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Elmbrook candidates discuss board member roles, block scheduling at forum

Elmbrook School Board candidates Richard Brunner (from left), Jeffrey Liotta, Zackary Vrana, Kathryn Wilson and Thomas Gehl answer questions during a forum at the Elmbrook District Offices on March 6.

Elmbrook School Board candidates Richard Brunner (from left), Jeffrey Liotta, Zackary Vrana, Kathryn Wilson and Thomas Gehl answer questions during a forum at the Elmbrook District Offices on March 6. Photo By C.T. Kruger

March 11, 2014

Three incumbent Elmbrook School Board members and two other candidates discussed a variety of district issues at a forum held March 6.

The forum, sponsored by the Elmbrook Parent Network and Leadership council, touched upon teaching styles, improving ACT scores, block scheduling and a multitude of other items related to local education.

Incumbent Richard Brunner, who has served on the board for three years, is running against Zackary Vrana, a 2012 Brookfield East High School graduate, for the Area I seat.

Board President Thomas Gehl, who has been on the board since 2005, is running against former board member Jeffrey Liotta for the Area III seat. Liotta served on the board in the early 1980s as a 21-year-old. He is a Brookfield Central High School graduate.

Incumbent Kathryn Wilson, who first served in 2010, is running unopposed for the at-large seat.

Due to the multitude of questions and answers, NOW has selected to transcribe four questions from the forum. Two questions, along with condensed responses from each candidate, are below. The two remaining questions will be published in the March 20 edition.

A recording of the forum is available on the district's website.

Elections will be held April 1.

Moderator: What is the role of a board member, knowing schools are setting goals and maintaining the progress for advantageous outcomes?

Brunner: The role of a board member is to set goals and policies ... that should be broad enough to allow schools to set (their own) goals. The one thing that should be done is (that) the results of those policies and goals should be reported back to the board. Sometimes, it's easy to forget about (doing) that.

Gehl: The primary role of the board is to hire a superintendent and hold him or her accountable to have an intimate knowledge of what is happening at the school building level and be in those buildings on a regular basis. ... There's got to be a proper assessment and reporting back that codifies what the agreed upon system of goals and outcomes are. ... Board members need to be in the (school) buildings (too); they're not there to assess staff, but to observe, make connections with staff and get the qualitative understanding that supports the quantitative assessments that are being worked on.

Liotta: I think a board member has a role in understanding what each of the goals are for the school buildings. Those goals have to be consistent with board policy ... to function. How do we do that? Communication, communication, communication. ... With board monitoring and oversight, and with good communication, there should be no problems.

Vrana: I believe, from a philosophical standpoint, that the role of a board member should be listener, above all. We have the duty to set district-level goals, but we have to remember that we try to ensure that we're hiring the best teachers and administrators we can find, and at some point, (the board) has to step back and let them do their jobs. There's a fine line between engagement and micro-managing here. I believe (a board member's) role is for observing and speaking with students, teachers and administrators alike.

Wilson: The aim is to align goals from the board with the classroom. ... The idea is to get everyone moving in the same direction, so that we truly have a system of schools instead of a community of several individual schools. That being said, every school will have goals that are unique to it. ... The Teaching and Learning Committee, which I'm chair of, has a very full assessment calendar that (shows) results ... by school, by subject matter, by grade level — we can dice it any number of ways to identify spots that need more help.

Moderator: Block scheduling is in its third year of implementation; what are its strengths and weaknesses, and what changes, if any, are being considered to improve it?

Brunner: The progress of the block scheduling program has had some minor changes made about a year ago. Since that time, I haven't heard of any problems. I believe it should be the (school) principals' work to make any changes within the (district's) policy. I don't think there's any need for the board to do any more work on this.

Gehl: The move to block scheduling was to save money, but the intention of saving money was to maintain staffing levels and maintain program offerings. I believe block scheduling ... provides students with more choices and opportunities over the course of their four years (in high school). (According to a 2014 Teaching and Learning study), 95 percent of the high school students surveyed as part of the report agreed that (they) are satisfied with their high school experience. If there is any great problem with the block scheduling, those numbers would be impossible. There are some scheduling issues (with certain classes) ... but we're working on them.

Liotta: If you've talked to students who have gone to both block and regular scheduling, I think, as a general rule, most would say they've been more focused and block scheduling helps facilitate certain classes. ... Some statistics indicate there have been less disciplinary students due to that type of scheduling in the school system. As for weakness — I think the jury is still out in terms of how block scheduling affects our (Advanced Placement) testing. ... And if a student is ill, it's like missing two days under block scheduling than just one. I think the program has to be monitored closely, but there needs to be a final report and judgment (call) as to whether we continue with block scheduling or go back to the old system.

Vrana: My senior year was the first year we went to block scheduling and I was one of the more vocal people speaking out against this measure. I believe that the only real reason we were moving forward with it was the cost savings. That being said, we're not talking about going back now. We have this system, and we need to make it work. The best way to do that is to listen to what people have to say.

Wilson: We changed the amount of teacher contact time in order to save money (under block scheduling) and the savings have been consistent. We've had fewer summer school retakes, fewer disciplinary renewals and, qualitatively, the hallways seem calmer to me. ... Students are taking more credits on average than they were before ... (but) there are some opportunities to improve access (to AP class offerings).

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