Wauwatosa School Board Candidate Discuss Safety, Curriculum at Tosa West PTA Forum
Wauwatosa West PTA held a forum for school board candidates for the upcoming April 4th election on March 14th 2023. The moderator, Daphne Lee, guided the candidates through eight questions that were submitted ahead of time, and allowed a two minute response time for each response.
All candidates, except for Phillip Michaels, attended the forum. Michaels is running for seat 4 unopposed. The candidates for Seat 5 are Liz Heimler-Rolland and Christopher Zirbes. Seat 6’s candidates are Lynn Whoerhle and Daniel Gugala and Seat 7’s are Jessica Willis and Mike Zollicoffer.
School Board members are locally elected members of the community. The Wauwatosa School Board is made up of seven members and are entrusted with ensuring schools are responsive to the Wauwatosa community
Below is an edited version of each question with a short summary of each candidate’s response. To watch a non-edited zoom recording to the entire forum click here.
- Introduce yourself, what motivated you to run for school board, and name your favorite Wauwatosa School activity you have attended/involved in?
Rolland-A strong advocate for public schools, Rolland has been involved in many Wauwatosa School activities. She sees what is going on in schools, like the elementary level school dances. She has also led Lincoln Elementary PTO (Parent/Teacher Organization) and took charge in starting a community service day at Lincoln Elementary.
Zirbes– A dad who loves Tosa, he has 3 kids in the district, one at West, and two at Whitman. He has lived in Wauwatosa for 25 years, and at first paid higher taxes for a good education for his kids, but now, he is still paying higher taxes but the education has to be worked on. He is involved with the Wauwatosa schools by being the field coordinator for the Junior Blazers football team.
Woehrle-A program director at Mount Mary, Woehrle knows how to be an administrator, deal with grants and is a self-proclaimed “data geek” and “policy geek”. She wants to answer the question of, Where are we? and Where do we want to be? A Wauwatosa school activity she enjoys are the soccer games and orchestra concerts.
Gugala– A 25 year Tosa resident, Gugala has experienced change within the school district regarding physical assault and loss of teachers, which has motivated him to run for school board. He has many strong capabilities in data analytics, and is an attorney meaning he can work with policies. He wants to get the Wauwatosa School district back to a place where we deserve to be.
Willis– Willis hopes to continue to use her background in public education and her experiences and collaboration to engage all stakeholders and make the district the best it can be. She is a special-ed teacher and has subbed in Tosa buildings, which has given her the opportunity to create spaces, and she wants to create a culture that supports all students.
Zollicoffer– Zollicoffer has the ability to listen, problem solve, and is trustworthy. He is a youth leader at his church, and believes that he is a positive role model and can build relationships. Zollicoffer loves Wauwatosa, and is ready to “roll up [his] sleeves, volunteer, and serve.”
- What specific proactive solutions or actions do you plan to champion to address concerns around school safety?
Rolland– We can all agree that none of us want to hear about fighting in our schools. I have been a program manager for MPS and for the Medical College where I have led conflict resolution restorative practices. When I was at MPS my main role was to reduce the amount of suspensions and expulsions. If our District staff and Leadership follows the Frameworks that’s presented this year I think we’ll see some increased positive behaviors and a decrease in those negative behaviors.
Zirbes– I spoke to a lot of the teachers around our schools and they told me that they weren’t feeling safe in the buildings. Our guidelines that we have in place are not working. The District is gathering data for this now but they’re too far behind. These physical fights and bullying are having a major effect on our kids today. We learned a couple years ago that kids couldn’t learn when they were hungry and now we’re finding out that they can’t when they feel unsafe. My children suffer from anxiety and are scared to use the restroom at Whitman.
Woehrle- We need to not just do the high level interventions when things get to the point of suspension or to the point of even going to the principal’s office. We haven’t done enough at that point we need to layer down. Students need to learn how to communicate with and work with people who are different from them, it is so important. Wauwatosa is a district that brings a diverse group of students together. Also I would say from my perspective we can’t scare people into positive behavior. We have to create a situation where positive behavior is rewarded.
Gugala- I worked for 14 years for a company CPI, Crisis Prevention Institute, a Milwaukee based company that provides training on providing care welfare. I recognize the absolute need to have safe environments for teachers to teach and students to learn. It’s really difficult to understand what the challenges are in schools without accurate, consistent data. We need to make sure that we have a clear picture. We have to be able to provide the appropriate interventions. In addition to that we have to look at that data and recognize when there are certain trends and take the appropriate steps proactively. We can’t continue to guess these things.
Willis- As a policy committee, we are working tirelessly to make sure that we have the policies in place for all stakeholders. But policies around discipline haven’t been looked at for 10 to 15 years. I have two young kids in the district. I want safe learning environments for them and for all children. This is the first time in 20 years that we had a memorandum of understanding that solidified the partnership that we have with our police department. It’s not just about physical safety but also the psychological and emotional safety of our kids and it’s going to take really thoughtful evidence-based solutions to address those so that we not only see uh short-term.
Zollicoffer- The district told us that less than one percent of students are engaging in fighting yet all students are affected emotionally mentally. We need to have a clearly defined policy in place and commit to it. I don’t feel like things are being enforced or maybe the students think they can get away with things. Some of these kids, their only safe place is the school. We owe it to the students to be able to stay safe. The school resource officers have been a trusted adult in the school system for many years now.
- What is your current understanding of the status of Tosa school performance/underperformance in the district, and how would you seek to improve that?
Zirbes-We can’t blame COVID forever. 10 years ago, Wauwatosa was 22nd in the state, last year we were 105th. Our teachers are spending more time in the classroom doing classroom management because of the number of kids in their classroom and them not having aid, than they are actually teaching our kids. A child sits in a classroom bored or is not getting enough one on one time with the teacher will shut down.
Woehrle-One of my favorite topics [is] technical education, opportunities for students who want to learn other kinds of things besides what they do with their head. I always need to recognize that my students aren’t learning the same way. Our students know how they learn.I want them to have all that possibility when they go to school and good learning, that’s what it’s going to take.
Gugala– I would venture to guess that about 50% of the students across our schools are proficient in math and ELA, but there’s 50% of our students that we’re just not meeting the needs of as well. We need to make sure that we’re regularly updating curriculum, to be able to ensure that the curriculum and information we’re providing the students is aligned to the standards. We have a diverse school community, 40% minority within our schools, and so we have to make sure our curriculum is matching their needs and expectations.
Willis– I think as a community we need to recognize that not all students succeed the same way and success does not look the same in every building. We saw that opportunity gap widening because of COVID, and COVID is not an excuse, it’s a reality. Kids are failing because of systems and we need to adjust our system to make sure that we are meeting the needs of our children.
Zollicoffer– I think we need to do better and as a person of color it is unacceptable that students of color are less proficient in math and ELA. My concern is making sure that all students are being taught at an appropriate level and we need to meet them where they’re at so they can move forward. We got to make sure we’re keeping our kids engaged. We really need to focus on our academics so we don’t have this gap that we’re having.
Rolland– My background is in early childhood education. I taught K3, first grade and am now at the Medical College of Wisconsin. I’ve designed and implemented a curriculum for everyone from three year olds all the way to doctors. We need to look at where we’re putting our resources and ensure that every school has the same resources. I have been to all of our schools while I’ve been campaigning, and I will say that the teachers are really encouraged by the new pace time and about the coaching that they’re receiving from the district level. I think that is a testament to some of the really big changes that our district has made.
- How will you work toward unity on the school board so there can be unity in our schools?
Woehrle-We may think about things differently. We may bring different strengths, but the idea of unity would be in that unity around making sure that we have schools that serve our students, and that our teachers and staff are well paid. I also want to say that in Wauwatosa I made a decision in 2016 to work with a few other people to start an organization called Tosa Together because I believe that this city should be a welcoming city. I have worked with people who don’t always agree with me when we’re working forward and making those policies and I will do that again on the school board.
Gugala-I think it’s really important for us as a board to continue to build trust and transparency with the community and teachers. From the school board currently, I think maybe there’s a lack of trust at the moment. I think that’s something that we really have to focus on and that we have to build towards as a team that may require professional development. I love our schools but I want to love them more. We can’t hide the challenges that we have by focusing on the positive we need both. By putting all of that out there, creating that transparency, creates a better path.
Willis– We often need to honor each other’s experience and perspective, even if we don’t agree and we don’t always do that on the board. We just need to make sure that we center the work that we’re doing around students and sometimes it gets lost because we start focusing on what adults do. And unfortunately that trickles down into our buildings into our classrooms and into our students. They see our behavior. I believe that we all care about students, but we need to have norms and we need to have expectations for one another.
Zollicoffer– There has to be a level of trust. We all have to come together. I mean, we’re all in this for the kids. We want to move in the right direction with our schools. So as long as we can all be on the same path and look at the same goal, we can all come together and we can all unite.
Rolland– We’ll have three brand new members, and can kind of start over. I think we can all agree that we want to see the school board less in the news and we want to focus more on the incredible things happening in our buildings every day. I think that there’s gonna have to be training done for the new board members. It’s important that they know what their role is. There needs to be some community building within the seven members of the board in April. I think this community needs to focus less on the school board, and more on what the school board’s intentions are.
Zirbes-When I was out getting nomination papers signed, the parents I talked to wanted a direct line of communication to the board, their ideas to be heard, and to celebrate the teachers. There is a shortfall here, we need to rebuild this community, I think we know we do. I’ll give you an example. Last fall it was football season and everything was great and then there was a fight at the Tosa East football game. I think today people that have lived here for 25 years or for 50 years lost that love for tradition in this city and that’s where we have to rebuild.
- The community submitted a lot of questions around the Human Growth and Development curriculum. What is the role of the school board in controversial policy and curriculum decisions?
Gugala–We’re here because we’re an elective body elected by you to serve. I think in any of these situations when you’re dealing with controversial challenges we need to find a balance between the needs of the community and the needs of us. Ensuring a great public education to the students not only requires us to work together, communicate, and transparency but also strong feedback mechanisms from administration, teachers, parents and the community so that we can understand what the wants of the community are and make intelligent decisions.
Willis- I think our curriculum needs to address the needs of our student body. I am proud to be a part of a board that approved this human growth and development curriculum because it includes our LGBTQ students. It is important that we get feedback from all stakeholders. This approval was an 11 month process that engaged various stakeholders including community members, students, and educators. There was an internal and external committee. We made sure the curriculum reflected the values of our community before approval.
Zollicoffer– I think it was handled incorrectly and I think we lost trust , the community lost trust due to the way this was handled. I keep calling it a Tosa tear, there was a little bit of a divide. This was done wrong and policy was not followed and that’s why as a board member I will follow policy and we’ll review programs like this every three years.
Rolland- I supported the human growth and development curriculum. It’s really important for our marginalized students to be included in the curriculum, passing this curriculum is a good first step.It’s really important we now have a system in place where we’re going to be constantly reviewing. I unfortunately agree the community did lose trust in our district. Some of the data that we collected was collected poorly. That’s something the district should take accountability for. When we put out surveys, they should give us valid results, otherwise it’s a waste of time.
Zirbes- There is a lack of trust from parents right now with the district. I know we don’t set curriculum, but we need to hold others accountable to do so. Audits and data that we’ve been seeing are concerning because they demonstrate that we have had issues since well before the pandemic going back to 2017, and cannot continue to blame the pandemic for our declining proficiency. We need to put our teachers in the best position to teach and put students in a good position to learn. We need to be accountable to them to include them in the process and engage them to teach our kids as our ultimate goal.
Woehrle-What’s really hard about intense topics that divide us is that we tend to move into win lose types of mindsets and that makes it really difficult to hear people. Our schools are about preparing our students for now and for the future. School board members are asked to prepare our kids to navigate the diverse world and how to navigate differences. I really want my children to not just hear what I have to say about things but hear a lot of other perspectives. We need to listen, listen more, research, integrate what we learned as
school board members, decide, and then be open to review.
- Sometimes, the loudest voices in the room can steal focus from important stakeholders and distract from the biggest issues. How will we know through your work as a board member, that you’ve listened to all stakeholders?
Willis- I’ve been on the other side where I was advocating for my students so I understand the frustration when you don’t feel that your voice is being heard. I hope that it is reflected in my questions, I believe I ask tough questions as a board member. I don’t just rely on my wants or my needs but really on what our community is saying and what our students need. I also pride myself on my willingness to meet with some of my biggest critics. I’m willing to meet with you because I believe at the end of the day we all want the same thing and that we can find that common ground and work together not work against each other.
Zollicoffer-We want to make sure that you know we’re doing the right things and that your voice is heard and that we can be accountable for things that we’re doing. It’s really just leaving your ego at the door and making sure that you know we’re up here working for you, the community. I will make sure that you know when I’m on the board that there’s communication and my phone is always available for texts or emails. I think uh we owe it to the community to communicate back and let them know what’s going on.
Rolland– I am super proud to say that I’ve been in every building in our district since January. For the last four weeks, I’ve answered every question from every interview that I’ve done, attended every forum, emailed back and forth with members of our community who are strongly against me running for this position. I’m always willing to listen and share my perspective and try to find common ground. As a board member, I will always be open to conversations grabbing coffee, maybe a glass of wine or beer if that’s your preference. Because I do think that when we work together, we have better outcomes.
Zirbes– One of the biggest things is pretty basic, but our teachers. They have a thankless job and they love our kids. It’s sad that in some cases that teacher may be the only stable adult relationship that our students have. We need to get teachers more aids in the classroom. They need more communication with administration and principles. We need to work with teachers and ask for their input. We have a seven year academic decline and the teachers want these tools to teach our kids. We need to protect the greatest asset our district has, our teachers
Woehrle–If I say I understand you won’t know that I really understood where you’re coming from unless I take the time to express what I think. We may have had that conversation but that doesn’t mean that then when I go to vote on something it will be exactly what you want. But when you’re unhappy with how an issue came out, you may reach out to me, and I’ll say let me be transparent. I will be very clear. Listening to my colleagues on the board, to the community,and outside my own assumptions, stereotypes, and norms, I drew this conclusion.
Gugala– The pieces, feelings and loss of trust that’s happened has resulted in a lack of feedback from all of the stakeholders who don’t feel comfortable coming forward. There are areas of our community, parents, and groups of students that don’t always speak very loudly and we have to be proactive and go talk to them. Building trust and transparency so that people feel comfortable and confident coming to you is important. I want to get down to the heart of what we have, what issues we have to solve and what things we have to do.
- Regarding the budget, what would your plan be to manage the budget shortfall, especially in light of losing ESSER funding?
Zollicoffer- First and foremost I don’t want to commit to any specifics without seeing the final numbers but as a board member I will always be sure we weigh our needs and our students and teachers with the needs of taxpayers in Wauwatosa. We’d want to avoid a referendum. I mean that’s my biggest thing, we need to maintain school resident enrollment here in Wauwatosa. It saddened me to hear that these people want to move into this community because of what’s going on. We’ve got to keep bringing people into this community so we do not lose our residents here to private schools.
Rolland- I think it’s really important that we share accurate information with our community. I’ve attended the finance committee meeting. We don’t short-term borrow which is very uncommon for school districts. In terms of ESSR funding, I know there’s been a lot of conversation that we have one position that’s planned to be a full-time permanent position and that is a person who’s charged with coordinating our mental health experts in our schools. We’re moving past some of those things we had challenges we had with COVID so some of those positions may go away. I will always make sure when reviewing budgets that it aligns with our strategic plans and it aligns with making sure all of our Learners have everything that they need to succeed
Zirbes-I’ve been in finance all my life. I read financial statements every day. The district is projecting a 1.6 million dollar deficit if you look at the budget that the board has approved for the school year 22-23 it’s right there. The board has gotten, for the past 20 years, the maximum state levy. With the ESSR money, some of that went into the fund balance as of last year for 2022. However, they took money that’s running out before the end of the new hire’s contract. Enrollment is going down and our spending is going up. That’s how you get it, that’s how you end up with the deficit.
Woehrle-My understanding is that this is a financially healthy school district that we have definitely one big challenge that we are have just funded and need to continue to be very consistent about funding and that is the fair wages of our staff in the district, that has to be a priority. However we can do that without going into deficit. I will tell you that I’ve now worked for good or for bad for three universities that have gone through a major compression and downsizing and really work through the process of how do you do that how do you do that budgeting issue without making the people who have been committed to your institution for a long time feel like you don’t care about.
Gugala–I was told all your questions will be answered this coming Monday the 20th on exactly what the situation is from a financial standpoint so there’s a finance meeting this Monday Fisher Building 5:30 for anyone who’s interested in hearing that. I don’t have all of the details. I’m still working to find out what the real answer is in order to be able to provide the appropriate response. I’m going to the meeting Monday to get a better sense of exactly what the issue is. Where there may be a shortfall, how much it, and look at priorities. We have to prioritize students and teachers, making sure that they have what they need and are able to enable an excellent education for our students.
Willis-Regarding the ESSR funds, I am proud of the way that our district used our ESSR funds. Working as a public education teacher I know that there are many districts that have to use those funds just to operate, we did not have to do that. Those funds provided support for students who were impacted negatively because of COVID that’s what we were used for. We’re seeing positive outcomes, so again using data and evidence-based Solutions when we’re talking about the needs of our students. Also public schools are underfunded. That’s the reality they have been underfunded for a really long time.
- To any family or teacher who is considering leaving the Wauwatosa School District, what would you say to convince them to stay?
Zollicoffer-I would say just wait you know we’ve been talking about a lot of negative things that’s been going on and people been seeing a lot of negative things on the news but I’m not sure people realize that the basketball team just won conference for the first time ever, we just hired a new coach for the football team. There’s been some struggles but I’ve been here 17 years, it’s a long time and I don’t plan to leave. I think the community needs a wake-up call. We got to stay positive and we can’t run from these problems and issues that we have right now going on. We just need to address them, we need to fix them, we need to problem solve and work together and fall together as a community.
Rolland- I would encourage them to go into our buildings. I have learned so much from just walking through the buildings and listening to teachers and listening to the principles. It is hard making time to go into all the buildings. It has been challenging, it’s meant that I’ve been up at like 4 am working for my full-time job to get things done but it has energized me seeing all of the amazing things happening. I’ve seen service projects taking place. I’ve seen evidence of amazing teachers, lots of active learning, social emotional support happening, collaboration between the different specialists and teachers in the building. If people saw what was happening in our buildings, they would want to stay and they would want to work together to make them stronger and to fix some of the problems that we do have.
Zirbes-There are so many there are so many positive things going on in Tosa, Cinderella is great, the West forensics team got fourth at state. I love Tosa and I want to be a leader for the 7,000 students and 700 teachers that we have. I want every kid and every teacher to walk in the classroom each day and feel safe and be able to prosper. I want all the kids to have the best resources that they need to excel and for them to look back here at Tosa and have some of the best memories they have. As I mentioned before, my background is in finance I want to be a good Financial Steward for the district’s money and to ensure that your tax dollars are all handled responsibly. Thank you
Woehrle–What do your kids want? What does your family need? What is something that you really value about the school district? There is a lot of amazing work going on. I am so impressed with this district. How it is attracting incredible leaders, incredible teachers, incredible staff members. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of the people who have filled empty positions in the administration and they are working such long hours and recognize the challenges that we face as a district. I would tell that person who’s thinking of leaving “Be a little bit patient. You moved here for a reason. You saw the beauty and the joy and the excellence of this community. If it’s not there right now for you, roll up your sleeves and figure out how you are going to get involved to make sure that it will be tomorrow.”
Gugala–What I would say to somebody who’s thinking about leaving and saying yes we certainly had some challenges from a school district perspective we have some things that we need to step up and address and as a board member I’m going to put a focus on those things to make sure that we’re moving forward in the right direction. The work that Dr. Means and his team have moved us forward, and we’re going to continue to move forward. We’re going to bring a better educational experience to students. The key thing I will bring as a school board member is focus on the challenges that we have and turn them into opportunities.
Willis – Community feedback has shown me that this community is engaged and they care and I think it’s reflected in every single candidate up here. I would tell anybody that: “Get involved.” I got involved right away in coaching, the PTA and subbing in the schools. This is what keeps you wanting to be around in a community like this. Our schools are doing incredible things every single day at every single school you know. If you don’t see it, get involved. Get involved in whatever way you can, if it’s volunteering for an hour at your child’s school or if you don’t have children in the district reach out and find out there are opportunities for you to come and engage kids in after school activities, take tickets, do something but get involved.
Also watch the video about the school board meeting here.