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Facilitator joins Mequon-Thiensville district's budget mission

He will lend neutral voice to tough issues

March 12, 2014

Mequon — With the intent of remaining neutral, a third-party facilitator was brought into the fold this week to help guide a 17-person committee charged with examining Mequon-Thiensville's need for a balanced budget and quest to remain a top-ranking school district.

Howard Bellman, a longtime mediator with an extensive background, met for the first time with the School Board's appointed Community Engagement Committee, which on Tuesday met for the fifth time. Plans call for Bellman to be on hand at additional meetings in upcoming months.

The bulk of the committee's most recent hour-and-a-half meeting was devoted to Bellman discussing his background and how he believes the committee should function.

"I'm not a run-of-the-mill meeting facilitator," Bellman said to the committee, which was formed in January by the board and is comprised of professionals from such varied backgrounds as education, business and law.

Bellman said he aims to help the committee bring the board a unified mission statement as Mequon-Thiensville continues to grapple with ongoing budget shortfalls — the result of declining enrollment statistics — and a goal of retaining the illustrious position as the state's top-ranking school district.

Right person for job?

Bringing Bellman in as facilitator was not a unanimous decision. Twelve members of the committee voted in favor of his hiring, while two voted against it and two abstained.

Bellman edged out several other facilitator candidates, who were taken out of the running because of their close connections to the community or their strong education backgrounds.

Bellman lives in Madison and has adult children who are far removed from the K-12 educational environment.

Early in Tuesday's discussion, Bellman was on the hot seat and was questioned by several committee members about his expertise.

"I'm here. I've lived a long time. I have values," Bellman said, plainly, of the qualities he can bring to the committee as facilitator. "For 50 years, I have been able to maintain neutrality. If I were unable to maintain it, I wouldn't be able to make a living doing this."

During his discussion with the committee, Bellman drew upon several of his past experiences — most notably a session he helped mediate at Sea World that pitted animal rights activists against managers of the facility. The scenario spawned the film, "Free Willy."

Reaching an agreement

For his part, Bellman provided the committee with a challenge.

"I ask yourselves to consider whether you are really motivated to have an agreement in place," Bellman said. "If you reach an agreement, it's going to have to have hard, strong and actionable details. You don't want to make any broad, vague statements."

The agreement Bellman was speaking of is meant to be a guiding force to the School Board as future policy decisions are made to address fiscal restraints and classroom programming.

While disagreements within the committee will be inevitable, Bellman encouraged the group to seek compromise whenever possible as issues are hashed over in the months ahead.

"But I do want everyone to go home with their values in tact," he said.

The committee did not delve into any heavy lifting during Tuesday's discussion. But a previous discussion concerning ground rules was revisited with Bellman.

In addition to fostering an environment of mutual respect, the list of ground rules includes a series of steps that could be taken to bring recommendations to the board.

"If you settle (on an agreement), I predict it's going to be on a package of items — not just one item," Bellman said.

The committee is expected to start discussing proposals for financial sustainability and maintaining quality education at its next meeting.

NEXT STEP

WHO: Mequon-Thiensville Community Engagement Committee

WHAT: discussion of ground rules, brainstorming ideas pertaining to balancing district's education policies with finances

WHEN: 7:30 to 9 p.m. March 24

WHERE: Range Line School conference room, 11040 Range Line Road

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