The Whitewater area – the city proper and smaller townships nearby – are jointly part of a unified public school district. These last years have been difficult for Wisconsin educational funding, for the rural economies in this part of the state, and surely for Whitewater in both matters.
The district has recently completed both a construction referendum and a separate operational referendum, has had some admirable academic successes, but also has general academic challenges all districts in the area face.
Over time, this district administration (located at ‘Central Office’ and often referred to as such) has shown less concern for ordinary transparency, and has instead communicated most zealously in bursts (when, for example, the district was marketing its recent referendums).
More significant still, much work of the district comes from its so-called district leadership team (school principals and a few administrators); projects from these meetings are reachable under Wisconsin’s Public Records Law but not the state’s Open Meetings Law. Significant decisions in these meetings are often advanced with limited board oversight and even less community review beforehand.
Under these conditions, two challengers (Amy Hagen-Curtis and Jennifer Kienbaum) and one incumbent (Jim Stewart) are seeking seats on the board. (There are two seats available.)
Stewart has been in one office or another in Whitewater for decades, and offers as his comparative advantage that he has been in one office or another in Whitewater for decades.
Here is the policy challenge to his candidacy: with the school district’s referendums now successfully adopted, the supposed advantages his incumbency offers are wildly overblown. The two challengers in this race – Hagen-Curtis and Kienbaum – are easily as able to oversee the district’s ongoing financial affairs. There is no overwhelming new financial challenge that requires decades of experience, even setting aside the question of whether Stewart has exercised effective oversight (rather than ceaseless boosterism of ineffectual municipal-government projects).
There are, however, new challenges that this district faces – of transparency, of employee retention, of mental health, of family stresses of rural parents, and of special needs students – that sentimental but irrelevant history lessons of many years ago cannot solve.
These new challenges – often severe in rural America – are ones that require both a more contemporary outlook and a high degree of energy and inquisitiveness.
How Whitewater will decide in this election one can’t be sure. That the challengers in this race are as capable of financial oversight, and would be more energetic in addressing current afflictions besetting our schools, is certain.
It would be a mistake – an educational loss for the community – not to take the opportunity that challengers Amy Hagen-Curtis and Jennifer Kienbaum offer.