June 11, 2008

Where does Unified go? They need a Wiser approach

Dennis Wiser jokingly said Tuesday he was suing the Racine Unified School District for misrepresentation. His job just got a whole lot tougher.

When Wiser, the former head of the Racine Education Association, ran for School Board this spring it looked like a new superintendent would be in place before he was elected. Now, the district is bruised, embarrassed and back to the beginning.

"I don't think a lot of people realize the depth of the problem," said Wiser, noting Unified also needs to replace its chief academic officer, the district's No. 2 slot. That means the district is looking at a year of job interviews - and not much progress toward improving Racine's public schools.

"We're not going to see any significant change in test scores over the next year again," he said.

Moving forward, Wiser may be the best person for the School Board - and perhaps the community - to follow when it comes time to select the new superintendent.

The board's current leaders had their chances, first with Hicks and now Barbara Pulliam. Neither worked out well.

Wiser, along with veteran board member Julie McKenna, voted against hiring Pulliam. They both saw something the majority didn't: the community didn't support her. Questions were raised about how she left her old job, the state of her former district and what she was actually going to do to improve Racine's schools (after all, Unified already has an IB program).

"It certainly gives the board an opportunity," Wiser said in a recent interview. "I heard from a lot of community members and elected officials that they weren't happy with the process last time. If the board is really smart, they'll look at a process that makes a larger slice of the community happy with what's going on."

He recommended hiring a different search firm, finding better ways to engage the community and doing everything possible to make the hiring transparent. (It also requires better communication, Wiser said. The board found out at the same time as the public (thanks to Google searches by RacinePost) about problems with one of the finalists.)

However, Wiser didn't want to go back to the way Unified hired Hicks, who came to town with a lot of fanfare - and little scrutiny.

"In retrospect, that process had some flaws too," said Wiser, who was head of the REA at the time. "Specifically, by the time it got down to final selection we were literally looking at one person on a list of one."

Whoever Unified brings in, they'll have to be tough. Hicks entered the district at a relatively good time. Former Superintendent Dennis McGoldrick was well liked and respected, and the business community and School Board clearly backed Hicks.

"The new superintendent is walking into a much, much tougher arena," Wiser said. "Morale is a much tougher issue than it was 7-8 years ago."

The key to turning things around: get as many people involved in the new search process as possible, Wiser said. "The broader the sense of engagement, the more likely it is the superintendent will succeed."

That includes teachers, who were represented by union leaders in the last search process. Wiser wants to see more educators, not just the heads of REA, involved with picking the district's new leader.

No matter how the search unfolds, he added, Unified needs to make profound changes soon.

"We're falling behind the state on just about every test given," he said, referring to standardized test scores. "If the tests are good, bad or indifferent, if you're not keeping up with tests in the state, that's a bad, bad indicator."


  1. Who says there won't be improvement in scores?
    Maybe we just need to let the students and teachers do what they do best and we may be surprised.
    Also, I am surprised R Caron hasn't come out in support of a somewhat closed door approach to the selection process, sort of like how he feels about politicians voting (esp on the KRM issue).

  2. Dennis Wiser6/11/2008 2:31 PM

    1) My pessimism on scores is not intended to reflect negatively on teachers or students. It is based on a growing challenge paired with dwindling resources.

    2) I support the previous post -- absent a broad strategy on test scores, our best option is to clear away the distractions that interfere with learning. Teachers enjoy teaching. Kids enjoy learning. We need to knock down the barriers we put in place.

    Five years ago RUSD had an inservice day where the staff compiled a list of internal issues that interfere with learning. We need to update that list and get busy.

    For the record, this position has been shared with the RUSD board.

  3. Is there anyway we (the public) can influence who is appointed head of the search committee? I would really like to see Mr. Wiser replace Ms. Kutz. She is clearly a ditz and we need someone with intelligence and common sense to coordinate the search.