With the Whitefish Bay School District facing a more than $2 million cut in state aid revenue, it's no surprise the main focus of Monday night's school board candidate forum revolved around candidates' priorities in a tight fiscal environment.
Three candidates are running for two three-year school board positions in the April 5 election. Attorney Anne Berleman Kearney is challenging incumbents Marie Greco and Jim Phillips. Incumbent board member Pam Woodard is running uncontested for a one-year position on the board.
The forum, sponsored by Advocates for Education, drew a large crowd to the Whitefish Bay Public Library Monday night. CBS 58 news anchor Mike Strehlow moderated the debate.
Kearney is a principal with Appellate Consulting Group and practices civil litigation. She also is an adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School and is vice president of the Rosalie Manor board of directors.
Kearney, who has lived in the village for seven years, has three children, two of whom are enrolled in the district. She said her oldest child is in middle school at the University School of Milwaukee.
Kearney said the state budget cuts require school board members to analyze new information and look at new solutions, and she said her experience as an attorney has equipped her to do just that.
"My finance and legal degrees virtually compel me to ask questions all the time," she said. "They help me to listen, and they help me to attain the information necessary to make thoughtful and very hard decisions."
Phillips, a 30-year village resident, is the father of three children who have graduated from Whitefish Bay schools. He is a shareholder with the law firm of Godfrey & Kahn, S.C., and he serves on the board of the Whitefish Bay Public Education Foundation, Inc., the Experimental Aircraft Association and ARC of Milwaukee. He formerly taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School.
With six years experience on the board, he said his knowledge of school district finances and other areas will be an asset in the future.
“Public education is going through a lot of change at this point in time, and I think the most effective board members are those that are really up to speed on the issues and have been here and understand the system,” he said.
Greco, a village resident of 14 years, has four children, two who graduated and two who still are in the district. She is co-owner and vice president of Lexicom Corporate Services. In addition to her work as school board president, she has served on the Parent Teacher Council at Cumberland Elementary, as PTO president at Cumberland, as board member of the Music Parent Association and as co-chair of the January Pops concert.
Greco has been on the board for six years, two as president. In that time, she said she has gained a knowledge of issues facing the school district, and she also has formed relationships with district stakeholders, village officials and other community members.
"The experience I've had as a board member and as president of the school board will really help me as we move forward into strategic planning," Greco said. "I think this is a time when we don't need a learning curve. We need people who are ready to work immediately on strategic planning that will set us up for the future."
The candidates were asked in several different ways how the district should respond to a projected $2 million cut in state aid under Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed state biennium budget. Walker has said those cuts will be offset by savings in personnel costs, as the recently passed budget repair bill requires public employees to contribute more to their pension and health insurance plan costs, and restricts their collective bargaining rights.
All three candidates said it is too early to comment about the specifics of how they would respond to the revenue cuts, but all three said they would not favor cuts in programs, such as music, arts and extracurricular activities.
Greco said the district may be able to avoid cuts by realizing savings through further use of technology. Kearney said there might be room for cuts in administrative compensation.
The candidates also weighed in on ways to improve communication with the public. The district recently completed a communications audit that polled more than 400 residents, and one of the things the board learned was the district website needs improvement. Greco said the district is in the process of making improvements to the site.
Kearney said she would like to see the community involved in more school district issues, and if elected, she said she would create a blog that informs people of issues coming before the board.