WAUKESHA – For the five Waukesha School Board candidates vying for three seats, the challenge rests squarely on looking both back and forward from a tumultuous year marked by a historic pandemic.
Should the board have handled at-home and in-person schooling differently in 2020? As a new budget year begins, how should the board address financial constraints created by the pandemic? And how does racism fit into the learning environment in the years ahead?
Here’s what the candidates — Patrick McCaffery (incumbent), Kurt O’Bryan (incumbent), Kelly Piacsek, Diane Voit (incumbent)and Anthony J. Zenobia, each vying for three-year terms — have to say about those issues heading into the spring elections on April 6.
How could the school board have better handled the COVID in-person attendance issue?
Patrick McCaffery: I think that the board as a whole should have sent our students back to five day a week face-to-face learning earlier than the start of second semester. Personal agendas seemed to prevail, which delayed the return of our students. Education is by far the number one predictor of success in the world that we live in and not having our students in the classroom everyday puts them and our community at a disadvantage. I worked very hard to get our students back into the classroom and will continue to work hard to keep them there.
Kurt O’Bryan: Better communication, better data, better preparation for mitigation efforts and earlier communication on a clear and safe path to full face-to-face education at all grade levels. In Wisconsin, we are the first school district of our size to offer full face-to-face education at all grade levels and have a clear objective to remain face to face for the remainder of the school year. I led the effort to deliver a unanimous vote by the School Board in support of the administration’s recommendation for full face-to-face schooling.
Kelly Piacsek: Throughout this school year, we have witnessed several board members delivering inconsistent guidance, defending an untested hybrid model, minimizing parental feedback and failing to ask the most important question: “Is it working?” Through open records requests, parents like me finally uncovered that student performance was abysmal, with over 25% of high school students failing at least one class. Only then, with an election on the horizon, did Mrs. Voit and Mr. O’Bryan vote to return to full time in-person learning. COVID or not, we need a board which consistently makes objective, informed decisions in the students’ best interest.
Diane Voit: With safety of students and staff a high priority, the recommended mitigation procedures including wearing masks, temperature checks, hand hygiene, etc., were put in place. I am proud that from Day 1 in September, our elementary students were offered five-day face-to-face and virtual opportunities. A hybrid schedule got secondary students back in-person with recommended social distancing way before many other large school districts. I wish we could have addressed these topics in a less-divisive way. I lobbied to get vaccinations for all staff sooner. Quarantining is changing as more is learned. We need to thank staff and administration.
Anthony Zenobia: The school board should not have implemented hybrid learning for grades 6 to 12. The board’s hybrid decision limiting face-to-face-learning has led to lower GPAs and higher class failure rates for students districtwide. On Aug. 12, 2020, the board voted 5-4 approving its plan for reopening schools. However, Diane Voit led a motion introducing a hybrid option that upended the board’s previous vote. Voit and Kurt O’Bryan affirmed the 5-4 vote to keep children out of school.
What are your budget priorities, given the crunch created by COVID-related expenses?
McCaffery: My first and foremost budget priority is to make sure that our staff has adequate resources to close the achievement gap that has been exacerbated by the prolonged lack of five day a week face-to-face instruction in our schools. I have always been concerned about the achievement gap that has been present in Waukesha, but our recent circumstances has added a new facet to this issue. We also need to make sure that appropriate resources are allocated to address the mental health struggles that have intensified during these trying times.
O’Bryan: I am committed to keeping a lid on expenses in order to lower taxes. We have sufficient funds to manage all COVID-related expenses. My efforts to control spending have led to a significant “rainy day” reserve fund that is available to us if needed. Our buildings are well-maintained and are in excellent shape. We will likely qualify for a significant increase in state aid due to our high level of face-to-face learning. The district is in great financial shape.
Piacsek: Unanticipated expenses have challenged our budget, but the biggest COVID-related crunch is at home, where many families are struggling financially. District residents’ property taxes increased to support a $60 million referendum to improve buildings that students couldn’t use for much of the year, in a district where enrollments and revenues are declining. Despite a looming structural deficit, our board recently approved administrative salary increases while applying for state and federal COVID relief funds. We desperately need a new plan, one that supports high-quality instruction and student support services, while preparing us for a very different future.
Voit: We must increase state aid by seeking additional funds for students with disabilities, English learners and children in high poverty, as well as support for mental health services and early childhood education. We must develop, attract and retain high quality educators, aides and substitutes. Our taxpayers can be assured that we are investing well the 2018 referendum dollars for safe entrances and other improvements in our schools. As good stewards, we are paying it off in under 10 years, saving millions in interest costs. The investment in 1-1 technology made our transition to virtual instruction nearly seamless.
Zenobia: To return children back to school for face-to-face learning and end quarantining of healthy children, teachers and staff. Future budgets should not continue at current levels, much less expand, if students are denied an in-person education. Waukesha schools should return to pre-pandemic normal and can do so safely.
How might the district address systemic racism, discrimination and white privilege?
McCaffery: I believe that equal opportunity for all is the most promising way that we as a community can move forward. Opportunity and equity are the cornerstones that we as a society and I as a person are built on. The only way to stamp out racism and discrimination is to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to receive a good education. Ignorance fosters intolerance, discrimination and racism, and the only cure for ignorance is education. As the world changes the only true constant is education.
O’Bryan: We focus on a safe learning environment for all children, which includes a full commitment to assertively address incidents of bullying or discrimination. We must avoid politically charged or divisive conversations in the classroom and focus on the critical thinking and social skills that lead to success in the workplace. I am proud to serve on a school board where its members can choose to disagree but have the debate in a professional and courteous manner. As board members, we must model the same behavior we expect of our staff and students.
Piacsek: SDW is home to a large minority population (mostly Hispanic), and a third of our students are economically disadvantaged. Virtual learning has compromised minority student outcomes the most. The most equitable thing we can do is to ensure they have access to full-time in-person learning. Most of these students will attend Waukesha North or Waukesha South — the two lowest performing high schools in Waukesha County, with graduation rates and college readiness significantly lagging the state. We must urgently address our underperforming schools and fix the instructional inequality for all races, ethnicities and cultures across our district.
Voit: We need to all become aware of our unconscious biases and strive to become antiracist. I bring that lens to review district policies. I strongly support equitable educational opportunities, and that foundation will prepare each student to be career- and college-ready. Our nationally recognized AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) programs at Waukesha North and Waukesha South high schools are working to close the opportunity gap. We have a District Equity Team that is reviewing curriculum to celebrate diversity. We are implementing restorative justice practices, and School Resource Officers are being trained to support our diverse student population
Zenobia: K-12 education should teach students kindness, respect and love for one another. It should teach them to seek out the good in their peers and give them the benefit doubt when needed. This will strengthen each child’s character, build self-esteem and combat discrimination and racism wherever it exists. However, “systemic racism” and “white privilege” curriculums have no place in any K-12 education. These concepts are poison to the minds of our children and teach division, hatred, prejudice and racism.
Address: 1010 Belmont Drive, Waukesha
Political experience: 15 years on Waukesha School Board
Address: W251 S4439 Oakview Drive, Waukesha
Political experience: Waukesha School Board for 15-plus years
Occupation: Business development consultant
Address: N22 W26515 Shooting Star Road, Pewaukee
Past political experience: none
Occupation: Biomedical engineer, medical research executive
ADDRESS: W261 S3142 View Drive, Waukesha
PAST POLITICAL EXPERIENCE: Elected in 2018 to the Waukesha School Board
OCCUPATION: Retired business and special educator after 38 years of service to SDW
Address: S57 W29587 Saylesville Road, Waukesha
Past political experience: None
Occupation: Self-employed, sales