In 2005, I was offered and accepted the job of Dean of Students at the Hillsboro Elementary School. At that time, my wife Linda and I were parents of a 5 year old and an 8 month old. With this in mind, there was a lot to consider as we contemplated this career move as it would also be a family move if things went well. Throughout that first school year (2005-06), I commuted about an hour to work each day. This was a year of learning. I learned on the job about the Hillsboro School District but I also learned more and more about the Hillsboro community. Some of the things I learned were more obvious to a newcomer than others. I recall in my interview (and I’ve told this story a number of times) that after being asked questions by the Board of Education, it was my turn to ask questions of them. The only question that really mattered was “Why should I consider moving my family to Hillsboro?” What followed were amazing stories of how the board members and then-Superintendent Ron Benish gave emotional responses of how much this school system had meant to and given them in their lifetime. Their pride in this school district and community “sealed the deal” so to speak, making it an easy decision for my wife and I to relocate to the community and build a home and subsequently begin to build a life with our two children.
Over the past 10 years, I have developed great pride in being from Hillsboro and a part of a school system that has great students, staff and parents. Unfortunately, there are several challenges facing Hillsboro and ALL other rural schools in the state of Wisconsin. Issues like declining enrollment and increasing poverty to name a few. State imposed revenue limits that are not increasing while the state share of providing funding to public education is decreasing. This decrease puts a greater tax burden on property owners in our rural communities and often pits the community against the school as communities are more frequently forced to go to referendum in order to provide a quality education for students. This is unfortunate and it can certainly divide communities.
On Friday, Jan. 16, I attended a legislative breakfast at Mauston High School. Members of the state Assembly and Senate provided some input on issues like school accountability and educational policies coming out of Madison. There was a time for the audience (school administrators and board members) to ask questions of the panel of representatives. For the first time, I was the first to raise my hand...I had some things to get off my chest. While I was appreciative of the panel’s presence I expressed my disappointment that when school funding (and in this I include revenue limits) is easily the number 1 issue affecting schools around the state, the leadership instead chose to first focus on school accountability. I stated that I felt I could speak for all schools in attendance that we are not afraid of any measure of accountability...bring it on. I can see this because I know that everyday, schools like Hillsboro are doing the very best they can for students. But, please do something about the funding issue. I expressed to them that it might be very helpful if those who are forcing school districts to referendums just to operate would stand up and take accountability for their role in this rather than forcing communities into sometimes contentious referendum discussions and pitting neighbor against neighbor for an issue that was not created locally but at the state level. I ended by commenting that I wished there was some way that some person or group could regain influence in Madison to have the voice of our rural communities heard.
The referendum process is a difficult one. It puts fear in our students that the classes and opportunities they hope to have will disappear. It puts fear in dedicated employees and their families that they will have to relocate. It puts fear in the school board and administration that the district they serve will be decimated by cuts.
On Feb. 17, the voters of the School District of Hillsboro will have a decision to make. At the end of that I hope the pride that brought families like mine to the community is as strong as it was in August 2005.