Waukesha Superintendent Todd Gray addresses busy first five years
Helped stabilize district's financial state, advance technology
As Todd Gray talked about the upcoming school year from his modest office inside the District Office building, he was optimistic.
"We're heading in the right direction," the superintendent said, while sipping his coffee, during a short break from his crammed schedule.
With Gray leading the way, parents, students and faculty have a reason to feel the same way as its leader.
That's because when Gray started in 2008 he inherited a district in financial woes that faced massive debt. Five years later, however, that debt is gone as the former accountant successfully helped navigate the district through this rocky period.
It's also been a period that has seen two new schools open and one where three schools closed or were re-purposed to be more cost effective. Gray then dealt with having to replace 140 staff members three years ago, many of whom retired due to Act 10.
Gray, who started his career as a teacher, also has the job of making sure the district continues to be a destination during a time when voucher schools are becoming more prevalent. Giving parents and students more choices is one option he has in accomplishing this as well as being ahead of the curve in technology.
This started with expanding the dual language program to a growing, diverse student body and continues with the introduction of iPads, all while trying to keep the district financially stable. Through it all, though, his No.-1 goal is seeing students achieve in and out of the classroom.
In an interview last week, Gray addressed these topics and other matters, including future renovation projects and the fire that disrupted another project, relating to one of the state's largest school districts — one that features three high schools, three middle schools, 13 elementary schools, seven charter schools and one early childhood learning center.
Q. How was the district financially when you came in and where is it today?
A. When I came in that was at a time the school just prior to that had borrowed $65 million and bought grant default swaps and of course those became zero. So I was facing a $65 million debt that needed to be paid, plus we had a a very, very small fund balance which didn't leave you any room for much flexibility. So at this point the $65 million debt is gone. That's been solved. We have about a $20 million fund balance so now we have some room to really do some things and some flexibility to keep our programs up, keep staffing in place and out of financial harm.
Q. How has your background as a CPA helped you turn around the district?
A.I think it's been helpful. I understand very well how the budget works. A lot of those issues which has an impact on the district (HR and budgets) I have a pretty good understanding of that. I think it's helped, but overall the bigger thing is it's been a great teamwork approach by everyone in this building.
Q. How has ACT 10 affected the district?
A. I'll be honest, it's allowed us to save a lot of money on benefits. I still don't have an opinion on how it's going to impact salaries because what we're seeing now is we're looking at market salaries. You see a lot of people jumping around because they can make bigger salaries in other districts and we've had to compete with that. On the one hand, we'll save money on benefits, but we could see salaries bump up quite a bit just to the nature of the marketplace. And maybe that's how it should be. If you're a really good teacher and the market rate for you is very good maybe that's what we'll be seeing over the next few years.
Q. Do you think it has changed the classroom?
A. Our teachers are wonderful. They've kind of put that aside through all of this ACT 10 stuff. I've heard literally no complaints. None. They just come here ready to teach. Their hearts are in the right place. I have not seen it affect the classroom at all.
Q. But it did result in massive retirements and with it a new wave of teachers, many of whom were recent college grads. How has this transition gone?
A. We had 140 retirements the first year and we've had 300 new staff in the last few years. About 30 percent of our staff have turned over. So we've got a lot of new staff here and that means a lot of professional development to get those kids to where some of our other folks are at. So it's good to see some new faces, but losing that kind of experience is very painful.
Q. How much will the district be receiving in state aid for the 2013-14 school year?
A. We've received more. We got a bump. It's kind of nice. I don't know what it was but just the fact that it was going up is good because we've kind of had a decline the last couple of years. So it was good to get a nice increase. I know some districts lost aid. It seems like that formula changes every year so you never know until the last minute if you're going to get more or less. Of course if you get less it certainly impacts property taxes adversely and you have to budget for that. This year we got a nice bump which will result in some decreased property taxes. It doesn't give us more money to operate with. It just changes how we fund the current budget that we have.
Q. Catholic Memorial and Montessori School of Waukesha applied for the new statewide voucher program this year. They didn't get in but could next year. How do you think vouchers could affect public education in the future?
A. I fully expect that they will apply at some point when they allow more students in the program. If parents think that's what's best for their kids then I guess that's their prerogative. But we'll continue to do what we're doing. We're going to keep being a great school district, we're going to continue to offer as many services as we can. We're most certainly going to compete head to head with these vouchers. The advantage we have is we're following some very good state standards. We have our own internal standards. We have a lot of accountability at the local and the state level, which the private schools do not. The one big advantage of going through the public school you know you're being measured against the very best in the state.
Q. Could the voucher schools, though, impact public education?
A. It could. We want to make our district very appealing. I hope we don't lose a lot of students to vouchers, so we want to provide that kind of flexibility and opportunities for kids to stay. I know there is talk about some public accountability standards for the private schools and that may make a difference. I can tell you right now if your student is in our school district they're going to have the opportunity to perform very well.
Q. Relating to building projects, could any major renovations be in the future?
A. The only renovation we had is we did some work at Horning Middle School for the Flight Academy (a new program). And the other renovation was at (Waukesha) North, but that wasn't planned. That was the result of the fire. So really we didn't have a lot of major renovations. We had some other work at Hawthorne. The only other renovations are the wood floors at both North and West.
Q. Could any be a priority in the future?
A. We're always going to look at upgrading buildings and whatever that might be. In some cases that might be a new heating system. It all depends on the age of the school and how much work they've had in recent years.
Q. And how much money is available?
A. Well yeah. We've been increasing the dollars that we've had for maintenance projects and for those types of renovations. So if we can maintain the level for the next few years I think our buildings can be in great shape.
Q. Is this a building (the district office) you'd like to do something with?
A. I don't know. Someday we probably won't be here. I mean it's a national historic structure so we can't do much in terms of knocking it down and starting over. We can always look at some different options to relocate. Obviously, being a very old building it's expensive to operate this but it's functional and until we find something better that's more cost effective we'll probably stay here.
Q. Speaking of renovation projects, the fire at the North fieldhouse last month had to be devastating. What was the final cost estimate?
A. I don't have one, but it's multiple millions of dollars. Three (million) maybe. No one has given me a final number. It's going to be a lot more expensive than we thought. The first couple days after it happened it looked like it was contained in the particular area. But a lot of the smoke got through the building and needed some cleanup. The wood floor actually looks really, really good. I saw it a couple days after it had been cleaned up but there's one area where the fire started that needed to be replaced. But we're talking 100-square-feet out of 20,000-square feet. Relatively small, but the smoke damage was what really caused the problem.
Q. And what about busing fees for the now-displaced volleyball teams who have to play their matches on the road.
A. Those are minor. It's a couple thousand dollars and a lot of that is covered by insurance so it won't be a cost to us.
Q. The investigation revealed the fire was started by oily rags that combusted. Were they left by the construction crews?
A. I don't know. I still have not seen (the report). I've only heard verbal confirmations of the start of the fire. I don't want to blame anyone.
Q. Is just the school district's insurance covering it?
A. I would imagine both ours and the floor company (Schmidt Custom Floors). Probably a combination.
Q. Another project on many people's radar is the FieldTurf project that would implement turf at the three high schools for many uses. What's the status?
A. We're working on that, but to do it for all three schools it's a pretty hefty price tag. We are in the process of talking to various donors and looking at different options of doing that because we probably have to do it for all three to be equal. I would love for us to be playing on turf a year from now and that's what we're going to try to shoot for, but it all depends on the finances.
Q. It's still $600,000 for each, right?
A. Roughly. South might be a little less because they don't have a track that runs around it and it's a little smaller area. The other reason I would like to do it all at once is to get a better deal. There's another school in the area that might want to buy in with us so we have some buying power, but it's still in the early stages of that.
Q. Would the district consider pitching in if progress stalls?
A. That may be an option. Originally that was (not an option), but the situation now as we move along and as our capital improvement budget has increased and has improved, maybe there's some room to cover those but that's a (School) Board decision.
Q.Four schools within your district will be using iPads this year. How do you think that will change learning?
A. It's a tool. It's an educational tool. It's not going to replace the teacher. Teachers can use it in different ways for what's called a "Flip Classroom" — where they can do the instruction online, kids can take that home, they can listen to that instructional piece over and over again. That's just one of many options. But we're going to work together on this, we're going to learn together. It will save (money) on some textbooks. I think an interactive textbook is much more usable than a regular textbook, but it certainly is not going to replace all books. I still expect to see library media centers with books, I still want to see kids reading books. I think that's important for reading skills and general knowledge. As long as I'm here we'll have a combination of iPads and books.
Q. It sounds like this is something you're really excited about?
A. It is and there will be some bumps in the road. There will be some things we'll learn from this before we'll roll it out to the different schools. That's one of the reasons we didn't want to go the full district, because this gives us an opportunity to see how it's working before we commit to more dollars for the program.
Q. No backpacks in the halls and classrooms was a new policy at Waukesha West last year (new principal David LaBorde confirmed last week the same rule will still apply). Are there any new district rules?
A. The one thing we are changing district-wide is no more cell phones in the classrooms or halls. We tried that, it was an experiment. But it became a big distraction and I had an overwhelming number of teachers say 'this is just not working very well.' So no more cell phones in classrooms unless the teachers specifically says bring them for a class project. Otherwise, out of sight. Each school would have its own penalty (if students don't follow this rule).
Q. Can you also address the new online requirement for graduation.
A. For this year's freshmen class (Class of 2017), they will have to take one course online and we're seeing a lot of those kids sign up. (They can do it during) study hall, academic options period, at home. There are a lot of different options. Whether you go to Tech school or a college, at some point you're probably going to have to take an online class so this just gives you a little familiarity to what you'll do for that.
Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part interview with Todd Gray. Watch for the second part of the interview in next week's Waukesha Now where Gray addresses questions about test scores, how the district's charter school program is going, how schools are being more specialized in the district and his goals for the next five years.
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