Anatomy of a Failed School District

Bayfield — Over 300 miles from the never-ending debates in Madison over how to help struggling schools, in a small, largely impoverished district along the edge of Lake Superior, Liz Woodworth ran unopposed for a spot on the Bayfield School Board this spring.

Woodworth isn’t just another parent. She and her husband, Jeff Kriner, are both teachers; she in nearby Ashland and he in the same district that Woodworth will help run. Kriner, in fact, has served as everything from a co-president of the local Bayfield Education Association to a teachers union negotiator and spokesman who appears before the School Board.

In states such as Arizona and Mississippi, conflict-of-interest laws would bar Woodworth from serving. Not here, where the state has long left local schools to sort out their own problems and conflicts. With Woodworth slated to begin a three-year term in late April, critics fear she will help preserve the status quo in schools that desperately need outside intervention.

Ed Batton, 66, a semi-retired, longtime resident of the area, has been trying for years to bring attention to what he calls “financial mismanagement and overspending.” 
The Bayfield district spends a whopping $20,800 educating each of its 430 students, second highest among Wisconsin’s K-12 districts, according to 2010-’11 data from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance and the state Department of Public Instruction. But he also has another, more fundamental concern: “The real tragedy is the human tragedy.”

“I have had a lot of negative reaction from the community because I am messing with their story, and their story is that this is a great little school, and this is the best little town in America,” says Batton. That’s a “myth.” The real story, he argues, is one of “a fundamental failure of government at the state and local level.”

Many in Bayfield, as Batton suggests, tell a different story altogether. Woodworth is among them. She didn’t return calls from Wisconsin Interest, but has stated that the district is doing “an excellent job,” and that “Bayfield taxpayers aren’t really paying any more than folks in other parts of the state and, in some cases, are paying less per student.”

It’s unclear what she based the assertion upon since local property taxpayers pick up the lion’s share of the expenditures. But in an effort to refute Batton’s persistent criticisms, she has noted that Bayfield High School was part of a group that received a bronze medal from U.S. News and World Report, which considered both student demographics and test results from the 2007-’08 school year. A more comprehensive look at years of Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam results for the district is not as heartening.

An average of all WKCE test scores taken by Bayfield’s high school sophomores in five different subjects over three recent years placed them 365th  out of 378 districts in the state. There are bright spots. But there are also numerous instances of classes of Bayfield students in recent years coming in dead last in Wisconsin on various tests. One of the very highest spending districts in Wisconsin, Bayfield often has one of the very lowest levels of achievement.

“When I first started to ask questions, I would get two answers,” says Batton. “One was, ‘We have the greatest school district in the world,’ and the other was, ‘We have one of the worst.’ ” Then he realized, he said, that the people saying it was one of the best were “the ones feeding at the trough.”

“They,” he charges, “have made a beautiful nest for themselves.”

Most of the district’s 430 kids go to school in the same building in Bayfield, while eight attend a tiny school on Madeline Island. The district — which also encompasses the sprawling and largely impoverished reservation of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa — has high transportation and food service costs. High levels of poverty can also mean extra health and counseling expenditures.

But a primary reason for high spending, according to Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance statistics, is the money funneled toward salaries and fringe benefits in a district with more employees per student than any other district its size or larger in Wisconsin. During the 2010-’11 school year, there was one staff member — including administrators, teachers and others — for every 4.8 students. Many are teachers — one for every 10 children — who have higher than average salaries. 

Like Woodworth and Kriner, Dave Doering, the current head of the Bayfield Education Association, declined to comment. But community members and Jay Mitchell, the district’s interim superintendent, come to the teachers’ defense.
Mitchell is the longtime Superior superintendent who accepted a short-term contract in Bayfield after former superintendent Linda Kunelius was forced out by the School Board in 2011. He says that WKCE scores are misleading because they don’t measure student growth over time. You have to “look at where they’re coming in and where they are five years later,” to accurately gauge the school’s impact on students, and “you don’t have that,” says Mitchell.

“I think when we get to that point, it will show that each year these kids move in the right direction.”

Mitchell has little patience for Batton. “In fact, you teach the damn class and see how well you do,” he said, sitting in his office in the main Bayfield school building. “I’ll take him up to a special ed class. I had to be there this morning because there was a knife incident.”

About 80% of kids in the district, which draws most of its children from the reservation, receive free or reduced-price lunch and about a fourth are classified as having disabilities. The challenges are daunting.

Kunelius, the former superintendent who left amid considerable conflict with the board, fully acknowledges that. But she believes there is also a deeply entrenched institutional racism that fosters low expectations. It’s evident, she says, in the mantra you hear from some that “the teachers are really great,” and the belief that problems stem only from “the kids, the families, the historic trauma.”

The first year she was in Bayfield, she recalls, there were 1,400 disciplinary referrals of K-8 kids to the office. Some of those students were being placed in “cubicles with doors,” called time-out rooms, for extended periods of time. A new elementary school principal, Sheila Everhart, quickly eliminated the practice, increased parent involvement, pushed classroom management strategies, rearranged schedules in order to provide more uninterrupted blocks of reading and writing instruction, and held staff accountable, according to Kunelius. At least for a while.

The School Board recently notified Everhart that she is being let go, ostensibly for economic and organizational reasons.

Kunelius doesn’t buy it.

“Let’s be honest,” she wrote in a Jan. 31 letter to some members of the School Board. “Those reasons are a sham.”

Kunelius says disgruntled teachers fomenting discontent play a key role in pushing out administrators. By her count, there have been six different district administrators — including three interim administrators — in the last 10 years and yet another one is expected to begin work over the summer. There are myriad stories of friendships and relationships between board members and district employees that, from Kunelius’ perspective, make change extremely difficult.

“It almost appears as though the union is running the district,” she wrote in an April 25, 2011, open letter that was made part of her file after she was pressured to leave.

The decision to get rid of Everhart and Woodworth’s desire to join the board have soured some who thought things were on the right track. Frank Graves is a retired Ecolab executive from St. Paul who founded the Bayfield Community Education Association in the mid-1990s and, when initially interviewed in December, he said he disagreed with Batton. 

“Ed is a good guy, but he is so narrow all he can do is look at the stats,” said Graves at the time, adding that he believes teachers in the district are “doing a conscientious job.” In early February he called back, mentioned both the Everhart and Woodworth developments, spoke more highly of Batton and added that he was no longer so optimistic about the direction of the district.

“The teachers,” says Graves, “are getting very arrogant.”

“The union thinks it is in charge and thinks they can run the school, and I don’t think the School Board is experienced enough to tell them that they can’t. 

“The community,” he added, “is more divided now than I have ever seen it.”

Some business owners say they are pleased with the schools. “The schools are doing great,” says Dana Noteboom, the co-owner of a construction company who is also active in the local chamber of commerce. “I would expect you to hear quite a bit of positive” reaction.

Graves, who owns a local hardware store with his son, is less optimistic.

“The school is the glue that holds the greater community together,” he says. “If the school fails, the greater community fails.

“I don’t think people want to sit back and surrender and let the town go to hell,” adds Graves.

Problems extend far beyond test scores and individual administrators. More than 40 kids leave the district each year through open enrollment, while only a handful, if that, transfer in. During the 2010-’11 school year, 22 kids were also home-schooled, about double the number in the early 2000s. While the number of minority students has held steady, the non-minority student population has plummeted from approximately 170 to fewer than 90. Bayfield has suffered from a debilitating phenomenon most often associated with large urban districts in the 1960s and ’70s: white flight. 

Tribal leaders declined to comment about concerns with the schools because they are involved in “mediation” with the district, says Dee Gokee-Rindal, administrator of the education division of the Red Cliff Tribe. The mediation appears to involve the county more than the school district. But Bayfield County Administrator Mark Abeles-Allison, like others, was tight-lipped, saying only that discussions have been held in confidence. “There is no formal complaint. There are concerns that have been raised that we’re trying to see if we can address.”

There is what Mitchell readily acknowledges is a “huge cultural schism” in the district stemming partly from the fact the Red Cliff often “look at education quite differently.”

Jim Pete, a Red Cliff tribal member who attended school in the district, went on to earn a doctorate in business administration, and has been active in the schools in Bayfield, emphasizes what he sees as the importance of preserving the Ojibwa language and culture. 

“The teachers that are currently in the school have been very supportive and willing to integrate the cultural and language efforts. I really want to mention that,” he says, stressing that he speaks only for himself. 

The tribe cannot flourish in isolation, however. It recently opened a new casino overlooking the Apostle Islands that could be an economic boon, but, for now, the tribe is still one of Wisconsin’s poorest. 

Kunelius started out on what was widely acknowledged as a very positive footing with the tribe in 2007. With the help of a tribal member on the School Board, she visited almost every home of every child throughout the entire district.  

In an effort to determine just how and why things later went bad, Wisconsin Interest made an open-records request. A tedious litany of School Board concerns with the former administrator focused on minutia such as Kunelius’ interaction with students who sent her a letter asking her to limit her comments during graduation, according to a preliminary notice of non-renewal issued in early 2011 and then withdrawn shortly before she resigned.

Basically, though, the board said it thought members of the community had lost confidence in the superintendent. In a 12-page response, Kunelius called the various concerns “analogous to throwing spaghetti at the ceiling,” said the allegation that she had lost the confidence of the public was a “gross generalization” lacking any objective evidence, and lamented the influence of the union on the board.

“Like a lot of districts, you have a lot of really good teachers, and a few who are toxic and stir the pot,” Kunelius said in the interview. Because of “small-town politics, it is virtually impossible to remove” them.

School Board member Brian Goodwin declines to criticize Kunelius or Batton. “We have a serious, chronic, health crisis going on here and that is what we need to focus on,” he says. “I am not going to criticize Linda as someone who failed. … We have to live together here.”

Batton, he adds, “is entitled to his opinion.” But the story, he insists, is “not just the grades and the numbers. … There are all these other variables and intangibles,” social issues that need to be dealt with so teachers can teach.

Kriner, the teacher who is married to the incoming School Board member, declined to comment. Reached by phone, he wondered out loud why he should “talk to a statewide conservative think tank (about) a local office.”

“No comment, sir,” he said. “Adios.”

The office his wife ran for is a local one. But state taxpayers contribute over $4,300 per student to the district, according to 2010-’11 figures, and federal taxpayers provide considerable support, as well. Like many property taxpayers who own vacation homes in the district but spend most of their time elsewhere, they have no ballot power over board members facing a pivotal spring. 

Woodworth will soon take her seat. A new superintendent is slated to start this summer just as a teachers contract — one extended at the behest of union leaders shortly before Act 10 became law — expires.

After that, teachers will have very limited rights to bargain collectively, and the board will have the latitude to make changes. Long flush with money, there is now a little less to go around. After approving a 2010-’11 budget of $9.6 million and a local tax levy of $5.9 million, the 2011-’12 budget is down to $8.4 million with a local tax levy of $5.8 million.

Woodworth acknowledged in an interview with a local paper that “more cuts are coming, and there will be difficult decisions that will have to be made.” 

If she follows state law, she will be precluded from voting on anything that could substantially benefit, either directly or indirectly, her husband. Amid a landscape rife with personal relationships, strong personalities and potential conflicts of interest, there will almost invariably be judgment calls and questions about whether she should even be allowed to sit in on certain discussions.

In the meantime, there are larger issues complicated by an unusually influential group of teachers, poverty, cultural differences and high numbers of special education students.

Mitchell, the interim superintendent, resists the notion that the solution lies in a tribal charter school or smaller district just for the reservation.

“You can do all those things,” said Mitchell. “But I would be careful of the motivation. Do those things, and you will take away any chance they have of being successful.

“The answer lies in the hearts and minds of the people that work with these kids,” he said.

People like Batton and Kunelius disagree. Normally, says Batton, he “would be more inclined to believe that local control is sacred.” But, he adds, “I think you could make the argument that we have such a disaster here that DPI has an obligation to step in and take a hard look at what is going on. It has been demonstrated that local control has failed.”

Problems are too big, too insidious and too ingrained, he and Kunelius believe, for anyone local to fundamentally change things.

Gov. Jim Doyle did sign a law two years ago giving the state schools superintendent the ability to step in under some circumstances. But that law gave teachers what then-Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos called so many “excuses for not performing” that the MPS leader — who thought the teachers would be held to higher standards if the kids at issue were white — called it “a bit racist.”

State and federal authorities, in the meantime, are far more focused on trying to develop new accountability systems and figuring out how to sidestep antiquated No Child Left Behind requirements than on examining small districts like Bayfield.

“What is disconcerting in this district is it has everything going for it,” says Kunelius. That includes many good teachers, decent salaries and benefits, low student/teacher ratios and, despite impending cuts, a lot more money than most. 

“The kids deal with horrific family issues, but that should not be an excuse. The kids can succeed,” she says. She thinks ambitious legislation is needed that could, for instance, give DPI the authority to more easily come in, evaluate staff and dismiss those who are toxic or ineffective in the classroom. 

“We are squandering an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of these kids.”
Goodwin, for his part, doesn’t sound much more sanguine. The district needs help from someone, somewhere, focused on the social ills that preclude good teachers from teaching, he said.

“I don’t think anybody will disagree with that — Ed Batton or Linda or anyone else – because we are stressed,” he said. “We are tapped out.”

Mike Nichols is a Senior Fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.