Envisioning the future of Monroe education

MONROE — Finding common ground, providing public transparency and advocating for students were the main themes at Wednesday’s Monroe school board election forum. The four School District of Monroe Board of Education candidates — Teresa Keehn, Jim Curran, Phil Vosberg and Nick Baker — fielded over a dozen questions each, as they made their pitch to district voters in attendance. Three school board positions are available on the April 2 ballot, and Baker is the only non-incumbent registered to run.

The 90-minute-long event on March 20 at the Bauer Education Center was put on and recorded by Monroe Advocates for Public Schools (MAPS) and gave the candidates equal time to answer all questions posed. Three of the questions were given to the candidates ahead of time by the three MAPS organizers — Claire Leeds, Catherine Broughton and Karen Fowdy — while other questions were posited by audience members at the forum. The event was video recorded and will be posted to YouTube prior to the election, as will the extra 15 questions that were not able to be asked due to the forum’s time limit.

“We are community members just like you, and we wanted to see open candidate forums in Monroe again,” said Broughton, the moderator, to the crowd of more than 50. “Thank you for coming and making this a reality.”

The questions ranged from topics like the new high school, school funding obstacles, student academic performance, goals for optimizing student achievement and experience, and how the district and school board can be more transparent with the public about their discussions and decisions.

“People need to be informed, and I think a lot of the times the tension that we feel comes from folks feeling like they didn’t get the information — or get it in a way that was accessible or help for them,” said Curran, who joined the board a little less than a year ago and is filling out the final year of the term started by Teri Ellefson in 2021. “We need to not only be accessible, but we need to put more structured listening into our plans. … Also, when people reach out to us, we need to be available and accessible.”

Keehn said it was important for the board to both seek to understand and listen to the questions posed by its constituents. Vosberg commended the board and school for having a student liaison — senior Ruby Scheaffer — that “gives us a pipeline directly to the kids.”

Candidate Nick Baker reminded the community it has the responsibility to be involved as well by attending meetings. Many district voters felt caught off guard by the tax increases and the board’s purported lack of transparency following the $88 million referendum that passed in Nov. 2022 — Baker included.

“That’s what this community needs — more involvement in every school board meeting and every city council meeting; every fire department meeting in town,” Baker said. “If the community’s involved and brings their concerns right away to the people who sit at the table in the front of the room, a lot more can be done and we don’t get caught off guard — which is what, in my opinion, happened a year ago.” 

While the one-minute limit per question had both the speakers and audience feeling a little rushed, it didn’t take long for impassioned responses to roll out. 

“I strongly feel that schools are the cornerstone of our community. Strong schools lead to strong communities,” Keehn said. “I also wholeheartedly believe that we have the best teachers and staff, and we need to continue to get the best people in front of our kids in order to give them the best possible education. Our kids deserve nothing less. The education we provide today will shape the communities our kids have in the future. Our entire system needs to be student-focused.”

Vosberg said that the district and board’s job is to ensure that every student leaving Monroe High School has been prepared with a solid education and is prepared for the rest of his or her life. He also continued advocating for the mental health of the students, and expressed a desire to ensure the students are able to feel comfortable in their building and with their fellow students and teachers.

“Do they feel connected to their school? Do they feel connected to their other classmates … teachers? We have to find that balance where that need is served, but also giving them a solid education — reading, writing, arithmetic and all of those things,” Vosberg said.

Baker said he envisions the district changing some of the way it goes about its teaching, and potentially developing a two-path system where a student can easily choose between a route to either the trades or college. 

“There’s an individual path for them all,” Baker said. “We need to get the kids to buy in to their own education.”

Baker said by making a distinct switch, it could help grow the student population through open enrollment.

“You make it so kids want to move to Monroe so we can increase our numbers,” Baker said.

Curran’s 18 years of experience as an educator took him a different route than many of his peers. After college, he joined Teach For America and worked at some of the most impoverished schools in the nation. It opened his eyes to the struggles that many kids across the country face in earning an education simply based on race, their family’s financial stability, and the financial stability of the local district.

“Our education system (in the U.S.) works for families with money, and often kids who identify as white. Overall in the country now, kids from low-income families and that identify as students of color, their education experience is very different,” said Curran, a 2001 MHS grad. “Monroe is a changing community — it is demographically different from what it was when I grew up, and that’s a good thing. I think that we need to embrace that, and I think that our school system needs to respond to that.”

He then made a bold statement — that he believes Monroe has the tools right now to become a top-25% high school in the state of Wisconsin in terms of career readiness. The district is above the state average in ACT scores, and early returns from teachers and curriculum staff show the student demographics in the district that have struggled the most in recent years is improving at a healthy rate. The LAUNCH and SOAR programs have also seen great returns recently — from both students and the local businesses they work with alike.

“I’ve seen schools grow dramatically over the course of 3 or 4 years. It’s not an overnight process,” Curran said later in the forum, responding to an audience member who asked him to further explain why he believes the top 25% goal is not too big of a stretch. “What we have to start with first is what is our definition of success? It’s going to be part of what’s on the school report card — the school index — but it doesn’t have to be all of it. The LAUNCH program isn’t fully represented on the school report card.”

Vosberg agreed with Curran, saying that to him “no stretch is too big.”

“We have to shoot high. I think we have the pieces of the puzzle in place — with administration, staff, curriculum and professional development. To get there, I don’t know if it will take a year or 5 years — but we have to try,” Vosberg said.

One of the questions from the audience asked the candidates about the upcoming budget cuts for the 2024-25 school year. The school board approved an administration recommendation to cut about $937,000 from the budget, which included over a half million dollars in staffing, including nurses at three schools. The questioner wondered why administrator wages were not among the first cuts.

Baker, who is not on the board, said it was good question to ask but that he “hasn’t seen the numbers” and was unable to comment further. He did share that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the hospital his wife works at froze wage increases across the board, and administration there even took a pay cut.

Curran said that he’s been a part of several budget cutting processes in his career and they are never easy. Leadership matters, he said, and in order to keep around good leaders — administration, principals and teachers — it means continuing to offer a competitive wage. If not, the risk is raised that those individuals could leave and go elsewhere, leading to further change. 

“I understand the perspective of folks who are asking that question, and I also understand that … (our leaders) could go somewhere else and get more money. That’s a risk for us to lose really good people who are driving the results at the student level that we want to see,” Curran said.

The budget shortfall is not a Monroe-only struggle. State funding hasn’t kept pace with inflation in recent years, and Monroe is receiving about $3,300 less per student from the state than it would be had the funding stayed equal, according to the Consumer Price Index. In fact, about 80% of districts in Wisconsin are meeting their budgetary needs via operational referendum supplements. Monroe’s most recent operational referendum was passed in 2016 and expires at the end of this school year. 

Keehn reiterated that no one in the district — administration, building staff or the school board — wanted to make any cuts. 

Vosberg, who has spent his professional career in the agriculture business world, said the business of setting budgets is always difficult. 

“That’s fiscal management, that’s what it is,” he said. Vosberg added that if the district asked everyone on staff to take a 10% cut across the board, they might look elsewhere. “There is an acute shortage of teachers in this state and nationwide. There also is an acute shortage of qualified administrators. Where do you think those people will go? To someone else that’s more competitive on pay. We have to consider that in these equations.”

As the outsider looking in, Baker was unable to answer many of the questions posed directly to those on the school board. He sees himself as a fresh face in the mix, and said that in his time in the Army, he faced challenges of working with — and under — people that were not like-minded, but that didn’t deter them.

“During my time in there, I learned a lot of leadership skills — how to work with people that I don’t agree with, but that you still have to accomplish the mission. I think that’s what any good school board candidate can do — reach out to those on the polar opposite side of the issue and come together and find some common ground and build from there,” Baker said.

Keehn said that all the candidates — and everyone in the room — had the same common goal: 

In fact, Curran and Vosberg echoed the same sentiment.

“I believe education is the key to self-determination, and I want to help ensure Monroe schools is living up to that promise,” Curran said.

“As a district we have to have the structure and the resources in place district-wide — it doesn’t matter what building they’re in,” Vosberg said.

As it was the first community forum the members of MAPS have put on, they were unsure how everything would unfold. Fowdy, a former German teacher in the district, said she was nervous with butterflies when she woke up that morning. Leeds and Broughton were pleased with not only how smoothly the candidates tackled the question-and-answer portion, but the decorum of the crowd. They asked at the beginning of the meeting for the audience to hold applause and comments in order to limit distractions and time delays, as well as to limit the extra audio their finite number of microphones could pick up. 

“Thank you for coming. You all came to the table, and that is what we have to do — we have to show up as a town. It just warms my heart to see this, because we all have to live together,” Broughton said to the crowd to conclude the forum.

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