WE’VE BEEN TOLD NO BEFORE
In 1842 the Town of Caledonia was established after it had grown beyond a few farms to an actual community. Governor Doty of the Wisconsin Territory signed into law the creation of what would one day become what I now call home.
The early 1900’s saw this large swath of land build its first church in a section between Lake Michigan and the main highway leading from Milwaukee to Chicago.
Eventually, I-94 was built and provided a distinct border between Caledonia and the sparse communities to the west.
In the 1950’s the town residents voted to join Racine in educating the children of the area because of it’s rural nature and lack of financial resources. Between the 1950’s and 2000 the area grew substantially to 23,614, and in 2004 the residents applied to the state to become a village. After first being denied by state bureaucrats (this is eerily familiar), the residents sought out change in the State legislature and in turn a bill was passed granting permission to the town to pursue village status.
After becoming a village in January 2006 several leaders began talking about establishing their own district with their newfound autonomy. Although the Racine Unified School District had provided decades of better education opportunities to town residents, Caledonia was now looking forward to forging it’s own identity and galvanizing their sense of community.
Visions of Friday night high school games, an official baseball team to represent a town appreciative of its ball game pride filled bar lounges and park benches. Local leaders Brian Dey, Kathy Burton and others mounted a petition drive, gathering 4,500 signatures in a short timespan despite virtually no financial backing and only a few volunteers. This was approximately half of all voting age residents.
While local representatives in village and state government expressed support for this effort, members of Racine Unified School District almost immediately acted “shocked” and “heartbroken” at citizen dismay over their product. (Their words) Over the course of various gatherings of a Steering Committee and village board meetings a study was paid for and delivered showing the financial impacts of such a split.
Caledonia would gain 4 school buildings, a 26 acre lot of land and approximately $45 million. A new high school would need to be built, but with the cash infusion, a slight bump in the mil rate and expected efficiency in education dollars it appeared more than feasible.
One glitch existed in state law – a unified district could only subdivide through various public hearings, a majority vote by the unified district board and ultimately by approval of the state government. (There’s the eery familiarity) Furthermore, the law allowed RUSD to require the signatures be 20% of the entire district, not the affected community. This meant that 9,700 signatures were needed, even though Caledonia only had 10,000 households itself. Supporters pushed on.
But frankly, the leaders of the urban district found the idea of suburban autonomy anathema.
Growing up in Milwaukee I understood the challenges of a large district and the benefit of neighborhood schooling. Although I sympathized with attempts made to integrate schools and provide better education to more children, there were unintended consequences and demographic changes that made it more difficult for parents to find a good education in Milwaukee. So, in 1992 Wisconsin became the first state in the nation to allow charter schools and some choice in where your child was placed. Parents wanted a choice, and the call for change became law.
The effort fizzled, but never died.
I moved to Caledonia in 2008 to raise a family in a village I admired for both its open spaces, vast park spaces (my father and uncles served their entire careers with Milwaukee County Parks) and the promise of a new school district. Every Caledonia real estate agent used the prospect like the hint of a gold rush: “an independent district will increase home values!” “It’s a great place to raise a child because you’ll have a great school system in a smaller community where you have a voice!”
Hearing these assurances sold me on moving here, although the 40% drop in property tax liability per dollar didn’t hurt either. While I was unpacking boxes, Dey, Burton, President Delagrave and others were diligently pursuing their dream of making history. But the powers that be rejected their pleas and me and my neighbors soon found out the reason – RUSD would not even consider the move and gave no assurances they would vote for creation of a new district even if we were a majority.
After spending the next few years settling into my neighborhood my son began approaching school age, and after meeting Mr. Dey and realizing that Mrs. Burton lived around the block I decided to become more involved in village government. Burton asked me what my interests were and when I mentioned I would like to see the creation of a school district she warned me of past consternation but assured me that with patience and determination I could use future involvement to realize this dream I now shared with them.
But overcoming the objections of the RUSD board was formidable.
These people either don’t care or choose to not see the stories:
Patrick & Katie have three children and one about to enter high school. After a decade waiting for change, they finally moved to Oak Creek in May of this year so their daughter could attend Oak Creek High School.
Shawn & Sheri have two children, seven and nine. They moved here at the same time I did under the same assumption of a new school district. They were dismayed that now, 6 years later there was no movement but their children were now both in the district they wanted to avoid and their oldest would be soon entering a new school. This year they listed their home for sale out of disappointment.
Damian and Julie have lived in Caledonia for many years. Julie grew up here, attended Horlick High School and was a proud RUSD graduate. But seeing the downward spiral of the school system her and her husband now pay the Montessori School to educate their oldest. They face their second child entering school next year but would rather use a public school system they can believe in.
Over and over I keep hearing stories of families either avoiding Caledonia or moving out because of their concerns over the school district. While there are many success stories in RUSD, they are just as anecdotal as our own. Except, our stories are far more plentiful and involve real decisions, like leaving our village with millions of income dollars, resulting in almost zero growth. After local Senator Van Wanggaard helped establish school choice in Racine County, the RUSD board vilified that as well, seeing it as a threat to the precious dollars they hold dear – until they insert them in the reverse-ATM known as bureaucracy.
I first ran for the village board in 2013 for a seat vacated by Burton, with literally no funding and little community recognition. I lost by just less than the total undervotes in the election to David Prott, an equally qualified conservative leader. However, now serving on the Caledonia Parks commission I used the next year to network with local citizens and listen to concerns. More than ever I was motivated to pursue a position of leadership beyond the parks. I knew I had much to learn but I spent time with folks that had many years of experience and I embraced the role of student as well as local opinionator. I knew that I wanted to have a platform through which I could lead from the front on issues like the founding of a school board.
In April 2014 I ran again, but this time uncontested for a seat vacated by now-Assemblyman Tom Weatherston. I won this seat and proceeded to quietly learn the ins and outs of village government. But I could see that while our recently elected President Bob Bradley was pursuing the much needed infrastructure for utilities out on the interstate that the window for establishing a school district might be closing. Caledonia grew by only 1,000 people between 2000 and 2012 and the lack of a school district was the anecdotal wrench in our growth gears. I decided to help Mr. Dey and Mrs. Burton achieve what they sought for years earlier and spoke with state legislators and area leaders about revisiting the idea of allowing villages like Caledonia to embrace their own identity with a community school system they could run on their own.
This time, neighboring Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant also want to seek a split, putting RUSD in the awkward position of telling three communities that they have no right to determine their own destiny, even if the majority of education dollars come from those communities. Which can be clearly inferred to be the point of derision: RUSD is afraid of a split because they will lose the benefit received by those communities in the Unified District.
Ergo: We’re being drained, dollars for donuts.
If RUSD continues to oppose our pursuit, using their logic, perhaps they should advocate for the full annexation of Caledonia by the city of Racine since they are so determined to dictate how and why and when parents can decide on education choices for their children.
I want what is best for both Racine and Caledonia. Frankly, I believe nothing gets more local than a school district. Racine needs to become more sizable to the city, and focus on the needs of it’s students. Caledonia needs to do the same, since we literally have a stake in our future with every school day. It’s not just my “backyard” it’s my “living room table.” As such, I believe educational decisions should be made at home, or with my neighbors, not by unaccountable board members serving a community’s needs not my own.
THE TIME HAS COME
On August 25, Mr. Dey made a presentation to a mostly turned-over village board about the feasibility of a new district. The room was packed and three media outlets were present, despite only 24 hours notice.
In this meeting we had the opportunity to look Caledonia’s future in the eye and come to grips with the fact that posterity requires some proactive mettle. A thriving community is built on the very people leaving Caledonia if we do nothing. The opinions of RUSD officials matter little. The perceptions – and the moving trucks – are tangible, their defensive remarks are not.
It is not a political, economic, racial or demographic issue, it is a philosophical one, and common sense: Caledonia is a community to itself, its education should also be reflective of that.
A study by the Center for School Change issued a report called “Smaller, Safer, Saner” and said that schools, on average, can provide:
• a safer place for students
• a more positive, challenging environment
• higher achievement
• higher graduation rates
• fewer discipline problems
• much greater satisfaction for families, students, and teachers
In 2009, Rep. Robin Vos told a crowded meeting that in his campaigning he discovered that “nearly everyone” he met in knocking doors support the creation of a Caledonia School District.
Today, the numbers have only grown, if possible. In a post-Act 10 world, the dollar figures are even more in our favor.
Our village now has 24,705 residents, 7,100 families and almost 4,000 school age children, but just over 50% either homeschool, attend private schools, use school choice for other alternatives or have left the district through open enrollment. Gathering signatures and holding a referendum are redundant.
Perhaps in 2007 it was too early to move an infant village to the front of the educational reform line. But the time has come now, where parents, business leaders and government officials recognize the value of local education.
If you care about this issue, it is incumbent upon yourself to take 10 minutes to place a phone call to representatives to let them know how you feel.
Then, when you hang up, join the movement in Caledonia to create our own school district and give parents ultimate control over the education decisions of their family. Be a part of history now and in 50 years, it won’t be hubris credited for driving you to make a difference, but wanting what’s best for your children and neighbors.
And Caledonia then will see you the way we see our predecessors today.
Caledonia Representatives that need to hear from you:
Bob Bradley | Kathy Trentadue | Lee Wishau | Ed Willing | Jim Dobbs | Kevin Wanggaard | David Prott
Robert Grove – 17th | John Wisch – 15th | David Cooke – 5th | Janet Bernberg – 10th | Mark Gleason – 13th
John Lehman (soon to be Van Wanggaard)