RACINE — Hoping to dodge a possible state takeover of failing schools, members of the Racine Unified School District voted 7-2 on Monday to approve a revised employee handbook they believe is compliant with Act 10.

The vote comes less than two weeks after the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee passed a provision which delayed for one year a possible takeover of failing Unified schools through the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program. To keep that one-year reprieve, however, the JFC stipulated that the district’s employee handbook must be consistent with state law barring public employee unions from negotiating for benefits.

The School Board attempted to approve a new employee handbook in early August, but the measure was deferred. Since then, the district has been meeting with representatives from the Racine Education Association and other employee groups to revise the document.

At a School Board work session on Aug. 30, Superintendent Lolli Haws told board members that the district had a revised handbook in place, one free of language about advisory groups or committees providing input about benefits or changes to the handbook. Haws said it didn’t mean the district wouldn’t seek input, but the handbook doesn’t require that.

Trust and urgency

On Monday, Chief of Human Resources Julie Landry and Executive Director of Employee Relations Keri Hanstedt went through the various revisions to the handbook, including fixes to language regarding retirement notice, and changes to the dress code.

“I will be very honest and say that there are some things in this handbook that we, the administration, may have wanted in, that were not included, and there are things the employees wanted in, that were not included,” Landry said. “But we do believe that we worked together to come up with the version that you have in front of you.”

Board members praised district officials and employee groups for their work on the handbook. But while School Board President Robert Wittke and members Dennis Wiser, Brian O’Connell, Matt Hanser, Mike Frontier urged the passage of the handbook as is, members Julie McKenna, Steve Hooper and John Heckenlively expressed concerns about portions of the handbook dealing with revisions.

McKenna, along with Heckenlively, ultimately voted against approving the handbook.

McKenna and Hooper proposed changes to the handbook on Monday but all of them failed to gain enough support.

Throughout the course of the discussions, Wittke expressed the need for the board to approve a clean handbook that will pass muster with the state.

“I believe that our action will be the first step in showing that we want the governance of this district, the ability to make the changes to improve student achievement, (to remain) here,” Wittke said, adding that waiting could result in legislation that ends up being even more adverse to the district. “My appetite for risk with this district is zero. I want to take no risk whatsoever with all 19,500 kids that we have.”

Secession concerns remain

Now that the handbook is on its way to the state for review, administrators and board members still face the possible dissolution of the district.

Although the JFC said it would delay a state takeover of failing schools should Unified receive a failing grade from the Department of Public Instruction for the 2016-17 school year, it still faces the specter of suburban leaders being able to make moves to break off from the district.

If the district gets a failing grade this fall, DPI will begin a study on the possible impact of villages such as Mount Pleasant, Caledonia and Sturtevant creating their own school districts. A failing grade this year also would allow those village boards to decide if they want to go to referendum in the fall of 2018 to ask the voters if they want their own school district.

The possibility of villages pulling away from Unified has quickly become the central issue for leaders in Racine. At a mayoral forum on Saturday, candidates all expressed deep concerns over the potential destruction of the district.

At Monday’s meeting, members of Racine Education Association were mostly silent but sought signatures from meeting attendees opposed to a state takeover of Unified.

Giving a comment after the meeting, REA President Angelina Cruz said that she understood why the School Board thought it had to vote the way it did on the handbook, but added that if the district wants to improve student performance it needs to “start supporting the educators doing the work on the ground.”

“I don’t know how passing the handbook is going to change the reality we are dealing with,” Cruz said. “They made this drastic change with an eye to the state Legislature, but I think they need to start looking internally at what is going on with the district.”

An initial version of this story incorrectly stated that Steve Hooper was was one of the two School Board members that voted against approving the handbook. The error has been corrected. 

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