Bob Larson: I’ll Continue to Question Unwise Expenses
Left, Bob Larson (far right) at a recent board meeting. (City-Times photo)
City-Times Staff sat down with candidates 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
Why are you running for reelection?
“There’s work that needs to be completed, we’re still working on contracts, we’re still working on the consolidated task force. We’ve got four different reports all coming together. And I’m also concerned about the dollars.”
What, specifically, concerns you about the dollars?
“Well, I’ll give you an example; post-retirement medial. In 2010, we had a liability out there of 84 million dollars.”
What do you mean by ‘liability’?
“Remember, retirees have basically 8 years of free medical insurance. With Act 10 we are able to take some of these benefits and reduce them, take them away, change them. And right now in 2014, if the current board, or the new board that will be reorganized in three or four weeks, leaves the changes this board has made alone. The district will be debt- free in five years.”
What changes have you made?
“Well, there’s no longer eight years of free medical; it’s basically gone. Right now there’s a small window for those that are retiring. I can’t remember the dollar amount, but now I think it’s like $750 per month (we pay) for a few years for them. Before it’s was like an $18,000 a year benefit. It was very pricey, and the thing is, as you’re putting more money into the benefits, and you’re working off a certain dollar amount, you can only do two things: cut programs or lay people off. What Act 10 has allowed us to do is get control of the district again. For 30 years the employees had control of the district by putting their people on the board. Act 10 has allowed the administration and the current board to regain the financial footing of the district. Right now we’ve got the best superintendent that I’ve ever worked with, he’s done a tremendous amount. We were at the verge of bankruptcy until Act 10 when we were allowed to make necessary changes. For a lot of districts, they were laying people off. I think he laid off two people in our district. A lot of the employees weren’t happy with some of the changes, but if you look at the bottom line, they’re still working.”
Is that what’s causing the friction between the teacher groups and the superintendent?
“Anytime you lose power, if you’re an employee and suddenly you now have to pay 50 percent of your retirement, which you didn’t have to pay before, and you’re paying more for your medical, you’re allowed long-term care, you didn’t have to pay for that, you have basically 8 years of medical free when you retired. I call it a golden parachute. I’d probably be a little upset, too. But you have to look at the total package; from 2008 our community as a whole has lost probably 1,000 jobs from the mills between Point and (Wisconsin) Rapids. We’re paying higher property taxes to fund the schools. We just have to aware the community has also suffered and had to tighten the belt. Times are changing; if the money’s tight, I believe we have to watch our pennies. Employees still have good benefits. Salaries are very good when you compare them to local workers and the surrounding districts. They’re very competitive. If we can keep them that way and take those savings and put them back into current programs, or allow people to work. We have a certain dollar amount, and if we can’t balance the money, the first place we cut are people. It kind of sad when you hear other candidates stating they would not renew Attila’s contract; that’s a large statement to make. Do they know what he’s actually done for our district? If I had to renew his contract today, I’d vote yes. A lot of work he did helped Skyward.”
How would you characterize the media coverage of the school board and its activities?
“You know, every time I read something in the paper, I’m going, ‘hmmm…I don’t remember that happening’. I think we have decent coverage. I think, as I see in the paper a lot of times overall, I think there could be a little more of the good things the administration has done for our district, not just listening to the negative. I think the teachers all around the district are doing great, but the union leadership needs to be a little more mellow. That’s just my opinion.”
This particular board seems ot have been at each other’s throats for three years. How have you been trying to turn things around?
“I don’t believe we should have a board micro-manage. Our job is to do policy. We hire people and pay them and extremely good salary with extremely good benefits; they are the experts, let them do the work. There’s got to be trust; we have to believe the people we’ve hired as administrators and HR people are doing a good job. The board is 9 members; some of us have different philosophies, but I think we don’t need to micro-manage. I can’t control what the other members think, though.”
Sure, but look at the City Council- there’s 11 member there, and 25 on the County Board. They all have differing viewpoints, too. They don’t have the same problems.
“Well, I will support going back to committees; if you look back about a year ago when we reorganized and said we’d try two board meetings a month and eliminate committees, that probably hasn’t done real well. We’re staying there late. To eliminate the long hours on a board meeting and all the disagreements, maybe going back to committees and getting most things done there. But if we do that, we should go back to once a month board meetings. The administration takes a lot of time to put the paperwork together. Then you get 9 requests from different board members. We did this for a year; we found out it’s not working, but at least we tried something new because you know and I know in business you can’t be stagnate. We tried.”
What’s one mistake the board has made?
“Probably eliminating the committees. But we had to try. It’s hard to say it was a mistake, but this board tries to micro-manage too much.”
If you could list three priorities for the board this coming term, what would those be?
“First, the board needs to finish up the consolidated task force so that we can look at realigning, and I think most people would agree to put 9th grade in with high school. Getting that completed, because that will have big implications on the next several years for our district. Another (priority), and I’m just being upfront with you, is we’ve had a lot of arguing and disagreements, and that’s fine- democracy is messy sometimes. Second, we may have a whole new set of board members coming on, and that’s fine, but I’d be very alarmed if they started changing things we had in place and started going backward. If they go back to the way we did things in the past I see nothing but financial problems. Number three, to continue to listen to the public and I think one of the big problems there is we have to talk about is Jackson School. We have to figure out what we’re going to do with that. Those are the three things I think we should look at first.”
You’re the Board Treasurer- do you have a background in numbers?
“I was a manger for Kraft Foods. I was responsible for making numbers and financial plans together with a set dollar amount. Am I an expert? No. But I can give you my common sense view points, but I do know that it’s always going to be a problem. We’re not like the federal government and put in $85 billion a year.”
Do you feel potential or new board members should go to other area municipal meetings to get a feel for Roberts Rules of Order and see how other governments do their work?
“If you have the time, it’s always good to watch other people. I always told my people to take one day off a month and watch your competitors. No one person has all the answers, nobody has all the ideas.”
How do you feel about the Carlson Dettman contracts the superintendent approved?
“It’s a starting point; you’ve got to start somewhere. You’re hiring an expert to help you out and make sure you have wages and benefits that are fair. We’re doing studies, and some won’t be favorable for what employees are making know compared to what the study says will be fair. I could go to the DPI right now and show you average salaries and benefits for teachers and administrators.”
So why can’t we just use that instead of hiring an outside company?
“Well you can, but is it going to be correct? I can look at the numbers but I don’t know the rationale behind those numbers, but you have to have experts to put that together for you. You need someone in there who’s been doing it for a long time to tell you where you should be. The average family salary is what, $38,000, and the average teacher salary is $57,000 a year. We need to keep trying to keep the best and brightest.”
Do you feel the board is over-legislating itself? You guys have hundreds and hundreds of policies.
“I would like to see us start over, period. Get rid of a lot of this stuff. When we had committees, the president of the school board could pick and chose who got on which committee. About a year about the board members decided to not let the president have that power. So you put your name in the hat, and the board members would vote whether they would want you on that committee.”
Are you kidding? Phil Idsvoog (County Board Chairman) and Andy Halverson (Mayor of Stevens Point) are the ones who appoint to committees in the county and city. Why do we need to go through such an exasperating process with the school board?
“What I think the rationale is, it gives people the opportunity to say they have experience for a certain committee, and then the board gets to decide. Now is that a good way to do things? Well, we’ll find out. I’m just saying it’s probably a safety net for people who are concerned they’ll never get on a committee they’d like to. One positive of it is that it takes some power away from the board president, which you should have in a democracy.”
Where do you stand on Common Core?
“I would support leaving it as it is. We’ve spend a lot of money and time on it, and for our legislature to come up with a new plan is bad. Common Core has been picked up by 45 states, and it’s a measurement being used by those 45 states. For our legislature to throw it out and have politicians get back into that game is a bad idea. Hopefully we can get our politicians to stay out of it.”