‘It Added No Value’: State Superintendents Slam GOP Letter as an Effort to Shift Blame

by Jessica VanEgeren

Dozens of Republican legislators who control the bulk of public school funding lean on schools to open up despite COVID concerns.

At the end of July, the DeForest school board approved its plans to offer students two options when classes resumed in the fall: one option is all virtual for the first term, the other is a hybrid model with a virtual start and gradual return to in-person learning. 

The day after the board approved the plan, district Superintendent Eric Runez said he got a letter from Rep. John Jagler, R-Watertown, whose district includes the DeForest School District. 

The letter, dated July 29 and signed by 47 of the state’s 63 Republican Assembly lawmakers, pressured superintendents to forego virtual instruction this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic and instead urged them to hold in-person classes.

The Legislature writes the state’s budget which funds more than half of Wisconsin public education.

“I didn’t disagree with anything in the letter. But nothing they said in the letter added any value,” Runez told UpNorthNews Wednesday. “It is everything we have been wrestling with for months. We considered everything they said and much more. We have been wrestling with and weighing all the options for the last two months. The decision we made was not made lightly.”

Representatives who signed include Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester; Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna; and Assistant Majority Leader Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma. Vos, Steineke, and Felzkowski did not return calls seeking comment on the letter or how it was determined who received one. 

The letter came as the debate of how to reopen schools amid a deadly pandemic grips lawmakers across the country. President Donald Trump has led Republicans in calling for schools to open for in-person classes, despite the clear risk posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The nation is already getting a look at what in-person classes look like as other states send kids back to school, and the results so far appear to confirm the obvious: That in-person learning will result in COVID-19 cases among the student population.

Nonetheless, Wisconsin Republicans sent their letter. 

Runez said he did not know why he received the letter. He said he spoke with the other Dane County superintendents and no one else had received it yet. 

“I wasn’t surprised legislators felt the need to weigh in on a local decision,” Runez said. “Our decision wasn’t what they liked. Unfortunately it is becoming a divisive issue and education should never be a partisan issue.”

The superintendents of the Racine Unified School District and Menomonee Falls School District also received letters. 

In addition to Vos, Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Wind Point, the former Racine School Board president, signed the letter. Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, did not sign. 

Racine Unified decided before the letter was sent that it will start the school year virtually.

Stacy Tapp, chief of communications and community engagement for Racine Unified, in a statement indicated the letter won’t sway school officials away from the decision to start online.

“Our re-entry team, made up of more than 150 district administrators, teachers, community members and parents, has been working diligently for months to develop a plan based on guidance from our local health departments and feedback from thousands of families and staff,” Tapp wrote in an email Wednesday. “We are developing a robust plan to ensure all students receive a positive and high-quality remote learning experience this fall.”

The Menomonee Falls School Board decided on July 27 that it will open schools for a full week but offer parents the option to have their children attend virtually.

Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, and Janel Brandtjen, R-Menomonee Falls, represent the district. Both signed the letter.

Jill Underly is superintendent of the Pecatonica School District and a candidate for the state superintendent race in April. As of Thursday, she had not received a letter. Her school district is based in Blanchardville and represented by Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville. Novak did sign the letter. 

Underly said while she did not receive a letter herself, she has seen it. Her impression of its content is that Republican lawmakers are setting up the public school system to take the blame for budget shortfalls or any negative feelings parents or students might have surrounding the changes to the school year because of the coronavirus.

“From someone on the outside looking in, it looks like or it feels like a setup,” Underly said. “I feel it is part of a bigger scheme to pass the blame off on schools. They are looking for ways to funnel money from the public to private sector.”

The letter also informs the superintendents that Republicans have asked the Department of Public Instruction to promulgate a rule allowing broader access to the open enrollment process when the “student’s best interest is at stake.”

“As an educator, you understand each student learns in a unique way and we ask you to consider a parents’ request to place their child in the best environment for their needs,” states the letter. 

The open enrollment process and a state-supported voucher program that includes private and religious schools have been a significant drain on local public schools. DPI statistics for 2019-2020 indicated public schools would lose out on $145.3 million that went to vouchers for students to attend other schools.

Under current law, school districts must inform the state each January how many spaces they have for open enrollment. That means districts have already submitted their numbers for the upcoming school year, unless the rule is changed. 

Both the Pecatonica and DeForest school districts are giving parents the option to begin the school year virtually or in person, although the in-person option in DeForest will be delayed a bit from the Sept. 1 start date. School begins in the Pecatonica school district Aug. 26. 

Underly said the letter also seems to be an effort by lawmakers to shield themselves from any negative experiences parents may encounter with virtual learning.  

“Your school isn’t open and you are frustrated because you can’t go back to work? Well, we told schools to reopen,” Underly said. 

Runez said surveys completed by parents showed 70 percent preferred in-person learning, while 20 percent wanted a virtual option. He has received phone calls and emails from many parents on both sides of the debate. 

“We were basically picking out the worst of bad decisions. Any decision we made was going to have a negative impact on our families, local employees, or the health of our staff and students,” Runez said. “There was not a solution that would make everyone happy or content with– at the end of the day safety ended up being the big factor.”

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