School Board Candidate Feature – Chris Zirbes, Seat 5
Chris Zirbes is running for seat 5 of the Wauwatosa School board. He has 3 children in the Wauwatosa School District, and has a background in finance. His main priorities are teacher retention, student safety, transparent communication, and resource accountability.
What is your connection to the Tosa Community?
I’ve lived in Tosa for 20 plus years. I’m married and have three kids. One’s a junior here at West and I have two twins in seventh grade at Whitman. I’m on other boards of nonprofits, and of team boards in the community, like Junior Trojan baseball and Junior blazer football. I’m a proud member of the Tosa Mayfair Rotary Club, I have been on that for 15 plus years, and am the past president and treasurer.
What unique professional or personal perspective will you bring to the board?
Currently, I work at Cornerstone Community Bank, which is a family owned community bank. I run a group of commercial lenders so my group works with small businesses. Up to 10 to 15 million in sales, usually second or third generation type companies.Every day at the bank, I review company’s financials, we talk about their profitability, we talk about their profit margin, we talk about their debt service, we talk about their budgeting. There’s a finance committee tonight for the school board, and we talk about similar things. They’re balancing a budget deficit, open enrollment is down, which is revenue, there’s expenses to do everything to this building, how we finish our year, how we balance a budget, and so forth.
The number one thing in the last couple years, like other districts, we got SRO funds, which are federal grants from the government. They are short term monies that expire or end in September of 2024. We’ve used it to contract out and hire people, but we’re given them longer term contracts that exceed September of 2024. So when that money is gone, how do we pay for that? Same thing with the 2022 to 2023 school year, the district had a deficit. They used grant money, and a little bit of their fund balance to balance that budget. But what happens in two years from now when we have a deficit or we budgeted for a deficit and we don’t have grant money to balance that budget? It’s going to come out of the fund balance.
What is an issue you’ve identified within our district and how do you intend to address the problem?
Teacher retention, I mean, the district as a whole lost 193 of them last year. And our teachers are great as they’re the district’s greatest asset. I’ve known many of them, obviously, all the years that my kids have been here. But it seems like at the elementary school, the teachers have aides in their classrooms to help. I’ve been to all the elementary schools so far [and] talked to all the principals. There they have the [teacher] aids and the tools that those teachers need to get to the middle school or the high school and you have more kids in the class. The teachers don’t have any aides in that classroom to help them [even] when they have 24 kids in a class. Some kids need more one-on-one help than others. If they don’t get it, they might check out or they might give up or they might, you know, tend to misbehave more.
Right now the district is looking for new aids. They’re offering $15 an hour. And I mean, it goes back to budgetary things but at the same point, you can make $16 an hour at McDonald’s. Or you can make $15 an hour to be an aide. We’re doing a good job of getting more money in the teacher raise pool to give the teachers more money, because they deserve it. We need to do something similar with the aides and get them more money so we can find good aides and keep good aides.
[In regards to smaller classroom size] we can [only] have so many classrooms and we have so many square feet of a property to deal with. I was at Lincoln this morning, [which is] a brand new building, and they’re at capacity. They could use more students in a classroom. They just don’t have more room to add a classroom. If we get more help for the teachers and take a little off their plate, give them an aid, get them some help, they can work closer with some students that do need more help. I don’t know physically if we can add classrooms to Whitman to West or to East.
Are there any “hot topics” regarding school boards right now, such as book bans, inclusive curriculum, etc, that you feel are important to address?
I think the main one there is the teachers and fighting for them. Again, I mentioned before, the teachers we have in this district are the greatest assets of the district going back to my oldest son [when he was in] junior K at McKinley. This teacher was our first introduction to the school district and she was an amazing teacher at McKinley, for how many years even today, my wife and I have continuous conversations with teachers and have told them you know, anytime there’s an issue on any level with any of our kids, you know, please feel free to reach out, there’s an open line of communication there and we want them to know that they that we have their back. And, you know, teaching is a hard job. Teachers might leave here but it’s never based on pay. It’s based on you know, like I said before, lack of aides, lack of tools, being challenged on the curriculum, things like that. It’s never pay. Teaching is a thankless job and every time you see one of them, you should thank them for their efforts.
I know you said lack of pay is not the reason teachers leave, but in my personal experiences talking to teachers who left, lack of pay has been the main reason.
They leave for the reasons I said you know, no aides, less tools. Currently, the violence in the schools you know, they might not feel safe, they’ll leave for those reasons. They don’t leave for lack for pay. I never said never, I just said they don’t lead with that. They don’t say I’m leaving just because of pay. There’s always another reason and if they want, they can go to district X or Y and make more.
Are you in support of paying teachers more, if lack of pay is not a reason why they would be leaving?
We’ve increased our budget, and the district has what they call the raise pool. They put money in there and that’s for all the teachers, all 700 of them for their raise for that year. I want to say we’ve tripled it, which is a great thing and that’s one of the things that I should say that the board has done a great job on. But based on the district that Wauwatosa is in we are currently like the third lowest average pay for teachers.
Beyond adjusting for inflation, should wages be increased?
Will they have to be increased? Yes, I think we agree on that. Yeah, perfect.
What will be your number one priority as a member of the school board?
I mentioned teacher retention, giving teachers the raises and the money that they need. The other thing is safety. The last couple of weeks it’s been a huge issue, [at both West and] East. I’ve lived here a long time, and when somebody used to say “Where were you from?” And you said “Tosa” you would be proud of it. I think that’s kind of gone away because every time you open the newspaper and every time you turn on the radio, you know there is an issue with a fight at East or a fight at West, or at any one of our schools and that needs to stop.
I think there has to be stricter punishments and more enforcement of punishment. There has to almost be a zero tolerance policy.
I can’t change that law [regarding expulsions]. But if [one student] gets into a fight or wants to get into a fight with [another student], knowing in the back of [their] mind that [they] could be expelled for this, you would hope that that would set something off and say, “You know what, as much as I’m disagreeing with the other person, maybe it’s something I don’t do, and don’t do on school grounds.”
Students have to be made aware that there are consequences for [fighting] and it sure looks like a three day suspension out of school is not working.
How will you make sure that punishments are equitable?
White, African American, open enrollment, resident. If you’ve gotten into a fight, you’re going to face proper discipline for that. Again, I don’t care, your male, female, you know, white, African American, if you do something, you’re going to get punished for [it].
What has The Wauwatosa School District done well?
Even though it took a year in the making, I think the MOU (Memorium of Understanding with Wauwatosa Police Department) was good. I think that continued relationship with the Tosa PD was a great thing. I mean, I think that relationship and stabilizing that relationship is a good thing that the district has done.
When I’m on the board, I think one of the big things would be the increased transparency with the stakeholders and with the families, the communities, the the people in the district. A lot of them have said that they’ve reached out to the board or they’ve gone and had public comment and didn’t feel that it was being heard. I know, the board is here. And they work with Dr. Means they challenge Dr. means to go out and be in the schools and work with the staff and the admin and things like that, but I think the board needs to be out. They need to walk the schools, they need to meet with the principals, which I’ve done.
Has there been any decision the board has made in the past that you would have decided differently?
I said before that, you know, it was a good thing that they got the MOU approved at some point. I’m not 100% percent sure why it took that long to do. I also think that last summer when the HD (human growth and development) curriculum got approved, I mean, it’s done and it’s there, but I wish they would have reviewed that [sooner], because it was 10 years after the last time that it was renewed. I think if they would have looked at it, you know, every couple of years, every three, four years instead of waiting 10 to renew it, any curriculum changes that they had would have been easier. Less dramatic versus how it was handled.
Do you have any personal opinions on the Human Growth and Development Curriculum?
I’ve only heard from families and stakeholders and community members, and things like that. I have not read it.
What are your thoughts regarding outside forces being an influence on school board decisions?
I don’t know why we would have them. My campaign has been strictly organic and you know from the ground up, I don’t have outside people I don’t have a political party affiliation. My opponent does. She had a mailer go out this weekend. And it says right on there, you know, endorsement from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. Mine is internally grown and I have no outside affiliation. This is a nonpartisan position. And it should be, you know, based on the city of Wauwatosa and its stakeholders for sure.
How have you funded your campaign? How are you making sure the sources of your funding remain non-partisan?
Friends, family, colleagues, college buddies, neighbors, things like that. Campaign finance report is due on Monday, the 27th. My average donation is $72. It’s all internal friends, people I used to work with things like that. None of it is political. None of it is PAC related. None of it is you know, any political affiliation whatsoever,
How will you make sure that student voices are being heard and represented on the school board?
Well, just getting out and talking to people, talking to parents, they take into account what the student wants to hear. If a group of students, if you wanted to say, hey, we have this idea, we think it’s great. You know, I’d love to hear about it. My focus will be anything, anything that behooves or benefits the most kids that it can. If there’s a curriculum, if there’s a student organization or something like that, that wants to be brought to the forefront. [Students] can reach out anytime they want.
What is something you’ve accomplished in the last year that you are proud of?
Work life, you know, my group continues to do well, we continue to build new relationships and find new customers and you know, work within the bank guidelines for that.