RACINE — The Racine Unified School District looks as if it could get a pass for one more year on the threat of a possible state takeover of several of its underperforming schools.

But to completely avoid a possible takeover, the School Board will have to make its employee handbook compliant with the state’s Act 10 law, which prohibits collective bargaining for public employees.

As part of an omnibus education provision, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Monday voted to delay the creation of an Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program by one year. If approved by the full Legislature as an amendment to the state’s 2017-19 biennial budget, the delay would help Racine Unified and other school districts which received a failing grade last year from the state Department of Public Instruction.

Unified has been lobbying local legislators to include the change to the current law, which states if a school receives a failing grade from the state two years in a row, then the opportunity schools provision will go into effect. That would mean underperforming schools would be pulled from the school district and a commissioner would be put in charge of those schools. The commissioner would be appointed by the county executive from a pool of candidates chosen by a city’s mayor, the governor and county executive.

Last year, Unified received a failing grade from the DPI for 11 of its schools, and district officials were worried that another possible failing grade this November would derail several initiatives the district has put in place to improve its standing, including the Academies of Racine.

State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, said the community and students deserve to have a good school district, but they cannot wait forever for it to turn around.

“In recognition of the changes that have been implemented since the last district report card, the budget allows the implementation of an OSPP to be delayed for one year,” Wanggaard said. “This is not a free pass; it is a possible one-year reprieve. RUSD must improve.”

Handbook concerns

The legislation that passed through the Joint Finance Committee states, “The school district would have 120 days to demonstrate compliance with a prohibition on school boards directly or indirectly delegating decisions about benefits.”

In the past, questions have been raised to whether Unified is fully Act 10 compliant especially in regards to the Board of Adjustments.

The Board of Adjustments is defined by the current handbook as being “comprised of equal representation of the District and the authorized representative of the teaching staff. It will convene at least quarterly (in January, April, July and October) to consider the appropriate level of benefits, plan design, structure, premium contributions and all other issues related to health, dental and disability benefits.”

District reorganization

The legislation would delay the implementation of the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, and would also allow municipalities to have a referendum on the creation of a new school district. It would also provide DPI with $75,000 to conduct a study on the effectiveness of reorganizing a school district.

In recent years, there have been movements in suburbs looking into the possibility of seceding from Racine Unified, particularly in Caledonia.

“Villages will be able to determine whether or not they have faith in the trajectory of RUSD, and whether they want to be part of its success, or try to do better on their own,” Wanggaard said.

‘Moving in the right direction’

In June, Unified Superintendent Lolli Haws sent a letter to state Rep. Tom Weatherston, R-Caledonia, urging for a repreive from the Legislature in regard to the OSPP.

“The implications of a second year of a failing report card for Racine Unified are severe,” Haws wrote. “Under the Opportunity and Partnerships Program … Racine is potentially eligible for a set of restructuring requirements that would be devastating.”

Initially, the letter advocated for the removal of all provisions to the OSPP, saying it presents obstacles.

Haws wrote that the implementation of the OSPP would be expensive to students and staff, and presents technical and adaptive challenges of huge proportions.

In the past year, Unified has established a task force that was assigned to take a serious look at the district’s testing results. Also, the implementation of the Academies of Racine, which focuses on giving students hands-on opportunities to explore potential career fields, has earned the district praise from the business community and elected officials.

“We are moving in the right direction,” Haws wrote. “Structures, leadership, programs and community partnerships have not been stronger than they are today in our district. Our student results across the system are very encouraging with a lot of work ahead.”

School Board President Robert Wittke said the board will be taking a closer look at what was passed.

“I’m thankful for any relief … I’ve said it before, I think last year’s (test) results were an anomaly,” Wittke said. “I’m thankful we can continue on in our direction.”

It’s unclear when the houses of the Legislature will vote on the budget. It could reportedly take place as early as next week.

Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, expressed concerns about the Joint Finance Committee’s omnibus bill.

“Although people across our state have asked this Legislature to pass a budget that prioritizes public school students, several of the provisions included in this motion undermine local control and concern me greatly,” Evers said in a press release issued Monday. “In particular, this proposal restricts the referenda that are keeping many schools afloat.

“It also expands the power of the statewide charter czar, again increases voucher income limits, and eliminates a sparsity aid increase for rural schools. Additionally, the changes to the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program need more time for review and could have a profound and devastating impact on the kids of Racine.”

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