Elmbrook candidates weigh 4K, Common Core programs

March 17, 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, and the candidates' responses, from the forum were published in the March 13 edition. The two remaining questions, along with the condensed responses, are listed below.

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

Elections will be held April 1.

Moderator: What are your thoughts on implementing a 4K program in the Elmbrook School District, and do you believe 4K has educational and/or competitive value?

Brunner: I think the district could benefit from a 4K program. We would, in effect, have a complete school system where the kids could start at four years old and go on through to high school. It's an incentive for people to move into the city ... and I think 4K would attract more young families to the district.

Gehl: In November of 2007, my vote, along with three others, was responsible for the discontinuation of the 4K pilot program. I voted no for a lot of reasons ... (but) much has happened since that time that has impacted my thinking. The single largest issue that has changed is we have made the consistent decision to build this district into one that is sized to serve residential enrollment. Looking long-term, I grow concerned about being able to sustain healthy residential enrollment without 4K. I think it is a key consideration to keeping our district competitive over the long-term.

Liotta: This is a complex issue, and more analysis needs to be done. Studies say that by the second or third grade, any benefit from 4K essentially evaporates at that stage...and obviously operating a 4K program has costs. The Department of Public Instruction is taking the view that because 4K is not required for school districts, they may have an opportunity to recover some of the cost from the program by charging a fee. I would like to see more analysis in terms of whether 4K can be a cost-neutral program before I would consider adopting it.

Vrana: I absolutely support a 4K program. I believe district parents need day care for their 4-year-old children, and it is time for us to provide for that. The longer we, as a board, sit on our hands with this issue, the more 4-year-olds leave our district for private schools. If we want to keep district residents in our school district, we need to provide for their needs and one of their needs is 4K.

Wilson: Our share of the school market for residents has been fairly stable for many years now...so we're probably not hurt by not having 4K. Once a child enrolls here, they tend to stay with us. The number of resident students also tends to increase as grade levels increase. To the extent that we might want to increase our market share, elementary school is probably the best place to look — we'll get the most bang for our buck there. The board is looking at options to increase market share...and 4K is under consideration, as are many other options.

Moderator: The school district of Elmbrook appears to be moving forward with the Common Core state standards. Please explain why you do, or do not, support its implementation.

Brunner: I've read a number of Common Core analyses in the last several weeks...and every time I read one, I think I change my mind. As far as Elmbrook is concerned, I do not believe we need to implement this program. I understand we do already have it, but I don't think it's necessary for the school district. I think we can (set standards) very well on our own.

Gehl: In Elmbrook, this community and this board has demonstrated our commitment to local control and will maintain that commitment. I believe there have been many good things happening the last two years with our curriculum and content than ever before in our district. The Common Core standards focus on skills...and can be used as a reference. They do not prescribe or demand particular content — that will be determined by the local board and administration — but in many areas, they represent a higher bar than what was in place before.

Liotta: Quite frankly, I look at the big picture. I reject the philosophy that is behind the Common Core. I think local boards of education are better suited to determine the standard for their individual communities, and I disagree with the concept that curriculum is separate from standards. I guarantee you that if testing is involved (with Common Core standards), it's going to drive the curriculum and staff, despite what we say, will teach to the test. Elmbrook has a 50-year history of excellence in education. We've done it right. Why would we abdicate our right and authority to determine our destiny and to determine the standards that we want our students to achieve?

Vrana: I don't believe the Common Core was written for Elmbrook. We are not a district that strives to meet minimum standards. We should be leading and setting the bar for excellence in the state. My issues with the way we've implemented Common Core are the choices we made with the curriculum, such as taking Speech out of the required English curriculum. I think that's a great disservice to our students. Common Core is great to ensure districts meet the minimums, but we should be providing the best education for our students.

Wilson: I do support Common Core implementation. There's a lot of misinformation out there about the Common Core standards. The standards are very simple, high-level aspirations. They are plain, college preparatory, liberal arts, achievement-oriented goals. I really don't see how anyone could argue with these standards as they are. That said, school boards get to decide what is taught, how it is taught and what curriculum is used as part of that teaching. We're certainly not limited in anyway by the Common Core standards of what we do with those standards.


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