New school year brings major changes to MAPS

Going into the 2011-12 School Year, the Merrill Area Public Schools is faced with numerous challenges; many weren’t even on the horizon a month ago. With the departure of Dr. Lisa Snyder as superintendent, Carol Witt-Starck as co-assistant superintendent for technology and curriculum and the resignation of Keith Schmelling as School Board President, day-to-day operations have fallen onto different people in the administration. Some of these new duties have been added to the already full plate of current administrators while new people are in key positions. This will present many challenges for MAPS going forward. This series explores how MAPS meets those challenges while also keeping the quality of education up at the same time.

Filling the key leadership position for MAPS this year will be Bruce Anderson, formerly co-assistant superintendent for human resources and transportation. In addition to those duties, Anderson also oversaw the transportation system within the district. Since being named as interim superintendent, Anderson has had to assemble the administrators who will be taking over key duties as well as starting the budget planning process for the 2012-13 school year.

As School Board President Bill Jaeger said, “Our plan isn’t to just keep things going, but to try to keep things growing.”

When Schmelling resigned as Board President, Jaeger, as vice president, took over. While a ninth member of the board will be named by the end of October, the board has a lot of work to do to stay on schedule. Jaeger doesn’t see the loss of Schmelling to be a huge obstacle to overcome.

“Keith will be missed. He was a great leader and a great guy,” Jaeger said. “But in the end, he was only one vote among nine. We have eight other very intelligent people left and I see us being able to move forward with the challenges that we face this year.”

Anderson sees three big challenges facing the district this year. The creation of the employee handbook that is required through Acts 10 and 32 that will replace much of the collective bargaining agreements with the three unions is the biggest. Then there is the planning for the 2012-13 budget, which is always done in the fall. And then there is the implementation and planning for the Maple Grove Charter School.

“Each is independent of itself to some level, but never completely separated,” Anderson said.

While the employee handbook will be a labor intensive task, the budget planning process will also be daunting because of decreased state aid due to declining enrollment, as are the added challenges that the state’s bi-annual budget also added to the process.

“Right now, we believe we need to find $1 million in either revenue or reductions,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the budget reductions are going to need a lot of input from the parents of MAPS students and other taxpayers.

“The funding system for public education in Wisconsin has been in place for a long time, but it still depends on student count. As declining enrollment continues to impact our district, it gets to be much more of a challenge each year to figure out how we’re going to live within it,” Anderson said.

He said current enrollment projections have the enrollment stabilizing within six years. Once that happens, a lot of the need for continued deep budget cuts will be reduced.

“But for the next five or six years, we’re going to have some pretty challenging budget issues that we’re going to have to work through because of the formula,” he added.

Because the district was able to settle with their three unions, and they were “very gracious in what they accepted in the extension for this year,” that allowed MAPS to bring a lot of people back from layoff and hire some of the new staff. But where the district goes from here really needs to be a greater community discussion.

“That is always going to be the reality of public education, living within the system that is already in place. And sometimes what seems to be a good idea on a statewide level doesn’t always work at the local level. It becomes a question of how do you continue to reduce the budget before you have to start taking away programs or buildings.”

While the union contracts were extended through this school year under the terms of old contract with some concessions, extending the provisions of the contract beyond that is now impossible. And how the district draws up the new handbook to replace the contracts is done through a different method than before.

“You can still negotiate, but it’s on a much more restrictive subject matter. It’s about base wage, which must be clearly defined. However, the handbook is creating documents that cover everything else that were originally in those contracts,” Anderson said. “By state statute, we can’t negotiate those items, but we can receive input. We have a process through which we will be collecting their input, allowing them to comment, but it is not a negotiation.”

When the New Berlin School Board approved their handbook last week, the unions felt they had no input and protested at the meeting. Eventually the room had to be cleared by law enforcement to restore order. Anderson said MAPS would like to avoid that kind of confrontation.

“It ends up being if that is the choice the Board and the administration makes on how to process that, I don’t think it would be illegal,” he said. “But is that what Merrill wants to do to keep a quality workforce? I don’t believe that’s what we want.”

Of late, MAPS has had fairly good relations with their three unions, something that Anderson and the Board would like to continue fostering.

“We always want to have good relationships with our staff. In my tenure here, we’ve had good relations,” he said.

The planning grant for the Maple Grove charter is being administered by Marathon School District, with MAPS responsible for staffing and maintaining the building. How that affects transportation, technology, food service will have to be worked out through this year.

“It’s a pretty intensive process that we are still learning about. We’re still trying to figure out the questions to even ask,” Anderson said. “While writing up the proposal, it wasn’t necessary to bring everybody into the process. Well now it is, so we’re working through it. I know Marathon will be a good school district to work with.”

The reduced size of the administration will affect how it reacts to almost everything involved with running the district.

“There are three less ‘superintendents or assistant superintendents,’ now we’re down to one. We have great people filling in those slots, but they are all on a learning curve somewhat like I am. There are three of us here trying to fill new roles, and we’re still trying to work that out, so some of the duties are being passed down to the building level,” Anderson said. “Shannon Murray, for example, is taking over the transportation piece. Brian Plautz will have a greater role in facilities and grounds as a supervisor. Yet there are still other things where principals and supervisors will be asked to serve a more active role in those kinds of things in the future.”

When the 2011-12 school year is over, MAPS will have a new superintendent, and if Anderson doesn’t apply for and get the new position, his old job of assistant superintendent is not waiting for him to return to it as there is no plans to keep either of the co-assistant positions.

“At the end of this school year my old position is gone. So whoever is selected to be the superintendent next year takes over this office and I find a job,” Anderson said.

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