From the start of the School Board Candidate Forum Thursday it was clear that the budget repair bill, teachers contract, and budget would be the focus of discussion for the evening.
Both Paul Tadda and Richard Houdek (R.L. Houdek on the ballot) set the tone early by stating their solid support of Act 10, or Gov. Scott Walker’s budget repair bill, in the first sentence of their opening statements. The dollars and cents discussion would continue throughout the evening.
“I support Scott Walker’s reforms, and I will work to implement Act 10 thoughtfully,” Tadda said. “One can be a supporter of Act 10 and still support teachers.”
The Menomonee Falls Parent Teacher Student Association sponsored the 26-question forum at Village Hall Thursday night. Tadda, Houdek Michele Divelbiss and incumbent David Noshay are vying for two open School Board seats, which is the only contested local race on the April 3 ballot. Current School Board President Kathy Shurilla for another term.
Neither Divelbiss, who made it clear she has conservative values, nor Noshay openly stated their support of Act 10 in their opening statements. However, they later both took a larger picture stance on public education funding in the state, which has forced districts to do more with less annually. Noshay said the funding system itself is flawed.
“The funding formula is broken and has been broken for some time. It is an almost impossible insurmountable issue that someone needs to fix,” Noshay said. “We have done a herculean effort on the board to expand programming with the limited resources we are given.”
The governor’s repair bill vastly limited the collective bargaining rights of teachers, which became the most controversial aspect of the bill. Houdek said he is not in favor of collective bargaining, and blamed public unions for locking the district into an insurance agreement with WEA Trust, which he claimed has cost the district millions over the past 20 years. Divelbiss also shyed from supporting collective bargaining.
“I’m not a fan of collective bargaining. Unfortunately, sometimes unions support some of the lowest performing employees. I’m in favor of having the administration have more flexibility,” Divelbiss said. “However, I’m not in favor of completely annihilating working collaboratively with teachers.”
Noshay said collective bargaining isn’t the School Board’s fight, and that the board’s focus should remain on the children and local decisions. Tadda said teachers can choose to vote and certify their union, and if they wanted to keep collective bargaining he wouldn’t have a problem with it. However, according to Act 10, teachers would be limited to bargaining only for wage increases based on the Consumer Price Index.
However, all four candidates vowed that their personal beliefs or political affiliations would not cloud their focus on children, taxpayers, and fellow board members.
The Teachers Contract
In May, the School Board found itself embroiled in controversy after it the teachers contract before Act 10 was law. Many residents were further frustrated by the manner in which it was passed. The board reached a tentative agreement with the teachers union on a Friday, and approved the new contract on the following Monday before the public had an opportunity to view contract.
The School Board was faced with a deadline to approve the contract, which included $1.2 million in savings by from WEA Trust to Humana. If the board had not ratified the contract by July 1, the district would have been locked into the agreement that was already on the books and the savings wouldn't have been realized.
The contract debate resurfaced on Thursday during the forum, and created clear distinctions between the four candidates.
Noshay defended his decision to vote on the contract, and said he would still vote the same way if given another chance.
“I stand by that decision. We argued for weeks and weeks about that decision,” Noshay said. “The current contract allowed us to achieve all the mandatory savings in Act 10. There is nothing in the contract itself that I would change.”
Divelbiss also stated her support for the contract agreement.
“I supported it then, and I support it now,” Divelbiss said. “I knew the values they were putting into that contract and I spent the time in meetings as they discussed it. I believed then and I believe now that it was a good thing to do.”
However, Houdek and Tadda were staunchly against the contract agreement itself and how it was passed.
“I wouldn’t have voted for it. I think it was a cop out by the board to get under the deadline when Act 10 would be implemented,” Houdek said. “Other districts faired better by enacting contracts after Act 10 was law.”
Tadda said he also would have voted against the contract, but also criticized the board’s lack of openness during the discussions. The teachers union and the negotiating team signed a confidentiality agreement that restricted the board from releasing the document to the public before both the board and the teachers union approved it.
The agreement also guaranteed a “yes” vote from board members Lori Blodorn and Gina Palazzari, who were members of the negotiating team.
“I would have voted no. I think the confidentiality agreement when the contract was done was also wrong,” Tadda said.
Tadda was later unclear about how he would have incorporated other aspects of Act 10 into the contract agreement with the teachers. Houdek said he wasn’t up to terms with what was in the contract to comment.
Noshay, who voted for the contract, did say he would have changed how the vote was taken. Noshay said he would have preferred a more open approach by the board before making a final decision.
“If I had to pick one item I would do different it would be in the area of communication in the teachers contract,” Noshay said. “I would change how that was communicated at that moment in time.”
For Tadda, public openness was one of the top three priorities he outlined early in the discussion.
The Budget and Education
Education and the budget are inextricably linked year after year, and finding the proper balance between the two is perhaps the biggest challenge for School Board members.
When it came to the budget, the four candidates agreed that cutting teacher pay and benefits to the bare bones would not be favorable for anyone in the district. They also agreed that cutting administrative pay wasn’t a positive course of action either.
“I’m a big believer in the free market, and offering competitive wages and benefits is important,” Divelbiss said. “We can’t just slash things. We do want to keep our best and our brightest teachers.”
Houdek echoed the sentiment of the four other candidates when it came to cutting administrator pay.
“That’s not the place to cut. That’s where the decisions are made,” Houdek said.
However, Houdek and Tadda were vague on other areas they would cut and neither offered an answer. Divelbiss said adding fees for certain programs could be one small solution. Noshay said finding places to cut outside emplyee pay and benfits is a challenge.
“Unfortunately, 80 percent of expenses are in salary and benefits. We’ve already trimmed most of the low-lying fruit,” Noshay said. “We are always looking at general operations across the board. However, you always have to look at the staffing, it’s the only way to get at the bulk of the cuts.”
All four candidates also agreed on developing a merit-based system of employment for teachers. However, they were unable to offer details on what that system would look like, specifically. However, Tadda proposed incorporating student and parent evaluations of teachers in the overall assessment of teachers.
Houdek said the most important issue for him was to increase the test performance of students in the district to remain competitive with other districts in the area. He also wanted educators to expand opportunities for students.
“I think that there’s weaknesses where high school ends and tech school begins. People need to be better prepared coming out of high school for opportunities that are available to them,” Houdek said.
Divelbiss said the district is on the right track toward improving education and program offerings, and said the board is on the right path and she wants to continue moving things forward.
Tuesday was the first and last time the four candidates will all appear together publicly in a forum. Stay tuned to Menomonee Falls Patch for more updates about the election as it moves forward. If you feel strongly about the claims made by a candidate, please submit a letter to the editor by emailing Carl Engelking.