Mequon — Public education has gone through a lot of changes in the last 17 years. In the Mequon-Thiensville School District, Suzette Urbashich has been there to tackle them head on.
The Mequon mother of two still recalls moving to the district in 1986 and taking an early interest in school board happenings. At the time, there were not many board members with young children, and there had never been a board member from her rural west end of the village.
Urbashich's election victory in 1997 changed both of those things, marking the beginning of a long tenure that would witness drastic changes in the realms of politics, demographics and technological advancement.
It wasn't long before Urbashich would realize that these external factors were playing an important role within the school district. The school district's most pressing issue – declining enrollment – can be traced back to zoning decisions made by the Mequon Village Board in the early 2000s.
For better or worse, village officials decided to maintain the rural character by zoning land outside of the sewer district for five-acre lots. When the economic downturn hit, young families were more reluctant to make a large investment in a new lot when they could spend less money in a neighboring district, Urbashich said. Families were also deciding to have fewer children in general.
As a result, the Mequon-Thiensville School District is one of the five most declining school districts in the state. Enrollment has dropped 10.6 percent in the last nine years, with a reduction of 427 students, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
Recognizing that school districts don't operate in a vacuum, Urbashich decided to bring all community stakeholders to the table to talk about their vision for the future of Mequon and Thiensville.
That's how the school district's Business Advisory Council was born, engaging business owners with school district issues. Out of those discussions came the Community Conversations Task Force, which brought together stakeholders from business, government and education from both Mequon and Thiensville.
"She's a great facilitator, helping to identify issues and identify people who should be brought to the table," said Jonathan Safran, who participated in both committees. "Once the Community Conversations Task Force got together and presented information back to the board, identifying issues to be addressed, I think that started a communication that has since led to the discussion of school-owned land in the community, changing densities of properties, more friendly-family housing and other issues."
Urbashich said breaking down silos between community groups has been a hallmark of her approach over the last 17 years.
"There are some board members who may not think collaboration is the most effective way to make decisions. I'm in the other camp," she said. "I tend to think collaboration is critical – not only among board members, but also among other partners in the community. I don't see how you can operate in a silo in this day and age and be effective."
Urbashich said she and the board have had to change its leadership style to adapt to the changing times. She said the school board has shifted from a body that managed issues in the near-term to envisioning what could be accomplished in the long term.
"We needed to move from a really good school district in this kind of sleepy, quiet bedroom community that valued education to a district that really tackles educational issues head on, looking ourselves in the mirror and saying, 'What is it we can do better?' and then putting policies in place to make those things happen."
As part of that strategic visioning process, Urbashich said the board established a foundation of "systems" that analyze district data, research new technologies, communicate with the public and more effectively evaluate and develop its staff.
"Over the last seven to eight years our focus has been to lay out and unfold the plan, create the systems, implement them, assess them and tweak them all toward continuous improvement," she said. "The challenge is to do that in an environment with challenging resources, political agendas and short-term issues."
Since school funding is directly tied to enrollment, the district has had to make some tough budget choices, such as closing Range Line Elementary School in 2005. The district also passed a referendum for high school upgrades in 1999, but two following referendums were shot down by voters. The district also moved toward a trimester system to offset reductions in teaching staff.
Changing the educational experience of someone else's child can obviously draw public criticism. But with the scope of changes coming at the district, it is likely the district will have to continue to make changes in the future.
As the pace of change accelerates, Urbashich also predicts the period of long serving school board members will come to an end. When she was first elected in 1997, she said one of the members had been on the board for more than 30 years and four others had served for more than 15 years.
Those days may be over, she said.
"There was a lot of continuity and consistency in the governance of this district — and that was a good thing — but that's not the nature of things anymore," Urbashich said. "Politically, legislatively, economically, in terms of technology — things are changing at a faster rate."
While she passes the baton to a younger school board, Urbashich will focus more on her job as an administrator at Rogers Behavioral Health. Being the "board historian" may have made her a resource in the past, but it shouldn't be a reason to stay, she said.
"What we've seen over time is when a new set of eyes comes to the district, it's a good thing," Urbashich said." Having that freshness of perspective, that critical eye, is important. I'm a believer of that."
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