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Your Schools: Hamlet's words, school's management have lots in common

While I'm not a highly trained student of William Shakespeare, Hamlet's words, "To be or not to be..." keep bouncing around in my head these days.

In the play, Hamlet's indecisiveness and uncertainty of truth and knowledge play themselves out in his soliloquy, "Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms again a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them?..." (Act 3, Scene 1.)

I think the reason why "To be or not to be" keeps droning in my head is because the district has had many such either-or dilemmas this school year so far; To speak or not to speak? (President Obama) To alert or not to alert? (H1N1 influenza) To levy or not to levy? (2009-10 Tax Levy) To plan or not to plan? (River Falls Strategic Planning).

The year began with the uproar over whether school children should be listening to President Obama's opening school year message to students. Some parents wanted nothing to do with his message and refused to have their children hear him address students on Sept. 8. Others insisted that their children have the opportunity to hear, either live or taped, the president of the United States speak about the importance of setting goals for themselves and of staying in school and completing their education. To the degree possible, teachers and principals accommodated both widely varying requests.

With that hurdle behind us, we next turned towards addressing fears and myths about the H1N1 influenza virus spreading across our country. While the district this summer established a solid protocol for addressing H1N1 including daily tracking of absences and symptoms of H1N1 for those students not in attendance, when our actual first student cases were reported this week, the question arose immediately about whether to alert or not alert?

Do we let parents of healthy students know that we likely have H1N1 cases, thereby potentially creating unnecessary panic and perhaps unintentionally invading the privacy of families with the illness? Or do we simply take common sense precautions and send home students with H1N1 symptoms and not inform the larger population?

We chose the former and sent a letter to all families asking them to be particularly alert for H1N1 symptoms in their children, keeping them home from school until fevers subsided for at least 24 hours without medication.

Again, we asked ourselves the question, "To alert or not to alert" when considering whether to purchase a system of rapid telephone and e-mail notification of parents, called AlertNow. Fortunately, we elected to alert and now have a system of informing 3,000 parents and 450 staff members instantaneously of emergencies, school cancellations, or other safety- or crisis-related information via their telephones, cell phones, and computers.

A test run of the system occurred last week and it seemed to work even better than anticipated.

And then there was the "To levy or not to levy" dilemma faced by the school board and public in attendance at this year's annual meeting held Aug. 17. Since most of our funds to operate schools come from tax levies, whether to levy this year was not actually the question. The question instead was, how much should the levy be?

This year's Wisconsin Legislature, with Governor Doyle's endorsement, reduced state aids for River Falls education by more than $1.5 million compared to last year. What the Legislature did allow school boards to do, however, was to make up the reduction in state aids by increasing local taxes.

In our case, River Falls taxpayers would have seen an increase in the mil rate of over 14% to make up for the lost state aids. Instead of doing that, the school board proposed under levying this year, and instead supported a smaller 8% increase in the levy.

While even that amount is difficult to swallow in tough economic times, the board wisely recognized that the increase was warranted to try to minimize program and employee cuts in the current year or in coming years.

Even with the 8% increase, it is anticipated that deep budget cuts of over $1 million will be necessary for the 2010-11 school year.

To levy or not to levy? The board struggled with the question but ultimately presented a compromise levy for consideration at the annual meeting, and this proposal received endorsement from those in attendance.

Finally, "To plan or not to plan" has been a question regarding the district's strategic plan. I am pleased to say the answer has been "to plan!"

The district is in its third phase of the strategic planning process, having held a Community Educational Summit (January 2009), and a Strategic Planning Session (April 2009). Last week, over 200 residents and staff met for several hours in the evening to begin a four-month process of defining steps for achieving each of our district's six strategies (community engagement, facilities, global citizenship, health and wellness, personalized learning and accountability).

At that meeting I experienced communal excitement and enthusiasm for growing and changing our district to meet the educational demands of the 21st century. The six action teams will present specific action steps to reach our district's mission to the overall Strategic Planning Team in January.

"To plan or not to plan?" With budget reductions and levy increases looming, challenges like H1N1 and other safety issues swirling around us, and political differences of parents pushing staff to the left and to the right, it's easy to wonder why we would put our energies into strategic planning during this difficult time.

And yet, a definite commitment "to plan" has been made by the district's administration and board. The need is stronger than ever to bring focus, clarity, and appropriate resource allocation to those programs most valued by this community in educating of its young people.


Oh yes, one more "To be or not to be" Hamlet-like choice: To drive 500 miles to Chicago on an hour's notice to be with my daughter and son-in-law for the early birth of their baby on the second day of school, or to not drive and stay home and worry about our daughter and her child?

We chose to drive. Now I am the proud grandpa of Ava Elizabeth Little, the cutest little granddaughter you could possibly ever imagine.

Some situations require absolutely no decision-making at all.