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School year begins with new challenges

Cuts in state aid not as steep as anticipated

Aug. 28, 2012

The summer of 2011 for Todd Gray and his staff at the Waukesha School District will always stand out to him.

Never in his career as a superintendent or when working in a district did he see so many teachers leave or retire at one time.

Gray said about 140 left at the end of the 2010-11 school year, making it one hectic summer.

Fast-forward a year and the summer didn't have as many interviews (Gray said there were about 60 retirements/departures). But as the new school year gets underway next Tuesday, new challenges, goals and opportunities await Gray and his staff.

There are new leaders. There's the need for a smooth transition after closing another school in the district. There are test scores to improve. There's the challenge of maintaining a high level with less state aid again. There's the goal to be efficient with funds, yet maintain staff to keep seeing students thriving in and out of the classroom. And there's still the fundraising goals for new field turf at the three high schools.

Better projections

Initially, Gray thought the district was going to receive 10 percent less in state aid for the 2012-13 school year like the previous year, but he said it will probably more likely be around 1 to 2 percent.

"It's a little better than what we expected," Gray said. "We've done a good job of protecting programs, as there have been no budget-related layoffs in four years. We're trying to maintain a strong curriculum but it has been tight."

So tight that the district has reorganized its schools. In the last couple years three neighborhood schools have closed, including White Rock at the end of the 2011-12 school year. White Rock, the district's main bilingual center, has transferred its students across the district and has shifted to an early childhood learning center for 4K. But in Gray's tenure, STEM Academy, a charter elementary and middle school, has opened, creating a more specialized learning environment focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"We don't plan on doing that anymore," Gray said of the closings. "White Rock was approved two years ago and with that, it was more because we had excess space. We did save money, but it was more because of excess space. It was not efficient to keep it that way, so consolidating was a big savings."

Gray said it will save the district about $400,000 in the closing.

All last year there were transition teams in place to make the switch as seamless as possible, Gray said.

Changes at schools

In addition to this transition over the summer, there were some other districtdevelopments.

These include the City's Plan Commission approving the addition of solar panels on the roof of the STEM Academy's Saratoga Campus for en ergy-saving and educational purposes.

Another development, Gray said, was the approval of a $2.9 million wireless upgrade in the elementary schools. Gray said that it will take well into the school year before each school has installed the wireless connection. The middle and high schools already have wireless networks set up, Gray added.

While the district invested in that upgrade, they will get a boost from the Waukesha Gibson GuitarTown Inc., as it recently received $45,000 to purchase new musical instruments and art equipment to support those curriculum areas.

Looking to improve

Gray also wants to continue to improve standardized test scores such as the WKCE and ACT scores. Last year, the district scored at or slightly above the state average in nine of the 14 math and reading categories for its seven grade levels for the WKCE and was just above the state average for the ACT. Outside the classroom, Waukesha students will attempt to be just as successful as last year.

Waukesha West has a string of 11 straight academic decathlon state championships to defend, the Waukesha North marching band has won five straight state championships and Waukesha South's drama department won many state musical theater awards last year.

"There are some pieces where we've been successful and in other areas, not so much, so we'll focus on improving on last year's initiatives," said Gray, citing the dual language program and STEM's growth and specialization in the elementary schools. "We still have a ways to go and a lot of work to do. Demographically, we're changing. The poverty level seems to grow each year. And the diversity seems to increase. It creates a challenge on some levels, but we're up for it."

BY THE NUMBERS

$400,000

Saved by closing White Rock School

$2.9 million

Wireless upgrade in the elementary schools

$45,000

Donation from Waukesha Gibson guitar Town Inc. to purchase musical instruments and art supplies

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