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Board members, staff sit down to talk schools

May 04, 2011 | 08:48 AM
Williams Bay — It was kind of a card party without the cards, or a neighborhood block party without the music.

School Board member Cathy Butler proposed a meeting where teachers and staff could meet with board members and talk about what was on their minds.

On April 27, in the Williams Bay High School commons, about 40 teachers and staff sat at five tables, with one School Board member at each table. In the center of each table was a large red bowl of Chex mix, made by Butler.

"I think it's good to make decisions with input from people you are affecting," Butler said. "I think it was a really healthy conversation."

Each School Board member had a list of six questions that kept the conversations going, but made sure that they didn't last too long. In this case, about two hours.

The School Board members kept notes of the conversations. Butler will organize the comments into notes.

Butler said she got the idea at a recent meeting of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, where she learned the board of the Howard-Suamico School District, near Green Bay, has been having these conversations with teachers and parents for the past four years.

Butler called the meeting a community conversation about what is needed and desired to keep the district alive.

The next group Butler wants to invite in for a chat are parents. That will probably take place later this month after the regularly scheduled School Board meeting, Butler said.

Those teachers who were stopped and asked about the conversations all said they thought this was a good idea.

"I love it," said Deb Soplanda, History Club adviser and high school study hall supervisor. "Anytime you can communicate it's always very positive. Something good always comes out of it."

"I thought it was a good idea," said Susan Leece. English teacher at Williams Bay High School since 1983. She said that over the years, the teachers had little contact with the school board members.

"I thought this was fabulous," said Breann Vogt, fifth grade teacher. "I think it was an excellent idea. I think it will do a good job in helping morale.

"I think it helped us just to be heard about our concerns."

"It's a great thing, everyone gets their day in court," said Ellen Lynch, a school secretary. "We're just trying to get at what can help the school."

Most of the conversation at his table had to do with repairing the relationship between teachers and the community, said Steve Huisman, fourth grade teacher.

He said divisions became apparent during the September referendum campaign.

"I think that there were walls built up that haven't come down yet," Huisman said. "And that's not good."

Although posted as a meeting, because a quorum of School Board members was present, the gathering didn't play out as a formal meeting.

There was a flow of voices, as conversations from the several tables would sometimes merge and overlap. Talk was sometimes emphasized with laughter, and sometimes punctuated with tears.

Sometimes comments couldn't be attributed, but did bear repeating.

- "Everybody wants to do the right thing. I believe that. But nobody knows what the right thing is."

- "We're not here to save money; we're not here to placate old people. We're here for the students."

- "I love the fact I can walk down the hall and I know all these kids in different grades. There are schools where you can't do that."

- "Look at the parking lot on the weekends. Teachers are here on the weekends. When do they think this stuff gets done?"

- "There are parents who don't realize that teachers have been laid off."

- "We have to continue to demand excellence."

- "It's like nobody values what we do here."

- "It's a very scary time to be a teacher."

Lynne Landgraf, the newest School Board member, told her table that during her orientation through the WASB, she was told the demographics of most school districts in Wisconsin are shifting.

"We're entering a time when we have more people who don't have kids in public schools than ever before in history," she said.

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