Chris Scott on School Board Dysfunction, Involving Students, Parents and Act 10
Left, Board Member Chris Scott (left) during a school board meeting in June. (City-Times photo)
City-Times Staff sat down with each candidate for Stevens Point School Board for intimate, one-on-one conversation regarding their experiences and thoughts behind their school board campaign. The following is a verbatim transcription of each conversation.
Questions by Brandi Makuski
You’ve served on the board 12 years; why are you running again?
“Well going back to the last time I was running, I knew Act 10 was coming; I knew we had a new superintendent coming, there was going to be a lot of unrest. There was going to be a lot of instability if it (Act 210) passed and I felt like it would be a really good thing for me to be around and to be a source for the board and for the staff and the community; kind of a common sense voice. I’d already been through so many things over the years and there’d been so many changes: this time, after Act 10, I noticed how much things were changing, and not always for the better. I’m kind of a caretaker; I want to help and be involved. The rest of my life I want to be positive and productive and I want to invest in my community. I think it’s really important to give back. Education is a real investment and I love the work. That’s different from saying ‘I love being on the school board’.”
You’ve heard the expression, no doubt, that politicians are like diapers: they should be changed often and for the same reason. How do you respond to the calls for replacing the entire board?
“I would not have a problem with that at all. Let’s start over. However, I’m not sure that’s the answer. I think each of the board members represent part of our community, and I think that’s an important thing to have. They come with all different kinds of knowledge and experience, and that’s a good thing to have. I’m not sure replacing everyone is the right thing. If you’re going to start picking and choosing, I’m not sure how you would do it. But did I ever intend to be on the board so long? No. Not everyone can do this. I didn’t see a lot of people (running) in the beginning where I felt comfortable saying, ‘It’s okay, I don’t have to do this anymore’. But there were some people who didn’t put their name in until the last day. The work is amazing; we need people in there who want to do the work.”
In a recent meeting, we had a 25 minute discussion on whether or not we should have the budget printed in landscape or portrait. But the discussion went so long because other board members participated in that discussion. You say you’re a common sense candidate; why on earth didn’t you step in and Call the Question?
“You can Call the Question, but then you have to have a vote, which would’ve been 5-4, which we get all the time. People are going to say what they want, so if it’s going to make some board member happy, fine, let’s let them say what they want and then move on. Because of the way the board interacts, those kinds of conversations take on a life on their own. Because we’re trying to work a little better, you think maybe this is a little ridiculous, but you have to say, ‘OK, let’s not make it us against them’ and let them have their say.”
But isn’t it already, to a degree, ‘us against them’? Some of the policies you have on the board are pretty subjective, and we don’t see anything like this on city or county committees. How can the board encourage more people to come forward to speak in an environment that’s already been labeled as hostile?
“The history is, you don’t have many people come to speak to the board. You don’t. How do you get people involved? I don’t know. Look at the art school we had; it’s only growing and we had over 700 community members. I used to say let’s use buses to take parents to the schools so they can see what’s going on in the schools. But people have so much on their plates; their lives are so busy. They don’t always know what we do and I think there’s a fear we have all this power. It might be a little scary for them. I think there’s a disconnect in how to get your voice heard and address what you want to address. If I had a problem I went to the teacher, and if that didn’t work I’d call the principal. If that didn’t work I’d call the superintendent. But back then I thought the board worked for the superintendent, I didn’t know it was the other way around. There needs to be a structure for parents to get involved, and we’re working on that now.”
But has the school system changed so much that a type of noninvolvement from parents is being allowed, or have parents really changed that much? There was a point, and it wasn’t that long ago, where parents were more involved. Why should the school system have to make changes and lower the standards for parental involvement when that’s already implied when you have a child? Why should you put extra pressures and stresses on the district already?
“Here’s what I know: I got started when my son was friends with someone working on a referendum. I didn’t know what a referendum was at the time, but I knew it had something to do with money. There was something called a district advisory committee: it had the superintendent, a few board members and a few community members. They would come before each board meeting and tell us what was coming up, what was going on, and they’d explain some of the reasoning and process behind it. It was an informal conversation. And I thought we could do this again, but I could immediately here, ‘well who gets to pick the parents?’. It would become a societal thing, a class system almost. There was a time when the committee meetings had no community input. Bu things developed where people just got involved when they had kids. But I think society has changed; families are different now. Mom has two jobs, parents split up- parents have a lot on their plate and they trust the system to know their kids are getting an education and being taken care of. If a lot of parents though something wasn’t right they’d bring it up to the teacher.”
“We’re spending a lot of time with studies; facilities, grade realignment, and it’s been going on for a while. Is the district, or the parents, getting ‘study fatigue’?
“This is the future of our district. What do we want our schools to look like? That’s where expeditionary learning came in, that’s where technology came in- it’s all part of that. But you know what? If you’re spending a lot of time fixing things instead of building things, it’s wasted if you keep doing that. It’s okay to fix things, but you’ve got to build what you want your district to look like.”
How would you characterize media coverage of the board- good, bad, has there been enough?
“I don’t know; at the forums it seems like some people hate them, and some people love them (the forums). I get a lot of different things from the media. If my boss doesn’t like me or I don’t like them, well, I’ve got a job to do. I think you guys do a fair job. I think you call things pretty much as you see them.”
Why do we need to improve our educational system when you’ve said- multiple times and on the record- that we have one of the best districts in the state?
“Well, I think we do. What we do here in now is not necessarily going to be successful in the future. It’s really important, and I’ve seen every part of the spectrum. We have to ask what kind of doctors and nurse do we want here? Who do we want doing health care, taking care of our money? Do we want the same thing as ten years ago? We always have to be going for more. Instinctually I’ve always felt like every student is always going to have a tracker; what’s the progress, what’s the growth? Years and years ago when they started public education I think what they had in mind was socialized education, get everybody in, and I think that’s really a good thing. We want kids to leave our schools and go out into the world with what the need to be not just productive citizens but to have the right tools to go to work, back to school, in the army, whatever. They need to be able to read and write and speak and listen and socialize.”
Does inclusion potentially lower standards for the rest of the class?
“I can’t answer that, I think there’s pros and cons, but I can give you a personal example. When I was in Denver I was asked to work for the school. There was a young girl there who was hearing impaired and they asked me to be her shadow aide, her language facilitator. How do you teach someone who’s hearing impaired what the word ‘around’ means, or ‘above’ or ‘below’, that kind of thing?
You get picture flashcards.
“Yes, but the concept is what she had a hard time with. So I walked her around the table, I showed her above the table. She was struggling. But I was really surprised when I saw the other kids in her classroom taking over; they showed her things and she became part of the group. It seems like the kids who are going to be up here are always going to be up here; kids in the middle are always going to be in the middle. But the teachers, unless they have the help to deal with those special needs kids, well, there’s going to be a problem there.”
There seems to be an emphasis on special needs. For example, this new charter school, which would have helped 150 potentially above- average kids was presented very much under the radar instead of having the heck promoted out of it to garner public support. But the Life Skills Center, which is designed for special needs kids, was brought to the board and the public on a silver platter as a saving mechanism. Why aren’t we celebrating our gifted & talented kids just as much?
“I’ve never seen them do anything special like that for special ed. That’s the first big new whatever for those kids. Way back one of the concerns we had was schools were defining gifted and talented with different criteria. They really do need the support, but I think we need to find out what exactly it is. How much do we celebrate academics versus sports? Isn’t that kind of societal? Maybe special needs get more attention because they have greater needs. But it’s not just the children with greater needs- the parent of that child has greater needs, too.”
But is it the school system’s responsibility to help the parents? The parents made a choice to give birth to a child, why should the district and the state getting involved? Where do the parents end and the school system begin?
“You could argue that you come to our schools, let’s teach you everything that you need to know, but sometimes there more to learn. I think these are valid questions, but I don’t have all the answers. When I was an educational assistant at Bannach, we’d take a field trip and I’d bring five extra lunches because you know there were parents who didn’t read the form and pack their kids a lunch. I’d bring extra hats and gloves because some of the kids at recess didn’t bring their things from home. There’s a level of common sense here.”
But how much common sense is used in the school board? The board has over-legislated itself with hundreds of policies which are constantly coming before you with second and third readings.
“Don’t ask me. Remember when we used to have committees- weren’t they wonderful? But what we found with these current board members is that things were going before committee, then going to the board, then going back to the committee, and back and forth. And it went on and on.”
So why not do it this way: every member of the school board is required to attend a City Council or County Board meeting to see how committees work in relation to the final council or board meeting?
“They don’t feel they need to. We have members who are going to do what they want to do. What are going to do with that? I think with new members, we can maybe work towards getting on the same page. If I had the answer, don’t you think I’d give it with all my heart?”
Why is Attila Weninger so disliked?
“I can’t tell you that. One of my opinions is- and I’ve worked with four other superintendents- no one had to go through Act 10. No one had to go from a collective bargaining environment, and when you have a strong leader who is a visionary as to what our school district needs, and what our board and community wants, and you change the whole environment, people are not going to be happy, whoever the leader is. If you’re that guy, if you’re that person, well, I think Attila expected that. We’ve had a lot of superintendents over the years- you don’t see superintendents dying to stay.
“We have to ask ourselves when this all started. You can say three years ago, we had the perfect storm: we had Act 10 hit, we had Attila come on board, and we had the economy tank- people losing their jobs, losing their homes. I’m making less than I was nine years ago. But I don’t go up to people and say, ‘why should you make more than me?’ I don’t resent anybody for what they make.”
Why does this district have so many half-days off?
“The teachers need that. There’s so many initiatives, all of these things going on and you can’t expect them to do that on their Saturdays and Sundays.”
Why not give them the whole day? Give kids the whole day off school and you’ve save a lot of money on buses. Give teachers the whole day.
“It’s an option. It’s something to look at. I don’t know what the right answer is. I don’t know which would be better for students.”
How do you feel about Attila Weninger being able to approve up to $20,000 per contract? Even in a $100 million budget that’s a lot of money.
“It hasn’t been an issue since it’s been in place. It depends on what you believe his growth and responsibilities are. If the board believes it’s something that needs to be looked at, but if you’re looking at every single expense- well we’ve got a business manager who knows numbers. So if he says we shouldn’t trust a number, then we should look at it.”
Before the school district hired Carlson Dettman to perform a pay study for district workers, the City of Stevens Point recently hired them to do a pay study as well as create a new pay plan for city workers, something the Council is still complaining wasn’t done in an open and fair manner. How closely did you personally follow the city’s dealings with Carlson Dettmann?
“I didn’t watch. I did read what was written.”
It can be argued Carlson Dettmann created a market for what they offer, and then created a matrix so unbelievably complicated nobody else could understand their process. Yet, as one of the board members, you agreed to approve it anyway. Why?
“We each got to interview with him in small groups. My interview with him, there were supposed to be four or five other board members there, and I came. That was it, I was the only one there. I asked him a lot of questions, but I think for me, I’m not an expert, but it’s something we really need to look at. This is part of our systemic review; don’t we need to know if we’ve been overpaying or underpaying someone for ten years? We have to decide what we want and then ask for that.”
But why not bring in an economics class from SPASH to help build that pay scale and pay study? Why not give these kids a chance to rise to the top with what they’ve learned in ‘one of the best districts in the state’? Maybe they’ll get extra credit, maybe not, but their names would go down in history as having been a part of something in your community.
“But do you think you should put that on kids? Salaries and benefits?”
Why not? Children grow up, and we’re not talking about 12 year-olds with no background in studying economics. We’re talking about high school seniors who are, for all in tense and purpose, adults in our community.
“It could have been discussed, I don’t know why it wasn’t. I’m glad you mentioned it, because that’ll add something to my mindset when I’m talking to people in the district. How can we do this and get more of a buy-in? That’s an opportunity. There are opportunities to include students more, but we do include them on interview teams and some of the committees. We have that student rep. on our board. But it teaches them something- that adults don’t always do the right thing, that they make mistakes. And that adults can learn from them. But guess what- when you leave school and go to work, you’re going to have the same experience in life, that’s how it is.”