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State Actions Put Twists in Lengthy School Planning

New teacher evaluation program, two years in the making, could be toppled by edicts from Madison.

People who think that Wisconsin's acts to curtail collective bargaining rights for teachers and cut state aid to schools are just cut-and-dried, good-or-bad decisions may not realize just how many headaches the measures are causing for school districts on seemingly unrelated topics.

Long-range planning that could not have taken into account the sudden changes imposed by the Legislature and the governor turns out to be luck-of-the-draw planning. If it somehow fits with the state's plan, that's great. If not, it's back to the drawing board or out the window.

Monday night was a perfect example of how nearly any Wauwatosa School Board agenda item can turn into a discussion of "how this stands on the new horizon."

A small item, spending $3,000 on continuing to pay a law firm to represent Tosa as part of the Southeast Wisconsin School Alliance, drew some scorn from board member Anne Fee.

"I'm concerned that our interests are not aligned with other districts," Fee said, "and I'm not sure that continuing to spend money on this is wise."

"I have struggled with this in the past," Superintendent Phil Ertl replied. "There haven't been that many issues that we could agree upon. But this year, with legislative action – this year, there may be more issues where we need to align with other districts."

Backed by support from President Lois Weber, the board listened to Ertl and passed the recommendation to stay connected to a legislative legal lobbyist for another year at least.

Next came a report on a plan in process to revamp the whole scheduling day of secondary education – all middle and high school classes.

A large committee led by Whitman Middle School Principal Jeff Keranen had spent the good part of a year studying how to structure the most effective school day for those grade levels.

A multitude of variables had been examined by more than 30 participants in the process, and the priorities and goals they were arriving at would set the tone for how secondary students would learn for perhaps the next generation.

On the table were the length of the school day, how it is broken up into sections, what is being taught, how many choices students should have (many, was the conclusion) and whether difficult choices – not being able to take certain classes because of other choices – mattered all that much.

"Why is student choice (of classes) the top priority and student conflict at the bottom?" Fee wanted to know. She used the example of her own children not being able to take a foreign language if they wanted to take another elective.

Debate followed, but in the end it came back to finances, with Ertl reminding everyone that more classes and/or longer school hours cost more money that the district no longer has. Several board members also suggested  that the "best plan" would no longer be considered optimal if it cost a lot more than the "second-best" plan.

Finally, the board heard a detailed report from Dan Chanen, human resources director, on a new teacher evaluation plan that the district had been working toward.

"We've spent two years developing and piloting this model," Chanen said.

That model divided teachers into two classes, "new" teachers with three to five years of service and established teachers with more than five. Rather than a probationary period in their first year only, teachers would be evaluated annually until they became established, and then evaluated across two years.

"Why not evaluate all teachers every year?" asked board member Mary Jo Randall.

"It's a matter of the timeline," Chanen said. "We had to skew toward longer evaluations (for veteran teachers) so that administrators have the time to evaluate.

"It's difficult to devote the time to those evaluations when they all come due at the same time."

Chanen reminded the board that state law now requires teachers to be evaluated only every three years.

Again, though, the discussion drew back to the state and money.

"I'm pretty confident that the state is going to put forward something" mandating evaluation procedures for both teachers and administrators, Ertl said, "but I'm hopeful it's going to look something like this."

By that, he meant he was hopeful it would look something like what the Wauwatosa School District had spent two years planning. But that is not at all certain.

"The training has been useful," Chanen said. "We may use this for a year and then go to something handed down by the state."

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