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This Just In ...

Kevin Fischer is a veteran broadcaster, the recipient of over 150 major journalism awards from the Milwaukee Press Club, the Wisconsin Associated Press, the Northwest Broadcast News Association, the Wisconsin Bar Association, and others. He has been seen and heard on Milwaukee TV and radio stations for over three decades. A longtime aide to state Senate Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature, Kevin can be seen offering his views on the news on the public affairs program, "InterCHANGE," on Milwaukee Public Television Channel 10, and heard filling in on Newstalk 1130 WISN. He lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their lovely young daughter, Kyla Audrey, in Franklin.

THE TOP TEN FRANKLIN STORIES OF 2012: #1

THE TOP TEN FRANKLIN STORIES OF 2012


Un-elected officials that run Franklin’s public schools (and some elected school board members) desperately wanted to pass a referendum (or three) in 2012 that would enact a huge property tax increase to pay for new school construction or remodeling that would have absolutely no guarantee of improving student school performance.

In Wisconsin, a binding referendum is required for certain school district bonding measures.
A referendum’s genesis usually can be narrowed down to two sources:

1) Gina and Jamie and JoAnne and Pam and Brenda and Dawn and Maria are all on the high school swim team.  Gina and Jamie and JoAnne and Pam and Brenda and Dawn and Maria don’t like the school’s swimming pool. Gina and Jamie and JoAnne and Pam and Brenda and Dawn and Maria also don’t like the condition of their locker rooms. Gina and Jamie and JoAnne and Pam and Brenda and Dawn and Maria vent their frustrations to their parents. Gina and Jamie and JoAnne and Pam and Brenda and Dawn and Maria all have parents who closely follow and support their daughters’ athletic endeavors.  They talk to other parents who don’t have kids on the swimming team, but do have kids involved in other sports or activities.  Over time, a consensus develops that school facilities need improvement or that completely new facilities are in order. A la the greasy wheel, they squeak long and loud enough to school officials before they ultimately agree to take their case to the taxpaying public to ask for lots and lots of money.


2) Just the opposite scenario of #1. School officials who have a strong in-bred desire to spend and spend profusely look around one day while attempting to come up with ideas on how to spend profusely.  One or more comment how this or that building hasn’t seen considerable maintenance since Eisenhower was President. To curry favor with parents and students alike, they begin to openly discuss the idea of building changes. To achieve greater acceptance, they call for public input. Supporters smile, nod their heads in approval and start dreaming.

School Board members, school administrators, and school employees, I’m sure, are pretty nice people for the most part. As a group, they are well-intentioned. However, something happens to these supposedly well-educated folks every day within the confines of those school buildings. Maybe it’s in the water, but they tend to shed common sense and any financial acumen, rendering them helpless when it comes to complex or even simple decision-making.

I described it this way in a blog in May 2011 referring to a topic Mark Belling discussed on one of his radio programs:

He addressed a school board issue in Menomonee Falls (MF). By coincidence, MF has about the same population as Franklin and like Franklin is immensely conservative. In MF, the voting patterns are overwhelmingly Republican. As Mark put it, the last place you’d expect victories by the teacher’s union with public officials thumbing their noses at the will of the people would be MF. I would add you could toss in Franklin, except that the Franklin School Board is beyond out of touch.

Mark mentioned that in some communities, especially smaller ones like MF (and I might add, Franklin) with 30-35,000 population, the teachers are often pals with the school board. They bump into one another and see each other in the community, at church, at youth school sports. They become buddies.

When a school board member’s “friend,” aka teacher asks for help, the school board member, rather than upset a “friend” and stand up for the electorate, instead caves.

Another factor needs to be considered.

Folks run for office with the best intentions. They are going to strive for fiscal responsibility. They will not be beholden to special interests. They will represent the taxpayers.

Then they get elected and rub elbows with the entrenched administration. They go native,

welcomed into their new family, going from “one of us” to “one of them.” Prior to the election, they were outsiders. Now they’re insiders.

That’s a formula for an easy path to spending measures like referenda. Under this scenario, it’s easy to understand why school boards love to place referenda on the ballot.

Working incrementally, referendum supporters take steps to a “YES” vote that include sending out surveys. This is a clever move designed to persuade members of the public into actually choosing their own property tax increase. You tell us what you want done. We'll then send you the bill.

Hoping taxpayers won’t see through this charade, school officials distribute questionnaires in an effort
to come across looking as though they really care about what you have to say and about communications between taxpayers and the district. In reality, it’s a ploy to gather all sorts of ideas and suggestions they can have on record to point to with the claim that this is what the public wants, and goodness gracious, that’s going to cost big bucks. But hey, we asked and we listened.

The next step goes,
not for the jugular, but for the heart. After all, it’s for the children.

An emotional plea demonstrating the deterioration of the infrastructure and the impact it has on our students must be hammered home to those who will ultimately surrender the cash and pay the bills. How do they do it? They develop sob stories and potential photo ops illuminating their case. Then they find a sympathetic lapdog reporter who won’t ask any tough questions to assist in the handwringing with a puff piece the school district could have easily just written itself.


Eventually, a referendum question is approved by the school board with a specific (and large) price tag. An election date is sometimes chosen that doesn’t necessarily fall on a traditional Election Day. Back in the 90’s, a Franklin school referendum was actually put to voters during the summertime. The intent was to crank out more school machine votes than others who might not have been aware of the election or were too busy enjoying summer or on vacation.

Once a referendum is scheduled, supporters employed by the school district become full-blown advocates.

Teachers talk about the referendum to students openly during class. They’re not supposed to. They do anyway.

Teachers send pro-referendum literature home with students. They’re not supposed to. They do anyway.

During the Franklin referenda debate prior to 2012, students, many of whom were of voting age, were taken to an assembly where the referenda were discussed. School officials, later embarrassed, weren’t supposed to conduct such an assembly. They did it anyway.

Referendum supporters will say just about anything in order to get the measure passed. Franklin residents were warned that students would be forced to go to school in trailers if the last referenda failed. In Racine, threats were issued that all school athletic programs would be cut. It’s scary. It’s hyperbole. It’s lying.

The premise behind a typical referendum is that dreadful consequences will follow if bonding is rejected. Thus, the taxpayer self-inflicted property tax increase is desperately needed to avoid pitfalls the district will never recover from. Vote no and you’ll develop a perpetual case of the guilts.

A more accurate assessment comes from comments left on one of my blogs in July 2011:


From history in this community, there's always a group that "wants" something while their children are in line to take advantage of it. A new high school while their kids are in late grade school. A theatre (snooty spelling) when their kids are taking drama. A baseball clinic when their kids are in league softball, a pool when they're on swim team.

But the minute their kids move on to something else, well, then it's a different story. Then they don't want to spend a nickel.

The other constant is that these groups always want to use OPM. OTHER PEOPLES MONEY. More specifically, they want the city to tax for it, or, probably in the latest group's plans, to take impact fee money (It's not tax dollars.)



lets also have taxpayers pay for a theater for those who want their to have their kids participate in dance, theater and music. An arena for indoor hockey and speed skating. An Olympic pool and water park and a large community center for our seniors. Lets also put out there a facility like the Midwest Express Center for Northwestern Mutual, the Wheaton Franciscan Hospital and other business to have conventions at and to draw more business to Franklin.

I know the parents of my daughters dance class are getting tired of paying for a facility for the dance recitals. This would keep all the kids off the streets and off of drugs.


OPM. Spending Other People’s Money. It’s oh so easy to do.

So that’s how a referendum becomes a referendum and what can happen once the referendum gets the approval to go to voters. In 2012, the process to get Franklin taxpayers to willingly surrender more of their hard-earned dollars was well underway.

On February 20, a workshop was held with mostly parents seated at various tables who were spoon fed loaded questions right down the middle of the plate about school facilities including what do you want District facilities to provide for students and the community, and what are your priorities for district facilities.

With those types of softball questions, just what kind of responses do you think school officials salivating for a referendum got?


WE WANT!

WE WANT!

WE WANT!



WE WANT!



WE WANT!

 


WE WANT!



WE WANT!

 


WE WANT!



WE WANT!



WE WANT!!!!!

=



$$$

$$$


$$$


$$$


$$$


$$$


$$$


$$$

$$$


$$$




In June, the Franklin School Board voted 5-2 to place a building referendum on the November ballot. Board President Janet Evans and newly-elected board member Aimee Schlueter correctly voted NO. The others incorrectly voted YES.

 

Having covered and attended countless governmental meetings, this item should never have been before the school board requesting an up or down vote. The members had no idea what they were voting for.

According to the school district website, and please read carefully:

“The Board voted to move forward with the three highest project priorities, as indicated by the community wide survey: (View full survey results here)

 

1. To increase academic capacity at Franklin High School by expanding general classrooms and science areas, creating a secure main entry, and addressing parking.

 

2. Expanding and renovating art and music classroom areas and adding an auditorium for both school and community use at FHS.

 

3. Addressing immediate space needs at Forest Park Middle School, which includes renovating the existing gym into new classroom space and Special Education areas, expanding the cafeteria, replacing the gym, improving the traffic flow, parking and site safety. (This approach would not move the sixth grade out of the elementary buildings at this time, but is  the first step toward accomplishing that move at a later phase.)

 

 

Work will now begin to finalize the details and costs of these three projects, put a communications plan into action, and prepare the three questions that will appear on the November general election ballot.”


Did you catch that? Five out of seven board members voted YES to place a referendum on the November ballot WITHOUT KNOWING ANY SPECIFICS.

Now that they’ve voted yes, now they'll go out and sort out the details, cost, and actual wording of the referendum.

I’m sorry, but before I vote YES, I need to know a lot more about what I’m voting YES for!

Then in July, The district website reported “The Board approved placing one question on the ballot for each of the three highest facilities project priorities, as identified by a recent community-wide survey.” It needs to be pointed out that the survey did not include options like “None of the above,” or “Do nothing at all.”

The amount of bonding these hold-up artists was asking for is astounding:

$48.8 million

Let’s put that in some sort of perspective. The $48.8 million is
150% the amount of the preliminary 2012-13 school budget levy request from the district of $32,522,104.

Would Franklin voters opt to give themselves a huge property tax increase? We examined some of the issues surrounding the school administration’s plot.


SOB STORIES

To get into your purse strings, they tugged at your heartstrings. In other words, they hoped to play on your emotions by claiming a recent rash of surveys mandates you help finance new construction. In other words, play the oldie but goodie, “It’s for the children.”

This website, FranklinNOW served as a drum-beating cheerleader for the cause. Reporter Rick Romano blazed the trail with one story after another that rarely contained any quote from anyone who might remotely have an opposing view. That would be too much like journalism. Some of what Romano writes is ludicrously funny.

You could just sense Romano walking alongside Franklin High School Principal Mike Cady like a lapdog, soaking up every unchallenged quote like this one:

“This has been a district that has been well-managed financially.”

If by “well-managed financially” Cady means taxed to the max and then some each and every year, that would be true.

Superintendent Steve Patz told Romano, “We do know that our needs are mostly from the middle school level through the high school."

Scary. Why? I don’t trust most school officials to know the difference between “needs” and “wants.”

Architect Bob Vaigrt was also quoted, saying, “The way we see it is that interest rates are really low, there may be favorable government financing programs available and a lot of companies in the construction industry are looking for work. With all of those factors, this may not necessarily be a bad time to do these projects."

Translation/spin: Do it now, Franklin, and do it fast before the costs go up.

Using that logic, I should run out immediately and buy a $50,000 sports car and humongous plasma TV.

Of course, if you disagree, you are anti-child, anti-education, anti-Franklin, anti- America, anti-God.

FranklinNOW tried to reinforce the issue with pictures.

Check out this photo with the caption used by FranklinNOW:
 



With Franklin High School near capacity, major hallways are packed during class- change times.

I don’t know. See anything unusual there? Appears to be a typical high school hallway between classes. I didn't see a need to rush to referendum.





Fashion students begin rehearsal for a Nov. 10 fashion show in the Franklin High School's multi-purpose room, one of the few large assembly areas in the building and the only stage for performances.

Utterly disgraceful. No space to prepare for fashion shows. How will these students ever recover from the shock.




The boys locker room is small and the storage areas are in poor condition at Franklin High School.

Excuse me, but could you tell me again how the football, baseball, and basketball teams have been doing the last several years?





Franklin High School's weight room shares space with an auxiliary gym and a second room with a wall removed.

See previous question.




Gail DeClark works with senior Nick Schott before the start of Television Production 2 class. Limited space for this class and others has forced the school to limit sections for a number of classes.

Television production class? When I went to high school we didn’t even have a TV in the whole building. What’s the problem here? Everyone seems to have a place to sit.

Hmmm. Maybe it's just me but I find it odd there's no mention or photo of concern about academics. Strange.


ENROLLMENT

First came the surveys. What building improvements would you like to see in the Franklin Public Schools? The answers were turned into three, count 'em, three referenda.

Next, the hyperbole. If we don’t pass the referenda and make radical, expensive upgrades, students will go hungry, programs will be cut, the sports teams won’t win any games, morale and self-esteem will deteriorate, kids will stumble into each other in the hallways, and my personal favorite, another oldie but a goodie, we’ll have to put up trailers.

The out of control spin machine is using this key word as part of their argument in support of  property tax increases (three referenda)...GROWTH.

"We have seen a growth in enrollment to where we are about at capacity and we have a number of needs.”

That gem comes from Franklin High Principal Michael Cady. Next, Superintendent Steve Patz.

"We have been experiencing a little bit of growth in Franklin. We know that eventually the growth will increase once the economy continues to improve. We may have to do this in phases.”

Growth. To the point that it warrants self-imposed tax increases, I’m sorry…referenda.

Really? So much growth Franklin can’t handle it?

Here are enrollment figures from the Franklin Public School district's own website showing the growth in the Franklin Public Schools since 1995. You tell me if the growth is soooooo explosive that it calls for massive tax increases. 


SPIN

“Not to worry” was the mentality of the current Jesse James regime at FPS. We’ll get ‘em this time. We won’t fail like we did in the past. We messed up in 2007 because of “ineffective communications.”

In other words, they just didn’t spin those collossal referenda just right.  Couldn’t fool those taxpayers that shouldn’t be as smart as they are.

The referenda cheerleaders thought that by going back to the drawing board and doing a better job this time around, they could pull the wool over the taxpayers’ eyes because after all, Franklin taxpayers have historically just taken the over-taxation abuse over and over and over and over and over again. OK, so we messed up last time. If we dress this up with enough sob stories and ask for less, we can reel those suckers in.

As we all know, Franklin schools have failed miserably since the cataclysmic failure of the last referenda. Test scores have plummeted. The athletic teams are a joke. Buildings are literally crumbling. And trailers have had to be brought in to house students (Yes, that was sarcasm for those that didn't notice).

Now if we only had done a better used car sales job, , we could have won in 2007.


BOTTOM LINE

1) We didn't have a referendum. We had referenda (3). 

2) The price tag , close to $50 million was not reasonable.

3) The school administration propaganda machine was spinning like Warner Brothers’ Tasmanian Devil.

4) It all boiled down to whether or not Franklin residents wanted to vote themselves huge tax increases, yes increases, plural, and whether they would fall for the less than genuous line, "It's for the children." No, it's for the money.

5) The school administration was hoping you forgot the debacle of referenda questions in 2007.

Wants vs. needs.

Franklin voters couldn't afford their own family needs, and yet, they were being asked to give more to a fiscally irresponsible school district?

The Franklin ballot contained three whopping property tax increases (school referenda) totaling nearly $50 million. Two of the three passed with a total price tag of $33 million. That’s a lot of tax money during a non-recovery recession.

Here are the results.

So what happened? What happened between the 2007 ballot bomb and this year’s 2/3 success?

In an issue of Wisconsin School News put out by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards around the time of the 2007 election, Tom Joynt of the Administrative Leadership Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee wrote about successful referendum strategies. The basis of his article is a 20-question survey that was mailed to the superintendents in all 70 school districts that had a successful referendum in 2005 or 2006. Forty-four completed surveys were returned, a response rate of 63 percent.

The survey was split into two sections: “Deciding to Hold a Referendum,” and “Strategies Used after a Decision Was Made to Hold a Referendum.”

In the “Deciding” section, the lowest-rated item was asking for student input on needs that were finally included in the final referendum. More weight was given to community input and opinions from staff.

After the decision was made to hold a referendum, there was a strong consensus to provide special information to parents and the media. I’m sure the Franklin got the word out to parents in 2007, but I can’t speak about their efforts to feed the news media. While the referenda garnered the obvious attention on this web site and in the community newspaper, it barely got a whimper in the Journal/Sentinel. To be fair, the larger Elmbrook referenda may have overshadowed our slightly smaller ballot questions. But it appeared the Franklin school district needed to make major improvements in the media relations department.

The Wisconsin School News survey also generated strong support for providing district residents with estimates of the tax impact of a referendum. Here, I believe the Franklin dropped the ball back in 2007. It chose to concentrate on the owner of a $250-thousand home. The less expensive homeowner, according to supporters would only pay what they considered a small tax increase. In embracing that approach, the supporters never told the whole story that included Wisconsin’s outrageous tax climate. The argument that if you had a three-car garage and a huge front lawn that you surely could plunk down even more in taxes didn’t draw guilt…it made voters upset.

Another survey idea that received a high endorsement if you wanted to have a successful referendum was to send a brochure to all community residents explaining all accurate details. Maybe Franklin officials thought they could save money by holding meetings, producing a video, and using the Internet. I never received one piece of propaganda in 2007. Many people I spoke with also got nothing in their mailbox. Again, a possible strategy that never made it into the Franklin playbook, and we all know what happened. The referenda failed overwhelmingly.

The survey respondents also highly recommended holding public forums. Now this, the Franklin school district conducted dozens of times. I can only surmise that whatever message that was disseminated at those public forums failed to resonate with those in attendance.

The personal comments on the survey were very, very interesting.

The superintendent in Oakfield, Joe Heinzelman warned, “Make sure you follow through on what you say will happen if a referendum fails.” The author of the article Tom Joynt writes, “Empty hyperbole and overstated claims before a referendum will haunt public officials for many years.” In Racine back then, it was the threat of eliminating all high school athletics. (It never happened). In Franklin, the threat was that trailers would have to be installed. Did they mean it?

According to Joynt’s article, Sue Alexander, superintendent of Markesan “felt unity of the school board in supporting a referendum is significant.” Interesting. In Franklin, right before the 2007 election campaign, two incumbent school board members chose not to run. Three school board seats were filled on April 3 with all three candidates running unopposed, two of them opposed to the referenda.

Jamie Benson, superintendent in River said the community-driven “yes” group was the “number one key to passing.” The NO vote had absolutely no organization. The YES vote did have an organized group, albeit it got in the game late and its effectiveness is highly questionable. Why wasn’t there a stronger organized COMMUNITY voice? That’s clear. The community never got behind this effort.

Superintendent David Wessel of Spencer offered this advice: “make sure you ask for enough,” but he also added, “don’t go overboard.”

And finally, Joynt writes, and this is where Franklin school officials needed to listen up, that there were “cautions to school leaders not to take the outcome of a referendum personally, but to view the results as the voice of the people participating in democracy. One respondent observed, ‘It is really the responsibility of the community to decide what type of schools they want in their community’.”

And so we have in Sheboygan a similar controversy that has played out in Franklin and many, many other school districts around the state: teachers engaging in politics and propaganda on school time.

In 2007, the Franklin school district was cavalier and arrogant.
The Friday before Election Day, April 2007, during school time, hundreds of Franklin seniors of voting age were taken to an Assembly and then drilled by school personnel about why they should vote for the referenda.

Doors to the Assembly reportedly were locked so no one could leave and no one could enter to see and hear what was going on.

I wrote the following at the time:

The impropriety of this action by Franklin school officials is clear. The surprise Assembly on the Friday before the election should never have taken place. I’m not sure if the Assembly was illegal, but it certainly was extremely unethical.

It smacks of a desperate, underhanded, sleazy maneuver by folks who must be very worried about the outcome of the election. On principle alone, these referenda need to be resoundingly rejected.

Shame on the Franklin School District for this disgusting and despicable tactic!”

Later on April 2, 2007, just prior to the final vote, I blogged an e-mail I received from a Franklin parent:

“Now that the school district has given the senior class a civics lesson and is encouraging them to exercise their right and privilege to vote(many for the first time):

1. Will they be excused from school to vote?
2. Will the students get a lesson in how to register to vote; how to determine what district they live in; and where their polling place is located?
3. Will they provide transportation to the polls?
4. Will they earn a grade for voting---how are the students going to be assessed following this civics lesson? Will they have to wear the I Voted sticker as proof of voting?
5. Will they tack on an additional 2 hours to the make up school days since the students missed first/second hour to attend this civic lesson?

I have more questions to add but the most important one is:

When will the investigation into the legality of this action begin? Who will be held accountable?”


So what happened in 2012? There were many factors that contributed to the referenda defeat in 2007 that tie in with the 2012 results where two out of three referenda were approved.

1) Sticker shock. The $78-million price tag was simply too high in 2007. This time, the cost was much lower, and divvied up into three separate questions.

2) No guarantees. In 2007, the school district could not convince voters that spending $78-million would automatically result in dramatic improvement in student achievement. This time around the district as it did in 2007 never argued academics. It argued needs for the kids. And More voters than not bought in.

3) Empty promises. At their own informational meetings in 2007, school officials admitted that even if the referenda were approved, class sizes might not get smaller. This time, referenda supporters made no promises of any kind, again stressing needs.

4) Blank check. The school district had no plans, no drawings of what the new high school would look like, and no site for the new school. This time, there were viewable drawings.

5) Timing. Property owners in 2007 had just paid their bills a few months ago. Wisconsin taxes are among the highest in the nation. This was not the time to ask for a massive property tax increase. In 2012 it still wasn’t the time, but many voters sided that now was better than later.

6) Needs vs. wants. The school district needed a Buick, but asked for a Rolls Royce in 2007. This time they asked for a Buick.

7) Attitude. It’s never good to insult the voters. They saw right through the arrogant, “But you just don’t understand, let me try to explain it to you” approach in 2007. Less condescension in 2012.

8) Bad omen I. Two School Board members chose not to seek re-election in 2007. In 2012, most school board members voted to put the three referenda on the ballot.

9) Bad omen II. The main cheerleader for the referenda, the school superintendent, came out of a closed door meeting with the School Board and said he was resigning. In 2012, the main architect of the referenda, Superintendent Steve Patz was a cheerleader bent on getting the votes.

10) The public trust. Add #’s 8 and 9, and your credibility with the public was eroding in 2007. That obviously wasn’t the case in 2012.

11) Bad PR. Someone put fliers promoting the referenda in City Hall in 2007. It came to our attention, the fliers were removed immediately for obvious reasons. In 2012, the shenanigans were almost non-existent.

12) More bad PR. The Friday before the 2007 election, Franklin High School seniors of voting age are sent to an Assembly on school time, and are drilled about the importance of voting, “yes.” WTMJ-AM reported it, and just days before the election, supporters look disorganized and desperate. No such controversy in 2012.

13) Major miscalculation. 2007 supporters thought they could go to the voters, play the guilt card, proclaim “it’s for the children,” and ask for the moon. Thinking the tax revolt was dead, they underestimated the anger of the taxpayers, who sent a loud and clear message at the polls. The same should have happened this time, but enough voters bought into the “these needs are for the children” spin.

Now we have future projects that will include ongoing operation and maintenance costs. Don’t blame me and the other NO voters every December when the bill comes due in your mailbox.
 

One beleaguered Franklin resident fears we're not done with the referendum routine because the middle school lost out in this last election. The next question(s) might be geared towards the middle school. That's a possibility since the district found a way to be successful and they simply have no shame.


 THE TOP 10 FRANKLIN STORIES OF 2012

1) FRANKLIN VOTERS APPROVE 2 OF 3 SCHOOL REFERENDA
2) A PIPE BOMBER AT FRANKLIN HIGH DRAWS A BIG FAT YAWN FROM STEVE PATZ
3) THE ALDERVISOR AND A SHAKEUP AT THE SCHOOL BOARD
4) MEIJER REALLY WANTS TO COME HERE, BUT...
5) WELCOME TO THE MMSD
6) PUTTING FRANKLIN ON THE MAP
7) A GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY
8) THE RISE OF THE CYBER BULLIES
9) FRANKLIN DEPARTURES
10) A BROCHURE? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

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