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Mequon-Thiensville board split on expanding communications director position

Superintendent bills move as enrollment driver

Feb. 25, 2014

Mequon — The Mequon-Thiensville School Board is split on expanding the district's communications director role to a full-time position, one of many administrative recommendations in a preliminary 2014-15 budget the board will vote on at its next regular meeting in March.

Though there was not a vote during the preliminary budget presentation Monday, board members Gary Laev, Cheryle Rebholz, and Kathryn Houpt expressed doubt on the expansion. Suzette Urbashich supported the proposal while Stephanie Clark and Board President Mary Cyrier did not take a stance either way.

The board hired former WTMJ-4 reporter and anchor Melissa McCrady in 2013 to handle internal and external district communications. The communications director position is currently staffed at 0.7 of a full time job, and under the proposal would be expanded the extra 0.3, or roughly $30,000, to full-time. Superintendent Demond Means said the expansion is meant to allow McCrady to focus on increasing student enrollment through district open houses and social media campaigns aimed at young families.

"When we saw the extent to what (private and parochial schools) do with their open houses, we knew we can't put it on the plates of the building principals," Means said. "...We are at a disadvantage when we're not able to compete with them on even ground."

The rest of the preliminary budget includes increases in social worker staffing, three new elementary math specialists, a new high school reading specialist, second-year teacher mentor funding, workday extensions for K-8 administrative assistants, and the creation of a merit pay fund to be distributed to teachers with a yet-to-be-determined system. Funding the new initiatives would be health insurance cuts, enrollment-driven reductions of 4.6 full-time-equivalencies worth of high school teachers, five full-time-equivalencies worth of special education staff and support positions, and five items from the district's list of 40 potential budget cuts.

Board not sold

Laev, Rebholz and Houpt all questioned the expense of the communications director expansion.

Laev said he appreciates the work McCrady has done, especially in helping the district find its way into a Forbes "best bang for your housing buck" article, but isn't convinced the expansion is the best use of district money.

"Every $30,000 saved is another $30,000 that's not a shortfall, especially when we haven't seen the efficacy of the 0.7 (staffing level) already," Laev said.

Houpt similarly commented that the expansion "isn't touching the students' lives directly" and is therefore a concern.

On the other hand, Means said stepped up communications with the goal of increasing enrollment is one of the only ways the board can impact the budget long term without solely using budget cuts.

Urbashich agreed.

"I really want us to make that link between our ability to control enrollment from an organizational standpoint, and our investment in the (communications) position that has the capacity to do that," Urbashich said.

Means did run into some trouble when, responding to Laev's comments, he seemingly downplayed the expansion as "$30,000 on a $46 million budget."

Laev responded that $30,000 is "real money" and that even relatively small budget items can quickly add up.

School Board candidate Sid Terry later asked Means directly whether he thinks $30,000 is a "throwaway," a question to which Means took offense and said he does not think the amount is a throwaway.

Claim contested

District parent Aaron Hurvitz criticized the district's plan to reduce special education staffing.

Hurvitz, who has a son in the special education program, said state testing data shows a discrepancy in the district between disabled students and their peers. Hurvitz referenced a speech by special education advocate Richard Lavoie and the concept of a "fairness doctrine."

"Real fairness means you give people what they need," Hurvitz said. "It's my experience that we're not doing that for special education in this district."

Means said the staffing reduction is driven by an enrollment decline in special education students and that the student-to-teacher ratio would be unaffected.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: School Board meeting, potential adoption of preliminary 2014-15 budget

WHEN: 7 p.m. March 17

WHERE: Range Line Conference Room, 11040 N. Range Line Road

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