School superintendent finalists differ on issues
Who the next Stevens Point Area Public School District superintendent will be is anybody’s guess, judging from the district’s meet and greet event for the two finalists Tuesday, March 29.
While both have ties to the community and area, the candidates come from districts in different positions.
Craig Gerlach, superintendent of Jefferson School District, and Larry Ouimette, superintendent for the Lac du Flambeau School District, are the final two candidates.
About 40 people – community members, students, parents, teachers and staff – attended the function, which allowed one candidate to meet with those in attendance and answer questions while the other underwent a final interview with School Board members. At the end of the question-and-answer period, candidates were led from the room and those in attendance had a change to provide feedback to school personnel.
The School Board could vote on the new superintendent as soon as Monday, April 4; the board agreed to a special board meeting on that date should members determine a vote could be made at that time. Otherwise the board plans to select the superintendent at its regular board meeting Monday, April 11.
Both candidates have experience with and support environmental education, and both said they researched the School District prior to applying and going through the interview processes, their views differed on areas like finances, school vouchers, elective courses, and response to the most challenging issue encountered with municipalities. They also briefly addressed the impact of Act 10.
Ouimette met with the public first.
Background/Introduction: Among his area connections, Ouimette grew up in Neillsville and attended University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) for his undergrad work and served as principal at Horace Mann in Wausau. Currently working on a reservation and through his Wausau experiences, he is familiar with minority populations, he said.
“I am really interested in the Stevens Point School District. You have a great district and great staff,” he said.
Finances: A question was asked regarding the district’s focus on maintaining state revenue and how Ouimette looks at that issue. “We have a high property (rich) district so we receive very little from the state,” he said.
School vouchers: Ouimette said he would not go on record as supporting the school voucher program. “I would want to know more information about how it’s impacting this school district and other school districts,” he said. Ouimette indicated he does not have experience with the voucher impact since “it is not impacting northern school districts.” There is one parochial school in his area, he said.
Elective courses: The district would need to examine what is needed to run the district, and then if need be hold a referendum to fund the shortage, whether that be for staffing or academics such as elective courses, he said.
“One of my jobs is to make sure we have the funding we need to provide a high-quality education,” he said. “We would need support from the whole school board to support a referendum.”
The most challenging issue faced with a municipality and how it was addressed: Working side by side with the Native American tribe since the district is located on the reservation has been challenging, Ouimette said.
“We meet with the tribal leaders and the tribe (committees) so their concerns are addressed,” he said. “We try to have a lot of meetings with the parents to find out what their concerns are and then get school personnel involved with the resolutions … so people in the community can see the results and that their issues are being addressed.”
Act 10/negotiations: Lac de Flambeau doesn’t have associations or unions, rather the district determines wages and compensation through meeting with teachers and staff and discussing the issues, he said. In larger school districts, there would also have to be collaboration, he added.
“In a large school district, trying to make changes is like trying to turn the Titanic around on a dime, and you can’t do that without having everyone behind it,” he said.
Other information: Ouimette also commented on his management style, which is to visit with staff and teachers and leaders as often as possible, having open communication and ensuring that the staff have what they need to provide for the students.
“There are situations where you have to make a decision but … I’ve tried to surround myself with really good people and let them do their job,” he said.
Background: Gerlach was born and raised in Wisconsin Rapids, attended UW-La Crosse and then went to Texas, where he taught and coached. He came back to Wisconsin serving as superintendent of Port Edwards School District, Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District and Monona Grove School District before his current position.
His parents still live in the area and he has a cousin residing and working in Portage County as well, he said. While he looked at and was called by recruiters to apply for this superintendent position for the past decade, Gerlach said, the timing always seemed to be wrong whether for job or family reasons.
“I think the time is right now, so I thought long and hard about it,” he said. “I’m excited for this position and I think it’s time … to move back into a community that’s very proud and ready to move forward to improve.”
Finances: A question was asked regarding whether Gerlach was concerned about the size difference in the Jefferson district compared to Stevens Point. Jefferson School District, Gerlach said, has a budget of about $35 million compared to Stevens Point’s general fund of about $84 million, but “I’m not concerned about that,” he said.
“When you’re looking at public school finance and the system we use, it’s just (additional) dollars,” he said.
School vouchers: Gerlach is “absolutely not” in favor of school vouchers. While he believes in options – he supports alternative education programs, outdoor classrooms, charter schools and private schools, of which he is a product – he does not support the school voucher program.
“At the end of the day, we’re funding two school systems in the state at the expense of the public schools,” he said. “Private schools are great … but we shouldn’t spend public dollars on private education. You just shouldn’t.”
Elective courses: Gerlach said the question of maintaining elective courses really is a financial issue, one that goes hand-in-hand with what is important to the district in how it approaches a quality education. Each year it’s a matter of prioritizing, he said, and if each course is important enough to keep and there are not enough funds, then the district would go to referendum.
“The only way you can create additional funding is by having a referendum,” he said. “People don’t like hearing that … but funding in Wisconsin has changed. You have to make a decision on what you want in education and if you want more than we can fund, you have to go to referendum.”
Gerlach said he has experienced several years of having to make reductions in budgets, and he prefers to cut “things rather than people.”
Gerlach has been through three referenda, one failed and two passed.
The most challenging issue faced with a municipality and how it was addressed: When he was with the Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District, Gerlach dealt with city, county and state personnel as well as Water and Sewer District officials to get water and sewer across a state highway for a new school building.”
“A lot of time was spent one-on-one with people having coffee in the morning just explaining what we were doing and why and promoting the district and opening their eyes that (this) is going to be good for the community at large,” he said. The project came to fruition.
Act 10/negotiations: In response to a questions about his thoughts on the impact of Act 10, Gerlach said he believed the legislation related to insurance and retirement had to happen, but otherwise, “It was a train wreck. It has a devastating effect on staff morale in districts I’ve never seen before” and there have been “reverse effects” that legislators didn’t see coming.
Currently, he meets with association leaders on a regular basis to discuss benefits, changes and maintain open communication on those issues.
“At the end of the day, it’s what you can afford,” he said. “I think we went too far. Things got very rich, then it got pulled back way too far, so we’ve got to figure out a way to get back.”
Gerlach added that he has experience with salary schedules related to “very good experience” and professional development, but “I don’t have an answer.”
Other information: A question about what types of challenges Gerlach saw coming into a large district was raised. He said each school district has its own challenges, whether it is population makeup, poverty levels, or any other issue that comes to the forefront, so “different challenges? I don’t know … it’ll be different but at the end of the day, it’s how do you process it. Do you have strong board policy? Do you surround yourself with good people? If you have good processes in place, then it’s a matter of decision-making,” he said.