“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” – Bette Davis (“All About Eve”, 1950)
This past Tuesday was the first of what could be many bumpy nights for the Racine Unified School District Board of Education.
It really wasn’t a surprise that voters turned thumbs-down on school referendum questions with an accompanying $128.5 million spending increase. Supporters contended that the plan would have brought smaller class sizes to some of the district’s kindergarten and first grade sections, replaced or remodeled some outdated school buildings and set the stage for future rounds of school improvements. But, that couldn’t overcome the sticker shock.
Voters also re-elected three incumbents (Pamala Handrow, Pastor Melvin Hargrove and Dennis Wiser) to three-year terms. This trio, and their six School Board colleagues, should all be strapped in for the inevitable heavy turbulence to come.
In no particular order, here are the major challenges the RUSD School Board faces in the coming weeks and months:
- Budget woes – The expected loss of taxing authority (per Gov. Walker’s proposed budget) and reductions in state-funded programs puts RUSD in a $7.5 million hole for 2011-12. Reductions in administrative support, anticipated retirements and perhaps deferring equipment purchases will only go so far. Board members will have to support necessary, but unpopular, decisions to deliver a balanced budget.
- Student achievement – Some gradual improvement is being seen in standardized state test scores among RUSD students. But, third grade reading scores (a crucial component in the district’s North Star Vision for student achievement) dropped slightly last year. It’s also troubling that black and Hispanic third graders have to make significant improvements to stay on track with the district’s performance targets. Creating smaller student-teacher ratios in kindergarten and first grade was a strategy to address reading and other learning skills. But the referendum’s outcome put that on the shelf.
- Building maintenance – The present approach of spending $3.3 million a year to address a maintenance and repair backlog that exceeds $80 million is a bit like trying to fill Lake Michigan with an eyedropper. OK, I’m exaggerating. Make it a tablespoon. Referendum backers pointed out that the new and remodeled buildings would have taken about $13 million off the list. That’s still a drop in the bucket.
- Superintendent succession – Superintendent Dr. Jim Shaw’s employment contract runs through June 2012. While that may seem like the distant future, it’s a short time in the world of high-level administrator search and hiring. Board members, who went through a lengthy, expensive and uncomfortable superintendent search prior to Shaw’s arrival in 2008, probably won’t be anxious to repeat the process.
- Public trust – Let’s face it, RUSD doesn’t enjoy a stellar reputation and School Board members are frequently blamed. Tuesday evening, some board members speculated that the district’s new Administrative Service Center project and a one-day sickout by teachers and staff in February contributed to the referendum’s defeat. That’s probably true. But, a deep-seated public distrust of district bureaucracy, operations, procedures, policies and decision making is also in play. And, that distrust isn’t going away anytime soon.
Given the district’s plethora of ongoing issues, I have a feeling that the School Board would be happy with just one “bumpy night” like last Tuesday. But, that’s not going to happen. Fasten your seatbelts, everybody.