Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District superintendent Tim Culver used students as pawns to push for massive new spending projects, multiple sources told News/Talk 1130 WISN.
On February 23rd, Culver tweeted that he pulled several Oak Creek High School students out of class to have them "participate...in focus groups about the future of [District] facilities."
Without notifying parents, the sources said, Superintendent Culver and a representative from Nexus Solutions--a facilities planning firm with whom Oak Creek-Franklin Schools has partnered--took the students out of class and asked them to create "wish lists" of items on which they would like to see the District spend money.
Among the items the students selected were the school's auditorium, athletic facilities, and lunchroom.
Upon hearing about this focus group, one Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School Board member remarked that it was "probably electioneering."
In a statement provided to News/Talk 1130 WISN, Culver did not answer a question about whether parents were consulted before students were recruited for this listening session, but said:
Our school district is in an 18 month long process of developing a 10-year facility plan. In doing so we have held numerous listening sessions with various stakeholder groups. We wanted to be sure students' voices were heard as well as community members and employees. To do so, during one of my regular weekly school visit days, we held 2 listening sessions with high school students. They were asked the same open-ended questions we asked the adults. We also asked them three additional open-ended questions:
What does a diploma mean to you?
Who are you competing against?
What programs or classes would you want for younger students (siblings) that you didn’t have?
Students were volunteers and we wrapped the focus groups around their study halls. No individually identifiable data was kept. I was present and introduced the activity and made sure all of them knew it was voluntary.
In December, the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District raced to approve a $17.5 million spending plan using a loophole in state law before Governor Walker's new budget took effect on January 1st and closed that loophole permanently.
After massive spending referendums failed, the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District used a Revenue Limit Exemption for Energy Efficiency, "which allows districts to exceed state-set revenue limits if a third party can show there’s a long-term cost reduction to the local community in an amount greater than the cost of the improvements."
The move outraged taxpayers, who twice nixed plans to increase District spending but saw the District nevertheless go behind their backs and raise their taxes anyway. The School Board voted 6-1 to approve the plan, with Board member Mark Verhalen the only "no" vote.
"It was just shameful," one source said. "And now they want to spend even more and are using our kids to push for it."
The District has denied plans to seek more spending increases, but the timing of having students compile spending "wish lists" is curious, since the $17.5 million the District just obtained is earmarked solely for relatively minor building improvements, not massive new projects like a new auditorium or athletic facility.
According to The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
The projects will involve work at five elementary schools, West Middle School and Oak Creek High School. Work will include upgrades to heating and cooling systems, air-handler replacements and other items like roof repairs, updating building control systems and water conservation-focused projects like replacing flush valves and faucet aerators.
Why, then, would Culver and Nexus Solutions have students brainstorm spending proposals that the District doesn't have the money to complete? And why did they have students compile a list of projects if not to then say to taxpayers that "these are the things the students want?"
Such an argument would, as a Board member put it, amount to electioneering since it amounted to using student sentiment as a means to approving new spending. Wisconsin law prohibits school districts or their representatives acting in their official capacities from campaigning on behalf of the passage of school referendums.
Culver, however, was adamant that this was not in any way electioneering, though he did admit that the District is looking at new spending.
"It is possible the Board may choose to consider funding certain of the options and/or projects via a referendum of the electors in November or next year...or perhaps not at all," he said. "Giving our students some voice in this early part of the process, before specific options are developed, before there is even discussion of a referendum, in no way seems like "electioneering" to me."