Posted on

School forum invites exchange of ideas

School forum invites exchange of ideas School forum invites exchange of ideas

Gov. Tony Evers makes surprise visit to school legislative forum

Gov. Tony Evers joined more than 80 school officials and administrators from around the region to attend the Medford School District’s annual legislative meeting held Monday night at Medford Area Senior High School.

Evers had been a last minute addition to the guest list. According to Medford administrator Pat Sullivan, Evers’s offi ce contacted him last Thursday about the possibility of attending the session with the instruction to not release that he could be attending because of the chance that plans would fall through.

Evers met with school officials prior to the formal start of the session and heard from them concerns about school funding, Department of Public Instruction regulations and teacher recruitment and retention.

As in the past, a panel of regional legislators came to address topics of concern with the school officials present. Legislators attending the session included state senators Kathy Bernier (District 23, R), Janet Bewley (District 25, D), Jerry Petrowski (District 29, R) and Rep. James Edming (87th District, R). Other regional legislators were invited but were unable to attend the meeting.

The panel of legislators received information on topics ranging from ideas on putting excess tax collections toward schools, to the state retirement system and a bill that would allow open-enrolled virtual school students to compete in their home districts. During a presentation on a proposal to change the minimum retirement age for state workers in the Wisconsin Retirement System (WRS), Medford teacher Corey Nazer said he felt the proposal to increase the retirement age by 4.5 years for teachers 40 and younger was a promise to teachers that wasn’t being kept, much as the changes made in Act 10 under former governor Scott Walker in 2011. Nazer said that he has planned his career and personal life around retiring at age 55 and expressed concern that this would further drive people away becoming a teacher. Medford Area Middle School principal Al Leonard also presented reports showing the WRS is among the most well-funded plans in the country and is very healthy.

Petrowksi, who is one of the authors of the bill, said its intent was to address allowing retired teachers to return to the classroom while still receiving their retirement payments. That ability had been removed as part of a previous budget bill over concerns of teachers “double dipping” and collecting both retirement and teaching pay. Petrowski’s bill would shorten the period of time that teachers would not be eligible to return to work after retirement and allow them to collect retirement and teach for an additional three years.

“Most every bill is a compromise,” Petrowski said, noting as a legislator he must be able to sell the bill to his fellow legislators for it to have a chance of being considered. He noted that life expectancy has changed over the years and that while the WRS is healthy now, he remembers a time when WRS recipients had to take a cut in their benefits due to there not being money available.

Bernier responded that she did not feel it was correct to continue to reference Act 10 as as a reason why people are not going into teaching. She noted that at the time Act 10 was passed unemployment in the state was at 9% while now it is under 4%. She said employers are having trouble finding workers everywhere and in every industry.

She said the reality is that there are certain segments of the population able to be teachers, CNAs, caregivers, welders or engineers. “We have a reduced percentage in every pocket,” she said.

She said she felt the bill was poorly written and did not go far enough in encompassing all government employees. The bill would not change the retirement for protective services employees. She also noted that it was not just teachers who pay into the WRS but all taxpayers.

Edming echoed concerns that it is not just teachers, but all areas that are facing labor shortages. He said the bill probably needs additional tweaking but that they would keep plugging at the issue. “You don’t always get it on the first go-around,” he said.

Bewley condemned the proposal calling on the state to return teaching to being a respected profession. “I am grateful for every single person who chooses education,” she said, adding that attempting to squeeze a few more years out of teachers is wrong. “We have to start over and create a state where teaching is respected again,” Bewley said, noting that starts with paying teachers what they deserve to be paid rather than dumbing down the state. “We cannot continue to squeeze educators,” she said.

“You have been treated unfairly and we are going to change that,” Bewley said.

The panel asked the audience if they had had experience with having difficulty getting licenses from DPI. Abbotsford school district administrator Sherry Baker noted that of the 54 teachers in her district, 13 are teaching with stipulated licenses. She said the pathways for these teachers to get the required licensure is “printed mingled up.” She noted that in small school districts such as Abbotsford which is growing, that there are bubbles and said they need to have the ability to move staff around to address the bubbles of student population. Currently she said the teachers hit a wall when it comes to going from the elementary to high school.

Sullivan said the issue he sees is with the lack of local control over being able to move a teacher with one license into a different area. Such as moving a former second grade teacher to fill a middle school math position. He said he would like more local control over being able to make changes like that.

The panel discussion on AB 779 saw presenters disagree if it should be supported. Charlier Heckel, administrator of the Rural Virtual Academy, spoke in support of the measure that would allow open-enrolled students in charter and virtual schools to participate in co-curricular activities in their district of residence. Current law allows home schooled students to do this but not virtual school students.

Scott Winch, district administrator of the Stratford school district expressed concern that it would impact opportunities for students who attend school in the district. While respecting the right of parents to choose their schools he said, “When you open a door, it closes the door on some other activities.”

Petrowski said that he hopes the bill passes and noted that if it gets scheduled for a vote he expects it to pass without difficulty, especially considering the governor’s history of coming down on allowing increased flexibility.

“As a taxpayer I am in favor of it,” Bernier said. “Kids should have the same opportunity for playing in sports and getting an education wherever they go.”

Edming echoed those sentiments saying that he supported the measure.

The evening also included a question and answer period from the audience with questions raised about the need for greater flexibility in licensing for social workers in the schools and the desire for improved reliable high speed internet access in the northern part of the state.