Saturday, June 25, 2011

Are Those The Winds of Change Blowing?

It's not just rhetoric, people, these are truly unprecedented times.  The economy seems to choke and sputter like an engine with a fouled spark plug.  Consider all that has transpired of late, and it all begs the question: is it time for new leadership within the Sun Prairie School District?  We offer 5 solid indicators.

1. District Administrator Tim Culver's Unofficial Approval Rating is at an all-time low.
Years ago Culver could toss it aside as just a few malcontents.  He's referred to them as "Nitters and Pickers" and "Wreckers". if name calling is really going to solve the problem.  But these folks didn't go away.  Rather, they have brought the dirty laundry out into the bright of day.  And they multiplied like rabbits on the farm.

For a school district to function effectively and move forward, its leader must have the support of both the public and the district staff.  Frankly we don't hear much other than outright contempt for Culver from any of the schools.  Ask any of your friends and neighbors and the story is the same...the staff just no longer support Culver.  OK...he may have the support of a few of his inner circle know...his "pets".  And let's not think for one minute that Culver doesn't have his pets.  It's as plain as day for anyone who takes the time to see which administrators are getting the 7% raises, and which ones are getting a pittance.  It's also clear which administrators are getting revised job descriptions to give them whatever they want.

Now Culver can likely point to his annual "360 degree" evaluation, whereby a number of community members and staff are asked to evaluate Culver.  Here's the skinny on that little con, however....Culver himself hand picks those who receive the evaluation, he writes the evaluation, and they are turned back in to him!!!  How cool is that?!  How would you, in your job, like to be able to decide WHO gets to do your performance review, YOU get to write the questions, and all the surveys come back to YOU?!  HOW.  COOL. IS. THAT!

Oh, on one level it is tres cool.  But it's also tres wrong.  Frankly it's more a symptom of the illness affecting this school district.  At the grocery store, we can do a little trimming when the cauliflowers curds start showing discoloration or become speck;ed with black mold spots.   But how much can you shave it and still be able to sell it before it's time to toss it out?

2. Culver Has Clearly Outlined His Exit Plan
Unless you've had your head in the sand, Culver's recent re-working of his contract clearly outlined a plan to stay 4 more years.  Hell..he gives away money he's earned if he DOESN'T stay 4 more years! All signs point to his targeting June 2015 as his retirement date.  And, of course, if the school board keeps extending his contract long before it expires each year, why should he cut and run until he's good an ready?

The problem is that we all know employees who, in the waning years of their career, simply 'mail it in'.   Can we survive 4 years of "mailing it in"?   We're losing bright shining stars like Rainey Briggs.   And has anyone taken notice of the quality teachers that have left the building?  We can make their leaving about money, but most teachers are not in it for the cash.  They want to be in a district that is focused on all the right things and in a district that empowers them to educate our kids in a manner that allows them to not just reach for, but to actually grasp the stars.

Culver could retire now.  But he plans to stay with us for 4 more a governor's term.  Except we don't get to stage a recall election.   He's planning to implement his beloved Mandarin Chinese program.  Is THAT what this district needs?

3. The Public No Longer Trusts the Information Coming Out of the District
We build over $100M in new schools and we don't bid the architecture.  We've lost track of how many errors we've been handed regarding key financial data, staffing, spending, or virtually anything.  It's not just a a precious few errors of a typographical nature, either.  It's significantly flawed information.  And it happenbs all the time...and comes from some VERY well compensated people!

We have budgets built on more fluff than a marshmallow factory. Remember all the bogus numbers we received during the whole Boundary Ordeal? The Royal Oaks gym floor problem had never been identified publicly, yet suddenly we learn of a deal to bury the cost of the repairs into the "Secure Entrance" project.  And then we learn that it's really not just the addition of a secure entrance, but a wholesale relocation of the administrative offices.

Let's talk for a minute about funny money. We build 2% raises into the budget and then, when the school board approves less than that, the original budgeted amount remains in the budget!  What's funnier still is that the school board doesn't even make the decision on how much to budget for raises....Deputy District Administrator and Business Manager Phil Frei does!!!!   How cool is that?  He happens to be one of the administrators, and he just happens to be the one guy that decides how much money to add to the budget for raises!  And then...and this is the best part...which group of employees fared the best in the raise department? Why the administrators!  Fancy that!  They got a 1% raise.  Then, their mileage stipends--which amount to another 1%-- were added into their salaries, resulting in a 2% raise (and raising the base on which retirement pay is determined).  No wait...THIS is the best part.  Instead of just converting the mileage stipends to salary...which would have been a net wash....the administrators now get to simply claim mileage for travel in Dane Co. and get reimbursed for it at the IRS rate!!!  So they get to have their cake and eat too...spoon fed by us...the taxpayers.

 The school board either cuts or identifies saving in the budget of $725,000 but the budget is not reduced!  They just earmark it for other spending!!!  Is that what you folks at home do with your budgets?  Cut the cable TV out so that you can just use that $150/month to buy a new car?  Or do you use it to pay down existing debt?  Or put it in savings to weather the storms that may yet be on the horizon?

How could the public possibly trust anything coming out of the district?  Who's in charge here?  Well...none other than district administrator, Tim Culver.  And how can anyone have faith in a leader that allows this type of shoddy performance?

4. SPASD Is a Rudderless Ship...We Lack Direction
Consider all the discussion over the past year or so, and it's clear that this ship lacks a rudder....or perhaps a capable captain.  The district publicly screams that a Human Resources position specializing in Minority Recruitment and retention is its top priority.  But when the board said, "Go ahead and fill the position...but using your existing allotment of FTEs (including 2 vacancies), the district folded faster than Superman on laundry day.  Suddenly the story became "'s important...but not THAT important".

Our district enrollment is compromised of 7% kids of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity, but in his infinite wisdom, Captain Culver is looking to start a Mandarin Chinese program.  If there is any doubt about his jones for Chinese culture, check out his blog post regarding a visit from 25 Chinese principals in April.

And if it's a charter school we're after...why not something more "STEM" (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics" based?  We expound on the virtues of geothermal heating and cooling and the need for sustainability, yet when Cap'n Culver talks about new curriculum, it's Mandarin Chinese. How much sense does that make?  Given a choice between a Mandarin Chinese-based or STEM-based charter/magnet school, which does the community believe would garner more interest (and perhaps funding!)?

We're giving out "A" like skittles at a middle school picnic. And nobody seems to care.  In fact, they seem to think it's a good thing!  Except this level of proficiency doesn't seem to be born out by either WKCE or ACT scores.  1 in 4 kids graduated with High Honors (GPA above 3.75, A-).  And if you saw this week's STAR,32 kids in the 10th grade received perfect 4.0 GPAs for the 4th quarter!!!!  Sure... parents love "A"s...right up until that first semester grade report in college shows a "C" average.

So...folks, like a rudderless ship, we move this way and that way, without a concrete destination.  Has the Captain left the bridge already?

5. Change at the School Board Level
We suffered through years of 7-0 school board votes supporting every little Culver whim.  We had a school board president, you know, the leader of a taxing authority, who was three years in arrears on property taxes! We had a series of one-year wonders.  But as a community, we grew disenchanted with the complexion of our school board.  And so we voted for change.  3 years ago, (then) new-comer Jill Camber-Davidson received more votes than any incumbent running.  2 years ago, John Welke ran a write-in campaign and put a serious scare into the incumbents.  Last year, he won handily, taking the highest number of votes.  This year, again, a new-comer took the highest voted total.  In his election to the board, Tom Weber shattered the previous record for the highest number of votes received by a school board candidate.  The message is clear that the community wants the board to move in a different direction.

Welke has most definitely put his stamp on things in his 14 months as a board member.  He talked the talk and he's walking the walk.  Welke supports a quality education, while also demanding that the district be both transparent and good stewards of the taxpayers' money.  Welke's stronger leadership presence has also enable Jill Camber-Davidson to come in to bloom.   Meanwhile, Diedrich, McCourt, and Whalen will basically support anything coming out of the district office.  Diedrich, in particular, likes to talk a good game about fiscal responsibility, but all it takes is for "the big dog" (Culver) to says he needs (or wants) something, and Diedrich melts like a blushing schoolgirl.  That leaves Terry "Picket Fence" Shimek, who seems to enjoy his perch squarely upon the pickets of the school board fence.  Most votes generally come down to Shimek.  More often than not, recently anyway, Shimek has voted the same way as Camber-Davidson, Weber, and Welke.  of course, being the fence sitter he is, that could all change.

The bottom line is that the frequency of 4-3 votes on controversial issues--instead of 7-0 votes supporting the district-- are suggestive of a change in the degree to which the board supports Culver's agenda.
What's that all add up to?

It's time for a change at the top, people.
Now...if only we had a school board with cojones.
Or should that be a school board with .