‘The Hawk Way’ has strayed off course

Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Years ago, the Shawano School District adopted a new philosophy and dubbed it “The Hawk Way.” Students and staff were encouraged to go the extra mile and strive for excellence through learning, living and leading.

We still see those words on the district’s logo. However, it’s doubtful by many in the district that the administration is living the philosophy, at least the way that it’s intended, in light of the recent news that the district is looking at closing one of its schools and is taking steps to trim staff.

Social media is lit up brighter than a Christmas tree with people feeling like they’ve been blindsided by the news that a decision will be made in less than a month as to whether Olga Brener Intermediate School or Shawano Community Middle School, especially since the revelation that the district is facing a $2 million budget shortfall next year, possibly more, is fresh in people’s minds.

Such a drop in funding does not happen suddenly. We’ve known enrollment in Shawano has been declining for years, but our neighbors in Keshena and Pulaski are boasting increases in enrollment, with Menominee Indian reporting at one public meeting that it has 88 students from Shawano through the open enrollment program. What have we done to encourage folks to come back home or get others outside the district to come here?

It’s clear district officials knew there would be a need for cuts, supposedly at the start of the school year. That should have been front and center to the board before it met March 16 at Hillcrest Primary School and spent less than an hour hearing the details about potential school closures and discussing them.

Instead, the board spent several meeting slots this school year talking about its strategic plan, and nowhere in the discussion was there talk of closing a school. If this was a looming issue, it would have been smarter to address the issue over several months and make the public aware of it before now, but it was apparently better for leadership to avoid the issue.

In January, the district held a town hall in which it addressed declining enrollment, which is tied to state funding and budget caps. However, instead of saying that it looks like we’re going to be short at least $2 million, so we might have to take some steps — say closing a school, giving some employees pink slips, axing the tennis program — to bring the budget in balance, it paraded the sports and performing arts programs around and suggested a future referendum would be needed.

Now, administrators and board members are expressing confusion that people are outraged. I don’t see why, as they concealed a financial blemish on its operation the same way someone might put on a hat to hide a hideous haircut and are claiming action needs to taken immediately to avoid fiscal disaster.

People aren’t at your standard level of outrage, either. While dozens have flocked to the Facebook pages Shawano, Let’s Talk About It and Concerned Parents of Shawano Schools to express displeasure at the district’s lack of transparency, there are a few calling for Superintendent Randi Anderson’s figurative head on a platter and also a couple of suggestions that maybe the entire school board should be recalled.

It’s clear the school district’s communication protocols with the public are failing. Changes need to be made if administrators hope to keep the trickling decline in enrollment from becoming a flood.

Instead of planning public meetings titled “Education Finance 101,” which implies us mere mortals have no clue and need to be taught on why we’re losing money, there should be town hall meetings where there’s discussion on options to drain the red ink that school officials and the community can come together on. The public feels like it’s being left out in this decision to close a school, but yet public involvement and voting is required to build a school.

Also, the district should have all of its public meetings recorded live and put on YouTube. Right now, only the board meetings are recorded, and that’s only when there’s business to be voted on. The work sessions on the strategic plan have not been recorded, nor have the committee meetings where a lot of the discussion on specific matters takes place. If the district wants to be seen as honest and above board, it should show everything it does to tamp down allegations that everything is done in secrecy.

Then there’s the school district’s social media. Instead of having Throwback Thursdays with vintage photos and providing a scrapbook for fun learning activities in the schools on Facebook, administrators should be using every available platform, both online and offline, to explain their rationale and allow the public to provide feedback.

Once upon a time, Anderson communicated with the public through a “Hawk Talk” event. Bringing those back would not only inform the public but could serve as a two-way conversation where people could provide other ideas and suggestions.

Listening is ideal to learning, and the administration and board members would be wise to listen to the folks who reside in this district and figure out a solution that is not so draconian. If they opt not to do so, then there’s a different ideology in play for The Hawk Way, and it’s not one the public can accept.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor for NEW Media. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@newmedia-wi.com.