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Mequon-Thiensville district approves preliminary 2014-15 budget

School District to audit special ed program

A panoramic view of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board and the crowd of parents who came out to protest the preliminary 2014-15 budget on Monday.

A panoramic view of the Mequon-Thiensville School Board and the crowd of parents who came out to protest the preliminary 2014-15 budget on Monday.

March 19, 2014

Mequon — Despite a passionate and vocal crowd of parents objecting to the decision, the Mequon-Thiensville School Board on Monday approved a preliminary 2014-15 budget which cuts special education staff and support services by five full-time positions.

Vocal outbursts, scoffs, and jeers rippled through the crowd after those in attendance learned that the public comment portion of the agenda would take place after the board's vote on the budget, and that the district's lawyer had said the board could not rearrange the agenda after the meeting had begun.

Board members Suzette Urbashich, James Liska, Mary Cyrier, Stephanie Clark, and Katherine Houpt voted for the budget. Board members Gary Laev and Cheryle Rebholz voted against the budget. Laev cited an approximately $30,000 expansion of the district communications director's position as cause for his dissent, while Rebholz said the expansion and special education issue factored into her vote.

The special education cuts have become a controversial issue recently as district parents caught wind of the administrative recommendation to cut five positions as a result of declining enrollment. Parents have packed recent budget presentations — and the meeting Monday, to protest the cuts — saying the district's special education offerings aren't up to par presently. The administration and School Board have maintained that the cuts are the result of a declining special education student population, and that it would be fiscally irresponsible to keep the positions despite the decline. Administrators on Monday invited parents to participate in a coming special education audit to improve the quality of the district's program.

The preliminary budget approved Monday will be finalized in the coming months and voted on by the School Board at the district's annual meeting in July.

Program problems

The district projects 33 special education students to leave the program in the coming school year, Superintendent Demond Means said. According to Means, that projected decline contributes to a 47 student decline in the last two years and a 92 student decline in the last three years.

"We are not fulfilling our fiduciary responsibility as administrators if we don't bring you recommendations that align with declining enrollment," Means said. "If we're going to move forward as a school district, we're unfortunately forced to make tradeoffs."

But, enrollment-driven or not, the cuts didn't sit well with the crowd of parents, who said Mequon-Thiensville special education students perform worse than students in other North Shore districts. They also pointed to state Department of Public Instruction testing data that shows a gap in test scores between special needs students and their peers in the district.

"It just seems very strange, that these numbers of us ranking anything other than first (in relation to other districts) are not new," parent Janie Schiltz said, "but it took us very long to realize that we should be doing something."

The parents also criticized the ordering of the agenda, which put public comment about the budget after the budget vote itself. Rebholz attempted to make a motion to reorder the agenda and put public comment first, but was told by Cyrier that the school district attorney had given the opinion that the board couldn't change the order after the meeting had begun.

Aaron Hurvitz, among the most vocal critics of the cuts, said he had approached the board and Means before the meeting began and asked them to change the order, but was ignored.

Emails between Hurvitz, the School Board, and Means show that Hurvitz had consulted with a Department of Justice attorney who said the meeting could be reordered, and relayed that finding to Means and the School Board in the early afternoon Monday.

Future audit

Administrators and the School Board maintained the quality of special education programming, and any enrollment-driven cuts, are separate issues. To address the apparent issues in special education, administrators are planning to bring in a third party to audit the program, identify any shortcomings, and suggest an improvement "action plan."

According to Assistant Superintendent Matthew Joynt, the district will use the remainder of the current school year and summer to complete the audit.

"That would give us enough of a runway to begin implementation of that action plan in the '14-15 school year," Joynt said.

Administrators and School Board members encouraged the crowd of parents to use the passion displayed Monday to engage in the audit process and help the district as it remakes the special education program.

Some parents were doubtful, though, after the ordering of the agenda Monday.

"You haven't elevated the conversation," Hurvitz said of the agenda order. "It makes you think this audit you're offering isn't going to be an elevated conversation."

Expansion debated

Rebholz and Laev took issue with the administrative recommendation to increase communications director Melissa McCrady's job to full-time at a roughly $30,000 cost. Means has said the thrust of the expansion will be to increase marketing, fundraising, and enrollment efforts. According to Means, if McCrady in the next year can bring in five new students from out of district, or three new students from within district boundaries, the expansion will pay for itself.

If McCrady does not hit that goal, Means said, the position will revert back to part-time in the 2015-16 school year.

Laev said he could not agree to the expansion without first seeing measurable enrollment results. Rebholz reiterated her position that the expansion would take money away from the classrooms and that the position "needs to prove itself" before she can agree to an increase.

Board member Suzette Urbashich, on the other hand, said the district needs someone to work on enrollment if Mequon-Thiensville is to compete with private and parochial schools for students. Board member Stephanie Clark said the board "owes it to the community" to try the expansion, since it would revert if enrollment doesn't increase.

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