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Elmbrook Candidates Disagree on 4K, School Closure

Six candidates running for three Elmbrook School Board seats offered differing views on ways to solve budget gaps.

Differing educational and fiscal views emerged as six Elmbrook School Board candidates answered questions at an election forum Tuesday night.

Only one candidate (Nancy Kormanik) expressed opposition to adding a 4-year-old kindergarten program, while four favored adding 4K and one (incumbent Kathryn Wilson) did not clearly endorse or reject it.

Two candidates (Ken Moe and Sandra Schultz) strongly opposed closing an elementary school to help close budget gaps, while the remaining candidates said a school closure likely would be needed.

Voters on April 5 will elect three members to serve on the seven-member School Board. The winners serve three-year terms with a $3,600 annual salary.

Residents can watch the election forum on the district's cable channels (Time Warner 13 and 96). It will be shown daily at 7 a.m., 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. until the election.

Board President Tom Gehl faces no opposition to his bid for re-election to a third term. Former Brown Deer School Superintendent Ken Moe and former Brookfield Ald. Dick Brunner are vying for the seat held by Gary Jones, who chose not to run for re-election. And incumbent board member Kathryn Wilson is facing challenges from Sandra Schultz and write-in candidate Nancy Kormanik.

All candidates agreed the district is in a unique position to save labor costs and create efficiencies with the state Legislature's elimination of public employee collective bargaining except for wage increases capped by the consumer price index.

Kormanik, a former Milwaukee Area Technical College educator who entered the race last week as a write-in candidate, said she believes those sweeping changes give principals and administrators the power to "pick their team" of teachers and other staff.

"This is an outstanding, outstanding opportunity for them to pick the best of the best," Kormanik said. "Does that mean they have to fire everybody? No. That means maybe we can look at maybe trading teachers. Maybe one teacher is not a good fit for here, but maybe for here."

Gehl said he believed the district should focus on better training teachers to control the behavior in the classrooms. Those who can't do it, he said, might need to be "moved along."

Since the controversial budget repair bill was passed, a. In past years the number of retirements has been in the teens but Superintendent Matt Gibson said the number could reach about 50 this year.

Schultz urged teachers not to be afraid of the changes. 

"It's my belief that management is going to work closely and very respectfully with our staff for positive results," Schultz said. "This will give us some opportunities to get better."

Wilson said, "I think we can end automatic pay increases. We no longer have to do that. We can put a lid on pay increases for a few years until we get the ship righted. We can empower teachers to make efficient decisions."

Moe said the end to most bargaining will allow administrators to stop treating teachers as a group and instead "look at teachers' talents individually and capitalize on those talents."

Merit-based pay could become part of the equation, he and others said.

Brunner said, "I think the unions have been too much helping out the teachers, and I think we're just going to have to take over and we're going to have to use all of the authority that we have."

The district has forecast a five-year budget gap of about $16 million. That gap was decreased to about $11 million after calculating the impact of future pension and health savings and cuts to the district's revenue authority.

Kormanik said, "I think we need to cut this deficit — gone in three years at the most."

Moe said he believed the $11 million projection was based on fiscal assumptions that are no longer applicable, give the collective bargaining changes. 

"I believe the projected five-year deficits are not as bad as they're made out to be," he said.

He urged the board to tap its reserve fund, which he said exceeded $20 million. Others agreed that would be a good idea to help offset cuts in the 2011-12 school year.

Moe said he "would do everything in my power to not close a school .... I've seen the devastating effect (of closing schools) on the community."

Gehl said he believed Elmbrook should close one of its six elementary schools starting in the 2012-13 school year. Which one it should be is yet unknown. 

Gehl and Wilson said the empty spaces in the buildings and projected flat to declining enrollement mandate a closure. Gehl opposed filling the classrooms with students from outside the district through the open enrollment program.

Schultz opposed a closure. "Until we have exhausted every possible option, I think that we should not close our valuable neighborhood schools."

Watch Brookfield Patch for more coverage of the Elmbrook School Board elections. A story profiling the candidates and their views on issues will be posted before the April 5 election.

CommunityVolunteer March 22, 2011 at 12:14 PM
How many years will we work to "exhaust all available options" before making difficult decisions to preserve what programming and services we have left? What silver bullet are we waiting for that hasn't been vetted by those that have served on the multitude of committees already formed? We are following in the footsteps of neighboring communities who have waited to make these same choices and are left without enriching programs that help sustain the quality of their community's schools. Those that have been in Elmbrook for a while know that we have opened and closed schools a lot in our history in order to manage the budget based on enrollment. A closure does not have to be permanent ... it does not have to 'destroy a community'. We love our schools. We love our teachers. No one wants to close a school or lose a teacher that provides a positive impact in Elmbrook. However, the need to realign our facilitites to projected enrollment is just a temporary reset while we work on other ways to increase resident enrollment. While it may be possible to take the $650,000/year needed out of reserves to keep a building open ... what will we be giving up in Elmbrook's future to defer the difficult decisions we need to make today? If we raise revenues through other measures, does it make sense to spend it on underutilized facilities or should those dollars be invested to create the best curriculum we can for our students and/or bring back programs/services already lost?
Lisa Sink (Editor) March 22, 2011 at 03:00 PM
Good points here. I need to drill down into the details of a school closing. Thanks for the info.
Concerned Citizen March 22, 2011 at 09:28 PM
The remaining "option" is to pass an "operational" referendum allowing the district to exceed authorized taxing levels. I am firmly opposed to this "option" but I'm guessing this will be trotted out next. If you can't agree on a way to reduce expenses, the only option is to increase revenue, and they will have to go for the taxpayer's wallet to do that. Reducing expenses by such measures as closing unneeded space and reducing staff to match the resident enrollment is the only SURE way of balancing the budget. The attempts to "increase" enrollment are wishes, but won't necessarily come true. Keeping unneeded schools open and filling them with out of district residents, whose parents don't pay taxes here, is unpalatable and unfair to district taxpayers . And adding insult to injury by floating operational referendums is ignoring the problem twice over.
Sandra Schultz March 23, 2011 at 04:51 PM
One “option” that I have recommended to the district which is now under consideration is to reduce the 5 section Burleigh Elementary down to 3 sections moving one section each to Dixon and Brookfield Elementary. (Because of the location of Burleigh between these two schools the redistricting would have far less of an impact on busing/travel time) These are brand new beautiful buildings that are under capacity currently. In doing this you free up enough space at Burleigh to house the Central Administration Offices. Running CAO functions out of an existing building eliminates operational costs of an additional building. The current CAO location can be sold and put in the bank. The North Avenue building was considered for the relocation but would need major renovations, and of course the operational costs of running an additional building (heat, electricity, plowing, mowing etc.); we would avoid these costs. That building can either continue to be leased or sold. The leasing option for CAO would cost up to $350,000 per year. Two years of leasing is the cost savings on closing a school ($650,000). Under this scenario there would be little excess capacity in our schools and an efficient CAO location. Closing schools takes away the opportunity to utilize excess space in existing buildings to our advantage. As for the reference to “operational referendum”, at the Candidate forum all candidates indicated that they did not foresee going to an operational override.

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