Alan J. Borsuk
What’s going on in Menomonee Falls isn’t unique. Similar things are happening involving public schools in other Milwaukee suburbs and across the nation.
But Menomonee Falls is emerging as an eye-catching example of the impact that polarized education politics are having and will have for years to come.
This is good, in the eyes of some. “The winning continues!” a Facebook post proclaimed when it became clear in April that Menomonee Falls Superintendent Corey Golla was about to leave.
Hashtags on social media such as “#helpgollapack” were used during the campaigns for three positions on the Menomonee Falls School Board, all of them won on April 5 by candidates who called themselves “Moms on a Mission” and who were backed by local Republican organizations.
And this is bad, in the eyes of some. “Shared purpose, not politics, retains and attracts a strong team. Our shared purpose is shaken,” Pat Greco, superintendent of Menomonee Falls school from 2011 to 2018, wrote in a letter to the school board in April. “The politicization places our community at risk.”
In an interview, Greco said that when political divisions adversely affect schools, “your strongest people will leave first . . . and the job market is wide open right now.” This applies not only to educators but to valuable leaders in technology, finance, personnel, facility management and other areas.
Indeed, this scenario appears to be unfolding in the 4,000-student Menomonee Falls school district. Not only has Golla departed (to become principal of Wauwatosa West High School), but about half of the top 20 administrators of the district and its schools won’t be back in the fall, according to people familiar with what is going on.
A community newsletter in early June from district leaders said, “Although the School District of Menomonee Falls is currently experiencing a great deal of change, we are excited to share that we continue to make progress in filing administrator vacancies from retirements and resignations.
“The District recently welcomed a new Director of Finance, a new Director of Technology, and a new principal at North Middle School. Interviews are in progress for the Director of Curriculum and Learning, the Director of Pupil Services, and the Associate Principal at North Middle School. Hiring a new principal at Valley View (Elementary) will also begin soon.”
I sent emails to the current board president, Erik Pelzer, and vice president, Nina Christensen, and to the director of communications for the district, asking to talk to them. I did not receive answers from any.
Consider two important pieces of context:
First, when Greco moved from being superintendent in West Bend in 2011 to her Menomonee Falls position, the district was considered underperforming. The standing, particularly of the high school, rose in following years to the upper ranks of Wisconsin high schools.
The centerpiece of Greco’s work was good management practices — things you read about in business books, not education classes — to make the district run efficiently, with a focus on teamwork, stability, and ways to improve student success.
Education leaders from around the country came to Menomonee Falls to see the way the system was being run. In May 2015, The New York Times ran a story on schools that were using data well, and focused primarily on Menomonee Falls. It described how almost everything was analyzed, not only student test scores, but food use, bathroom cleanliness, and many other things. “Anything that can be counted or measured will be,” the story said.
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It paid off in both efficiency and effectiveness. I was invited to a presentation in 2014 by people on Greco’s team. It was impressive — I’ve never seen anything like it from any other school district. They really had their act together.
The second piece of context: Times have changed. Greco stepped down. She continues to live in the community and works nationwide now as a consultant, largely training school districts in the practices she led in Menomonee Falls.
Golla, who had been principal of Menomonee Falls High School, became superintendent. It was around then that a major controversy arose: Golla and others supported changing the high school’s nickname from the Indians to the Phoenix. Advocacy was intense. The change remains a sore subject to some.
And, of course, more issues came along. The district’s students are 75% white and 7% black, according to the state Department of Public Instruction, and race-connected tensions have simmered in the past. Those heated up in a time of emphasis by some on equity needs and emphasis by others on “critical race theory” claims.
There also were COVID-related controversies (the schools have been open in person since January 2021). There are sharp differences over matters related to gender-related issues. And some parents demanded more involvement in what is presented to their children in school.
Some parents argued that academic success was slipping and behavior was getting worse. The district’s handling of incidents involving two young students with behavior problems (including allegedly hitting teachers) got attention on social media and talk radio.
Golla declined to discuss the situation in detail. Asked about the overall forces shaping education in many suburban districts now, he said in an email: “We need to stay focused on the local needs of the students in our schools. National politics can quickly detract from the partnership required to meet those needs. When we don’t (focus on students), student needs are not met and relationships are challenged.”
Golla applied to be superintendent in Franklin and was not chosen, some say because he had become controversial. He decided to step away from being a superintendent and took the Wauwatosa West principal’s position. He said in the email, “I can maximize my personal impact on students working directly with students, families, and educators in a school setting. I look forward to doing that in the Wauwatosa West community.”
Greco said that over 38 years, she worked with a large number of school board members and, to her knowledge, all but three were Republicans. They almost all took seriously the commitment to operate in a non-partisan way to make kids’ education the best it could be.
The idea of school boards being nonpartisan goes back more than a century. “Nonpartisan boards were designed for a purpose,” Greco said. “It’s about leaders coming to the table regardless of party to have positive impact on the communities they serve.”
Building up school quality takes time and careful building of relationships. “It’s fragile and can unravel,” she said. When stability and cooperation decline, “you’re playing with fire” involving one of the institutions that is central to community well-being. Repairing damage is a slow and difficult process.
Greco said: “Leadership can’t be ‘me’ over ‘we.’ It has to be ’we’ around the core purpose.”
Will all the turnover at the top of the school administration affect teachers and what goes on in Menomonee Falls classrooms?
There is reason to be concerned as the broad issues of teacher shortages and teacher burnout unfold nationwide. Large numbers of schools are finding fewer applicants for teaching jobs and more uncertainty about who will return to work in the fall or stay on the job.
Greco said that on a broad basis, “turnover is a critical issue in our industry now … it’s damaging our communities.” And, she said, the most promising professionals, teachers and others, will look to work in places with the best climate for good work.
What is happening in Menomonee Falls is similar to developments in other communities in the Milwaukee area and even more heated developments in comparable districts around the U.S. The same issues have roiled education politics in many places.
Amid sharp divisions, it is fair to say there is right and wrong on both sides. But what if taking adamant stands is not just part of the solution, but a big part of the problem? What if kids end up in a squeeze that may reduce their chances of getting the best available teachers, school leaders and opportunities to learn?
Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.