Tough decisions ahead, but also plenty of possibilities.
When outgoing president Scott Dirks looks back on his time on the Stoughton Area school board, he’s proud of a district he believes is in much better shape than it’s been in years. And while challenges lie ahead, he believes the potential is there for an even brighter future.
Dirks – first elected in 2010 and board president since August 2016 – didn’t seek re-election this year, citing the effects of an increased caseload in his work as an assistant Rock County district attorney, handling child maltreatment cases. His last day as board president is April 23.
“Those cases really are very, very demanding of my time (and) are also very emotionally draining,” he told the Hub last week. “Being board president was about 15-20 hours a week … it just got to be too hard for me to continue to do my day job as well. Something had to give.”
It’s been a challenging time for the district, with student population stagnant at best and the district going through two separate operating referendums. But he’s pleased about the recent direction the district has taken under its superintendent and holds out hope for some changes in the future, if the board can make some important, difficult decisions in the next few years.
While Dirks didn’t rule out a possible return – “maybe after I retire” – he said he looks at his time on the board with satisfaction. He said the best part of being a board member was watching Stoughton students performing around the community.
“It’s the idea that I’m helping to make our community better place, and that’s to help our kids learn, and learn as much as they can,” Dirks said. “At the Syttende Mai parade or an athletic event or theater – to watch that and think, ‘I had a little bit to do with helping make that happen.’”
Proud of service
The “first, best decision” the board made in his time, Dirks said, was the 2010 hiring of then-DeForest Area High School principal Tim Onsager as superintendent.
“He came in with a pile of great ideas, and he’s worked very hard to help those ideas come to fruition (and) to really strengthen partnerships between the district and the rest of the community,” Dirks said. “It’s one of the reasons why the 2014 referendum passed as handily as it did (63-37 percent).
Onsager’s idea to bring “Innovation Grants” to the schools several years ago has been particularly fruitful, Dirks said.
“It’s given people who are actually on the front line of education – classroom teachers – a chance to try something new,” he said. “(Kegonsa) piloted an outdoor classroom which turned out to be so successful that all three elementaries are going to have outdoor classrooms.”
Some of the board’s recent staffing changes are “really going to benefit our kids a lot,” Dirks said, citing recent additions of a school resources officer, two social workers (“we had none in 2010”) and this fall, a dean of students for each elementary school.
“(It’s) basically as another support person to work with kids that are having some behavioral problems,” he said of the dean positions.
The board has also worked to improve technology and accessibility in his time, Dirks said, noting that all 6-12 students had Chromebooks or other devices for the first time this year.
Big decisions loom
The new school board will have ”some really difficult decisions to make in the next 12 months,” Dirks said, namely the district’s reworked teacher compensation plan working with the city to encourage growth.
The comp plan in particular is concerning from “what I see coming” from the committee charged with re-doing the plan, he said.
“The way it’s shaping up, it’s going to be something very different from what we have right now,” Dirks said. “Every educator who’s not in a performance improvement plan – and we only have a few like that every year – everybody’s going to get the same pay increase, year after year. There’s going to be a bonus every few years for longevity (but) it will do nothing to financially to reward teachers who contribute ideas that benefit the rest of the district … it won’t do anything to reward excellence in teaching.”
With “about 40 percent” of the district’s teachers having joined under the current plan, Dirks said a drastic compensation makeover could be a problem.
“If you turn around and adopt something that’s not merit-based, how is that going to affect those we hired who expected there would be a merit-based system?” he said. “That’s going to be an issue.”
Something the school board will have less control over is encouraging growth in the community, which Dirks said is something city officials need to focus on.
“I’m very, very concerned that we have a city government that really is not trying hard enough to encourage the construction of housing that will attract the people who’d like to come and move to Stoughton,” he said. “Houses won’t stay on the market very long anymore because there just isn’t enough available housing stock for the people who’d like to live in Stoughton.”
That, he said, is not good for the district.
“It means we have declining enrollment, and we’ve had that for about 10 years now,” he said.
Looking to the
In seeking solutions, Dirks said Stoughton needs “more young families” not just for the district, but for the entire area’s well-being.
“That’s just good for the community,” he said. “Getting new ideas; a new feel.”
Dirks is excited about the “Innovation Center” that Onsager and Fab Lab adviser Mike Connor proposed at a school board meeting in February, a broad idea to partner the district with community and business to address a range of education needs.
“I would very much like to see that get off the ground, especially in a small town like Stoughton, because that would put stuff on the map; it will attract students and families,” he said. “And it would be really important to have our facilities be available for the community as a whole. We kind of do with the Fab Lab, but we could do a lot more if we put our heads together.”
Dirks said he’d like to see an evolution toward a “lighthouse” model for Stoughton’s schools, where buildings are “used 24/7” by the entire community.
“It’s not just a place where kids go from 7:30 to 3:30 plus football practice after school, it’s a place where maybe in the evening or on the weekends, if people need to talk with a job search counselor, they can come into the buildings and do that,” he said. “(It’s) meeting places for different community groups.”