The Elmbrook Education Foundation supports the students at all 11 of the District's public schools through its Continuing Education Scholarship, Innovation Grant and Super Grant Programs. In addition, the Foundation has established an endowment held by the Waukesha County Community Foundation to provide a source of permanent support for Foundation programs. For more information, please refer to the Foundation's web site.
Submitted by Tom Gehl; resident, parent, SDE Board memberWhile many other neighboring Education Foundations are relatively young in comparison, the Elmbrook Education Foundation (EEF) has been in existence for fifty years, and is comprised of private individuals from our community with a heart for involvement in the priceless commodity that is the lives of our students and their schools. And in so doing, I believe they make our community a healthier, more vibrant place to live.
Clearly there are many school districts in our State and Country that seem to get along just fine without an organization like the EEF. Let’s be honest – the School District of Elmbrook would not stop effective functioning if the Foundation ceased to exist. But while that may be true, I suppose it depends on what your baseline of expectation is.
Impact of Current Public Education Funding Model
The dynamics of funding public education in Wisconsin are a complicated and arcane formula of State taxes, local property taxes, revenue caps, and property rich vs. property poor school districts. I encourage all to become familiar with the mechanisms of funding our public schools. You can do so by speaking with your School Board Members, or seeking information from the District Office.
When measured by amount of dollars spent, the budget of the school district of Elmbrook actually grows by about 2.4% each year. This is an amount - a budget “ceiling” if you will, that is allowed by Wisconsin law. But that same law also sets a minimum increase of 3.8% for the compensation packages of the largest employee groups of school districts, which in turn forms the basis of what essentially becomes “pattern bargaining” for all other groups. This law is known as the QEO – the Qualified Economic Offer – and is the result of State legislation from the early 1990’s.
Since the cost of salaries and benefits amounts to about 84% of our budget – and since that BASE of 84% goes up every year by a MINIMUM of 3.8% - we run smack into the “ceiling” of the 2.4% revenue cap. This in turn means that in order to live “underneath” that ceiling, you have to cut other areas that already EXIST in the budget. The only alternative to this is to put forth and gain approval of what is known as an operational override referendum, which is a community’s permission to exceed the limits imposed by revenue caps.
It is critical to understand this dynamic. When there is talk of budget cuts, transparency is required to acknowledge that when measured by the total sum of money spent, the budget actually GROWS each year. But the laws of our State mandate that our costs grow faster than our revenues. One can argue the relative wisdom of such an arrangement, but one cannot argue the reality of the legislation, or the impact that it has.
Some of the more visible examples of this dynamic in recent times are the elimination of foreign language from our elementary schools, the elimination of third grade-band and orchestra. While these were certainly some of the more visible and controversial cuts, I submit that there are other less visible, but just as debilitating over the long term, as the accumulated impact of such decisions are felt in growing measure year after budget cycle year. So – when programs and positions and equipment that have long been considered important to the accomplishment of our mission are cut – therein lies the financial basis of why we NEED an Education Foundation. The Foundation has donated over one million dollars back to the students and staff of the Elmbrook School District since its inception.
Foundation Grant Programs
There are “hard” purchases like smart boards and materials required to kick off new projects that will help our students learn in new and inspiring ways. And every penny of those donations has represented, and will continue to represent, reductions that do NOT have to occur elsewhere. Donations that go to meet operational needs may be a program or a critical piece of equipment whose presence in the schools is as obvious as it is valuable. But what is less obvious is the program that, while not immediately or directly funded by the EEF, survived because the EEF paid for something else, thus freeing up funds for maintaining it in our budget.
Things are only going to get tougher with respect to our operating budget. The District is responding soberly to that reality with the long term planning it has embarked upon. But all of its efforts and planning will not remove the pain. And that is why the dollars provided by the EEF are so vital and so helpful.
Foundation Scholarship Program
There are also “soft” investments like student scholarships for post-secondary education. As for scholarships presented to students – their value is implicit in terms of its financial assistance and in the motivation it brings to performance. And I submit that our need to motivate and affirm EXCELLENCE, as measured by outstanding individual academic achievement, has never been greater. The scholarships provided through the EEF do exactly that.
The EEF’s primary function with regard to scholarships is finding those residents/organizations/businesses who share a value for post-secondary education and then evaluating scholarship candidates on their behalf with consideration to any special criteria provided.
Community Involvement Breathes Vitality into the District
I would further attest the EEF is needed on another front – a front that cannot be measured with dollars, or equipment, or scholarships, but one that I believe is even more important. I believe the greatest need for the EEF is that it provides the most crucial of all ingredients for a successful school district, and that is the vital ingredient of direct, personal, committed community involvement.
The Department of Public Instruction cannot invest life and quality into a school district. Nor can any legislative body or Governor, regardless of creed or party. While these bodies have their role, they cannot provide vitality or a sense of mission. Only a community can do that.
I do not suggest that the Foundation is the only vehicle for doing so. Each of our eleven schools has their individual PTO’s, booster clubs, etc. that are vital in addition to advocacy groups and committees that meet at a District level to continually assess and improve the quality of instruction provided to our students. Each plays an important role and provides unique opportunities to leverage the skills and interests of those committed to serve for the benefit of our students. The Foundation simply provides a district-wide umbrella of support by leveraging the generosity of the community’s residents, civic organizations, and local businesses.
To live in a community that is as engaged with their schools as is this one, is something that we have become so accustomed to as to think it normative. It is not.
Participation in and support of the EEF, both in its operations and initiatives, is to be inexorably linked to our schools. Our schools, in turn, are such a vital part of our community, and a critically important part of keeping it attractive to potential property owners. And most importantly – what nobler cause could we desire than to seek to be an influence in the lives of our young people. I believe that the EEF is needed in that it provides an organized, purposeful, and most of all, SUCCESSFUL forum for people like me, like you, and like your neighbors to participate in this calling. And it has proven its success at doing so for nearly fifty years.
Think upon these things. Think upon them in the broad sense of a community’s ability to unite around efforts that will not only assist our students for the years they are in school, but that will serve and enrich their entire lives. And in so doing, we attain the added benefit of enriching our collective experience as residents and citizens.
YOUR COMMUNITY! YOUR SCHOOLS! YOUR CHOICE!