choose.

For those with political or administrative roles, however, whether graduates themselves or shepherding students to graduate, engaged, lifelong learning must have a set of core expectations: basic principles of reasoning, a desire to measure accurately, and an ability to assess the quality & significance of measurements taken.

It’s not asking too much of properly schooled leaders to meet these core expectations. Whitewater’s leaders want things – very often good things – but wanting something isn’t enough. In any endeavor, but especially in endeavors of learning, there should be presentations based on sound data, on accurate and representative measurements, acquired through neutral, unbiased inquiries.

It’s a mistake to think that the principal divide is between those who are for or against education. Americans rightly esteem learning; we are an inquisitive people.

No, the principal divide is between those who think that support for education allows any possible claim, and those who believe that respect for education necessarily allows only some, sound claims, discarding other possibilities as unfounded or inaccurate.

There shouldn’t be much of a divide like this, here or elsewhere, but there is. We’ll not be truly competitive and attractive until this divide disappears, and a more discerning perspective takes hold.

The City Never Sleeps

In the broadest, figurative sense, Whitewater never sleeps.  Like any other place, she’s constantly changing, either to her benefit or detriment, but changing nonetheless.  (It’s only the parochial myth that she’s already achieved a level of perfection that obscures the obvious truth of constant flux.)

Glance away, for one day or forty, and when one looks back there’s something new.  That is, all in all, a good thing: stagnation would be a worse condition. Change offers hope for better.

So much lies ahead: a school district’s search for an administrator, its funding of construction and operational expenses, a university’s budget and her cultural relations on and off campus, and a municipal government where the budgetary is too easily  (and unwisely) conflated with the community’s economy, as though they were the same things.

All these topics, of course, are few and slight compared with the full measure of conditions within the city; what passes for principal concerns is only a fraction of what truly matters.

Nonetheless, even these few topics offer much to consider.  They are an invitation to do one’s best, impartially, approaching them with the perspective of distance, detachment, and diligence they deserve.

There’s much ahead, waiting to be done. 

Variations in Spending

33cscreenshotPost 14 in a series.

National Public Radio, and twenty of its radio stations, have completed a project to see how much each public school district in America spends, per pupil on education. See, Why America’s Schools Have A Money Problem @ NPR.

The study focused on spending per pupil, and found wide disparities, even when adjusted for regional cost differences. Two school districts in Illinois are an example:

…$9,794 is how much money the Chicago Ridge School District in Illinois spent per child in 2013 (the number has been adjusted by Education Week to account for regional cost differences). It’s well below that year’s national average of $11,841.

Ridge’s two elementary campuses and one middle school sit along Chicago’s southern edge. Roughly two-thirds of its students come from low-income families, and a third are learning English as a second language….

“We don’t have a lot of the extra things that other districts may have, simply because we can’t afford them,” says Ridge Superintendent Kevin Russell.

One of those other districts sits less than an hour north, in Chicago’s affluent suburbs, nestled into a warren of corporate offices: Rondout School, the only campus in Rondout District 72.

It has 22 teachers and 145 students, and spent $28,639 on each one of them.

But there’s another variation that the study does not consider: among districts with roughly the same level of spending, how much variation is there in curriculum and programming?  Admittedly, a study like that would be far larger even than a study of variations in per pupil spending.

Still, I wonder: do districts with the similar spending levels look the same substantively, and if not, how many variations of programming and method are possible within a given range of spending. Understandably, richer districts will look different from poorer ones.

Within the same spending range, however, how much variation exists within districts?  This presents a follow-up question: if there are variations (including significant ones), are some more effective than others?

I don’t know of a study that possibly captures so much detail about so many places, but the question still lingers: how different are some districts in curriculum, programming, and method from others of similar resources?

(About the picture for this series – it’s a screenshot of a calculator app for Android phones that emulates a Hewlett Packard 33C.  I used an HP calculator in school, and they were amazing machines.  My phone’s calculator app pays tribute to a fine machine of yore.)

On Eric Runez, District Administrator

33cscreenshotPost 13 in a series.

Eric Runez has been the Whitewater Unified School District’s administrator since 2011 (and immediately before that was the principal at Whitewater Middle School). He’s now given notice that he’ll be leaving that position for a superintendent’s post in the DeForest School District. Many school administrators serve in more than one district during their careers. One can and should be appreciative that Mr. Runez has assured fundamentally even-keeled conditions where many other districts have faced strife not merely over large matters, but (wastefully) over small ones, too.

Whitewater is a beautiful place, but neither the city proper nor its surrounding towns are always easy places. Our district has fared better than others these last several years, in this significant regard, and that alone is a commendable feat.

We have a district that – being the combination of different cities and towns – offers advantages but also challenges not present in more homogeneous communities.  Although many other districts are composed of several towns, Whitewater’s distinction is that her district’s largest city is a college town.  The divide between Whitewater and surrounding communities might easily have become wide; we’ve fortunately not had that experience.

Even apart from challenging fiscal conditions shared with many school districts, we have avoided a community versus community battle within the borders of this unified district, at a time when less demographically diverse schools have seen residents at loggerheads over any number of controversies.

Every district will face ideological questions and divides, but these have been relatively harmonious times for us. We would certainly benefit by a continuation of that atmosphere.

One wishes Mr. Runez the best, hoping that he finds good days ahead, and that we, here, have the same.

(About the picture for this series – it’s a screenshot of a calculator app for Android phones that emulates a Hewlett Packard 33C.  I used an HP calculator in school, and they were amazing machines.  My phone’s calculator app pays tribute to a fine machine of yore.)

Local Election Recap

Local elections affecting Whitewater went about as one might have expected.  I’d guess there were, in the end, no surprises.

There were three uncontested races for Common Council (Allen, Binnie, Langness), and two for the Whitewater Unified School District (Brunner, Stewart).

That leaves two contested races in the immediate area: a Common Council race between Patrick Wellnitz and Ken Kienbaum, and a Walworth County Circuit Court race between Dan Johnson and Dan Necci.  Wellnitz won over Kienbaum with a vote (unofficial results, of course) of 405 to 237, about 63% to  37%.

In the one contested race that was heated, Family Court Commissioner Dan Johnson defeated District Attorney Dan Necci, 16380 to 13360, about 55% to 45%.  In the end, opinion from local officials undoubtedly had a big impact on the outcome.  I’d guess that after a brief time, the tensions of this race will evaporate, particularly as Johnson had bipartisan support from numerous officials.

 

Assumptions on Referenda

33cscreenshotPost 11 in a weekly series.

There’s a theory – in Whitewater and other places – that good policy comes from having as many ‘adults in the room’ (that is, as many established & mature people) as possible. I’d say that’s necessary, but insufficient. Relying only on the established & mature, without specific consideration of discernment and insight, relies on too little.

One has to ask: what do you believe, and why do you believe it?

Asking what one believes, and why one believes it, should be an ongoing exercise. Circumstances change; one evaluates anew by what exists now, not on what was, or on what one thinks about oneself.

In the last Whitewater Schools referendum, I assumed (incorrectly) that the vote would be close, and that even the place of the referendum question on the ballot might prove significant.

Looking back, those assumptions were wrong: the referendum carried well enough, and ballot position probably made little if any difference.

I thought as I did because previous referenda in Whitewater had been contentious. That was, however, some time ago.

Looking at referenda results now, from across the state, it’s clear that an overwhelming number of referenda pass (74 of 76 referenda from the February 2016 elections passed).

What does this mean? A few new assumptions and questions:

1. A majority of voters will support more spending for schools, even using referenda to do so.  This must include significant numbers of voters who did (and still do) support Act 10.  It’s numerically impossible that every winning referendum came about only with the votes of those opposed to Act 10; even obviously conservative districts have supported referenda.

2. Waiting for an outcry against spending, of the kind outcry that this school district had in the past, is probably waiting for a lion who’s not there, and won’t show up.

3. Some referenda will fail, and some will only pass on a second try (still possible under our laws, mere legislation obviously notwithstanding).

4. It’s impossible that because most referenda pass, any referendum has a greater than ninety percentage chance of success.  These votes are not like drawing lots, where nine of ten are drawn, without knowledge of what the lots look like.  On the contrary, the minimum requirements of a school referendum require a stated amount sought and the purposes for it.

(Janesville not long ago proposed a municipal referendum where the city sought an amount but described no purpose for it.  It failed, of course.  By the way, the recommendation to submit a referendum without a stated purpose is an example of some of the worst municipal lawyering I can recall.)

5. There must be – in these many referenda that succeed – a successful gauging of what the community will bear.   It’s not (I’ll assume it cannot be) only by chance that referenda succeed.

6. Even in a favorable climate, requests will have to be defensible, as even a favorable climate has limits.

7. What is that defensible amount, and what are those defensible purposes?  I’m not sure.

8. Is it easier or harder to advance a referendum in a unified school district (that is, one that is made up from several towns)?  I think harder, overall, for reasons I’ll state in a future post.

So, a revised assumption: that a referendum’s more likely to pass that I thought at the time of our last referendum, but there are still critical elements that make the high success rate of February 2016’s referenda deceptively reassuring.

Next week: What Not to Do When Seeking a Referendum.

THE EDUCATION POST: Tuesdays @ 10 AM, here on FREE WHITEWATER.

(About the picture for this series – it’s a screenshot of a calculator app for Android phones that emulates a Hewlett Packard 33C.  I used an HP calculator in school, and they were amazing machines.  My phone’s calculator app pays tribute to a fine machine of yore.)