RACINE COUNTY — Although they say progress has been made, the candidates for the Racine Unified School District’s school board say more must be done to assist students in achieving.
Two challengers are facing off against three incumbents for three seats on the board in the April 7 election.
The candidates are: Bryn Biemeck, 29, an after-school chess instructor at schools in Kenosha and Illinois; incumbent Don Nielsen, 68, a retired RUSD school counselor; Lisa Parham, 43, owner and publisher of monthly magazine The Racine Mirror; incumbent Kim Plache, 54, business development officer with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority; and incumbent Guadalupe Wally Rendón, 69, retired Racine Police officer and currently member education/outreach representative with Educators Credit Union.
The Journal Times asked the candidates for their thoughts on key issues facing the district. Their edited responses are below.
JT: Why are you running for a seat on the Unified school board? What relevant experience would you bring?
Biemeck: I am running for the school board so that I am able to passionately serve the community. I bring excitement and new ideas to what has become a stagnant body. We see the same people constantly being elected to the board time and time again. The board is ripe with cronyism. I promise to be a vocal advocate of positive change in Racine Unified.
Nielsen: I feel my experience will be an asset in making the hard budget decisions we face and I would like to monitor the progress on the use of referendum money. Nine years on the RUSD Board, 20-plus years on other boards and 30 years working in the district.
Parham: As a parent I am extremely concerned about the state of K-12 education in this community. I have supported my daughter through many years of post-high school education. As a successful entrepreneur, a highly involved community activist, and as an African-American woman, I believe I can bring a fresh perspective to the board.
I believe I can offer insights that can be valuable in decisions affecting all students in the district with particular emphasis on the plight of our minority youth. As a businesswoman, I know how to start and operate an enterprise. I know what it takes to succeed in a multi-racial community.
Plache: I am running for re-election to the Racine Unified School District Board of Education to continue the early signs of progress RUSD is seeing towards closing the achievement gap between minority and white students, while continuing to offer a broad array of outstanding educational opportunities to all students of RUSD.
My background as a state legislator provides a unique perspective on the state of Wisconsin’s policies and politics related to K-12 education. My extensive network of community contacts is useful for collaborating and communicating between a wide range of individuals and the district, on behalf of the district.
The ability to raise achievement levels for our students is directly related to the long-term success of Racine and the surrounding communities, which has been a driving force for me throughout my professional life.
Rendón: Running as an incumbent for the school board because besides caring for the quality of education for our students, we have some major projects aimed at bettering the infrastructure to provide our students with state-of-the-art educational equipment/materials.
JT: What is the most pressing issue the board must address?
Biemeck: The board must address its communication with staff, and more importantly, the community. A lot of people I have spoken to feel left out or discouraged by the board. Many people have told me that they feel the board doesn't listen to their needs. As public servants, it is their job to listen to and address everyone's concerns, and create an open environment for the exchange of ideas.
Nielsen: The drastic cuts in state funding and how they will influence our efforts to improve student achievement.
Parham: I think everyone is aware of the proposed education budget cuts confronting Racine and other municipalities. We must address the difficult issue of closing the achievement gap among our students and attaining quality improvements in outcomes despite the realities of ever-shrinking resources to deal with these and other issues.
Difficult choices must be made, but are there alternatives besides cutting programs and staff? I believe there can be. I hope to join with other members of the board and Unified administrators to look for options, for creative alternatives to simply cut, cut, cut.
I also believe that we must have open and frank discussions about race in our community. Last September the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families found that our state ranks dead last in the well-being of minority students. Studies by the Wall Street Journal and the Anne E. Casey Foundation support those findings. Wisconsin can and must do better.
I have a vision that Racine could become the model for attacking this blight. But before we can take the right steps to solve the problems, we must first talk about them, openly and frankly.
Plache: Raising the achievement levels of our lower-performing students, while continuing to offer a broad range of curricular and extracurricular opportunities, in a climate of reduced state and limited local aid.
Rendón: The most pressing issue right now besides the construction of two new schools and the upgrading of another, is the cuts to education by Gov. Walker.
JT: What is your position on the idea of municipalities like Caledonia or Sturtevant creating their own school districts?
Biemeck: It is important to gauge the interest of the community before deciding whether or not to proceed, so I am in favor of the non-binding referendum being on the ballot. I feel it is a shame that communication has broken down to the point that these communities feel the need to separate from RUSD because their needs are not being addressed.
No matter what the vote is, it is the Board of Education's duty to reach out to Caledonia and Sturtevant and rebuild the relationships with them.
Nielsen: If a majority of the residents favor separate districts in the referendums after being made aware of all the costs and other challenges, I would support bringing it to a binding referendum. If that passed it is my understanding it would be brought to the Board of Education for a vote.
Parham: I think that impulse is a reaction to frustrations with the district, the prospect of shrinking state support, and the pressures brought by increasing mandates. I question if the municipalities could afford to separate themselves from the district.
My impression is that it would create a crisis for all concerned. Philosophically I believe that we are stronger as one district, that the issues of the city are shared by our outlying areas.
Plache: RUSD offers academic and extracurricular opportunities for all levels of students; in an environment reflecting the rich ethnic and economic makeup of the community and the country. Dividing up the district would adversely affect RUSD’s ability to continue to do so; and could increase property taxes to support additional and duplicative administrative services.
Rendón: Were this to come to fruition, financially, both the RUSD and the Village of Caledonia or Sturtevant would lose. Caledonia and Sturtevant’s tax base would more than likely rise to pay for the school and staffing, plus upkeep of the property.
JT: How do you think Unified should adjust to the cuts in state funding expected in the proposed 2015-17 state budget?
Biemeck: With the numerous cuts to education, it is the responsibility of the board to find solutions to reduce costs. We need to ensure that as much money as possible is going into classrooms, and not being wasted on administration and bureaucracy. RUSD must perform a full audit, and find exactly where every dollar is being spent.
Nielsen: The District budget has been restricted by spending caps for years. There is no fat to cut. Cuts would have to come from programs or staff.
Parham: The final word on state allocations will not be determined until after April based on actual revenues and the legislative review of the proposed budget following public hearings. If cuts are imposed, this will be the central issue the school board must address.
How much more belt-tightening can the district tolerate? Where will cuts occur? I believe our teachers are bearing the brunt of these cuts and I really question how much more can be asked of them. What can be done and what must be done will be addressed once a final budget is passed.
Plache: The proposed cuts in the 2015-17 state budget are projected to reduce aid to the district by approximately $10 million. At the same time, the superintendent has identified investments designed to propel the district forward in raising achievement levels for our students, which would cost the district more than $6 million.
Because of state laws limiting school districts’ ability to raise taxes, these investments will need to be reconciled within our current budget. It is the responsibility of our superintendent to develop and maintain a multi-year financial plan that is related directly to the board’s number one priority to ensure “all students are prepared academically, for personal success in life, for their chosen careers, and to be positive, contributing members of the global community.”
It is the board’s role to deliberate and take action once the proposals are presented to the board. My focus in these deliberations will be on raising achievement and aligning our resources with this goal.
Rendón: That is something that the school board would have to sit down and discuss with the superintendent and her staff to look at options that we may have available to address those pending budget cuts.
JT: Did you support the referendum approved in November that will allow the district to collect about $128 million in taxes over the next 15 years? Why or why not?
Biemeck: I am never in favor of taxes being raised. Voters were misled to believe that their property taxes would go down if they voted for the referendum. In actuality, they would have gone down this year regardless of it passing or not due to a credit from the state. Over the next 15 years, you will see your taxes go up because of this referendum. I promise to vote against all future tax increases.
Nielsen: Yes, I not only supported it, I have been waiting for it for years. Due to spending caps, maintenance has been sacrificed to reduce the impact on the classroom. This resulted in a maintenance budget that was less than 10 percent of what was needed. Proceeds from the referendum will help reduce the maintenance backlog while giving us time to make tough decisions which would increase the ongoing maintenance budget.
Parham: Yes, I supported the referendum. There is no doubt that many schools in the district need to be updated. Some were built in the 19th century. Ask those who know about the maintenance needs of many of these buildings and they will tell you that these structures are well past the point of renovation.
We need facilities to train our students for the 21st century. The environments in which our students spend their days affect their very perception of school and learning. We must look at the cost of repair versus new construction.
Just in heating costs and lighting alone there are substantial gains to be realized that will help offset building costs over the long term. Business would not accept such outdated and inefficient facilities. How can we ask that from our students and faculty?
Plache: Yes, I did support the referendum because it was a unique opportunity to invest much-needed financial resources in our facilities, without raising property taxes.
Rendón: Yes, because many of our schools have not been updated and were built in the 1900s. They need major repairs or in some cases, building a new, more modern structure.
JT: How do you think the district should address discrepancies in achievement between whites and minorities?
Biemeck: The key is to reach out to parents and make them engaged and invested in their child's education. The achievement gap has been shrinking, and the best way to continue this progress is to communicate with parents to find solutions that fit the needs of their child. Every child deserves a quality education. We must search for ways to best serve our diverse community.
Nielsen: Use of new curriculum, teaching methods, reduced class size and technology will play a part. Our administration is best equipped to bring about the needed changes. The Board’s job is to evaluate suggested changes and provide funding when appropriate.
Parham: First, we must accept the fact that we are all one community, one with many faces. As a society we cannot afford to squander the talents shared by all students, no matter their color. A vast amount of research has been done on this critical issue.
We know what must be done; it's a matter of implementation. Some of the answer has to do with parental involvement and sustaining their support for teachers and the mission of a school. Another is to keep the student in school.
A study by UCLA found that minority high school students in Wisconsin are suspended at a higher rate than anywhere else in the country. When a student is out of school, they fall behind. That starts a downward spiral from which many students never recover.
Another is to find ways to support the non-academic needs of students. Many minority students come from troubled homes. They have different needs than non-minorities.
Yet another part of the answer is to encourage the involvement of local religious institutions. They can be a source of remedial help, support and encouragement.
Mentorship is another valuable resource. Simply throwing dollars at the problem is not the answer.
Plache: By continuing and expanding programs that, where implemented, have begun to show significant improvement in the rate of achievement growth in minority test scores.
Rendón: The programming that is in place now has shown some positive results in that area.
JT: Is the Racine Unified School District failing or succeeding in its charge to educate local students? Why?
Biemeck: There is a definite need for improvement. We need to set our goals high, and then higher still above that to create the best learning environment possible for our children.
We cannot afford to waste another generation on failed educational experiments. We need to reach out to teachers and find out what is working best, and then take their success and spread the methods they use to all of our schools. Individual success stories can become success stories for everyone.
Nielsen: It is definitely succeeding. Could it do better? Yes, but this is not only a district problem. Our local economy needs to improve in order to make improvement more probable. Research states that poverty has more impact on achievement than the schools.
Parham: It is succeeding but we must do more and do better. We need to rally the support of the entire community, to get more parents involved so they know what is expected and the active role they must play to help foster greater achievement. We must continue to "sell" parents and students on the indispensable value of public education and how they can participate to improve the experience of all students.
Plache: One need only read the A+ section in the Racine Journal Times to see countless examples of outstanding young people who are accomplishing amazing goals and to see that RUSD is succeeding in its charge to educate every student who is applying themselves towards receiving a great education.
Many of our students are dealing with the effects of poverty and high community unemployment, and are not coming to school prepared to learn. RUSD is not responsible for outside adverse circumstances, but we are responsible to meet every child where they are and assist them in reaching their potential.
Through the leadership of Dr. (Lolli) Haws and the incredibly hard work of hundreds and hundreds of educational professionals and community partners, we are beginning to see improvement. However, until we see significant improvement in achievement levels, throughout the district, we will be judged as failing to educate all local students.
We can do much better. We have the foundation in place. We have the leadership and talent in the district and community to make significant improvement.
Rendón: Racine has its challenges, as do many of the schools in the state of Wisconsin. With the progress that we have made so far, I would offer that we are succeeding in that challenge.