On April 7, 2009, as the nation agonized over a worsening economy, voters in western Wisconsin's Elk Mound Area School District passed a $9.3 million referendum to upgrade its three aging, overcrowded schools. On that same day, similar referendums in surrounding school districts failed. How did Elk Mound, a rural community without even a local newspaper, convince voters to address the needs of students?
"In a little town like this there's not much of a downtown, so the school is the main show," says Ron Walsh, superintendent. "We have tremendous support from our parents and community," which includes students from the village of Elk Mound, plus seven additional municipalities in three counties. According to Walsh, parents commuting to jobs at regional hospitals, universities, high-tech companies and giant dairy farms appreciate having the choice of a great school system in a small town where "everybody knows everybody."
Adding to that sense of familiarity is the strong partnership Walsh shares with Elk Mound's widely respected seven-member school board—a cross section of the citizenry elected to staggered, three-year terms. With service records ranging from three to 20-plus years, the board includes farmers, a retired engineer, businesspeople and home-health nurse Tim Sivertson, who has actively engaged the organization in self-improvement work since he became its president, over a decade ago.
Different Roles, Common Goals
Sivertson, a past president of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, says superintendents and boards that stay focused on "whose responsibility is what," and trust one another to follow procedures, are bound to form a more effective team. "We are there to write policy, do the budget and evaluate the administrator," he says. "The administrator manages the district."
Walsh and Sivertson agree their joint mission became clear in 2006, when Elk Mound enrolled in a national five-year pilot program devoted to identifying and developing best practices for board governance that can lead to improving student achievement. The Multi-State Lighthouse Research Project, coordinated through the Iowa School Boards Foundation, is a study running in select districts in seven states. The IS BF has been examining the differences between higher- and lower-achieving districts for a dozen years. (For detailed information, visit www.schoolboardresearch.org.)
"A core belief in the Lighthouse project," Sivertson explains, "is that all students can achieve at a higher level if they're given the tools and the appropriate teaching. We have the responsibility to provide that to them."
A Principal Difference
With guidance from Lighthouse facilitators, the board began making changes to its procedures—some as simple as inviting its three principals to board meetings. "The principals are very adept at looking at research," Walsh says. "They understand how to break tests apart, pull data, share it with their staffs, and change the way some instruction is occurring."
New data-sharing techniques became crucial in Elk Mound's multiyear process of getting its school facilities referendum passed. The district hired consultants to conduct a student population growth study, then formed a citizen-based growth committee, conducted a community survey to gauge support and finally mailed a concise explanation of the referendum to the 2,000 households that receive the district's monthly newsletter.
"We were as open book with the community as possible," says Walsh. The payoff: Construction on new and remodeled classrooms and other facilities should begin in March. "Our total cost of the $9.5 million debt will be less than $1.5 million," he adds, thanks to low-interestrate bonds and a favorable bidding climate for construction.
"Our journey through this board development process comes down to what we call 'leading with trust,'" Walsh concludes.
Mary Johnson Patt is a freelance writer in northern California.