School Board Candidate Feature: Daniel Gugala, Seat 6
Daniel Gugala is running for Seat 6 of the Wauwatosa School Board. He is a long term Wauwatosa resident and has two children in the Wauwatosa School district. His main priorities are addressing physical altercations and promoting academic excellence.
What is your connection to the Tosa Community?
I’ve been a Tosa resident for 25 years. I have lived in the same house now for 20 years and I just love Wauwatosa. When my wife and I first moved here we were super excited about the community and the schools and growing and building a family here. I’ve coached for a long time for a bunch of different programs: the Junior Trojans, blazers, baseball, basketball and lacrosse. And then professionally, I’m a lawyer. I’m an attorney. I’ve been general counsel for a couple of different companies and currently work as Chief Compliance Officer for financial services.
How will your background in law add to the school board?
There’s a lot of legal and regulatory requirements in terms of how you run meetings, which I am familiar with. I spent a lot of time working with policy, and the board really is the primary policy creator from a district level. Being able to abide by, make changes and update the policies is a really important skill to have to be able to contribute and make sure that we’re doing things appropriately.
What is a specific issue that you’ve identified in our district?
One of the big reasons that I actually decided to run was just the issue of safety. I have two sons in the district, one is a junior at West and one’s a seventh grader at Whitman. Just with that four year gap, they’ve had very different experiences. So some of the challenges that I’ve seen my younger son go through with some of the assaultive behavior and things like that that are happening in the schools, that really kind of motivated me to say, this is an issue we need to address. So that’s probably my number one. I just feel students can’t learn and teachers have a hard time teaching if they don’t feel they’re in a safe environment.
How do you intend to address this issue?
So as far as a solution, I think it’s a complicated issue that we have to address but my main focus is on those significant physically assaultive fights and situations we’ve been having. I think the MOU program, which was just signed in, was a big step. I wish that would have happened sooner and I would have liked to see that move forward faster. Also, there currently is no district policy on discipline, which again, like I mentioned earlier, policy is the main way that the board can actually affect change. So that’s in the process right now. Hopefully, that will be signed and hopefully those will get implemented. It’s certainly been a focus but then I think we just have to better understand the data and have cleaner data in terms of what’s happening. Why is it happening? Really get down to the specifics. I use this as an example: We know black females are currently involved with 60% of the fight, so are we talking to that group? Are we talking to their parents? Can we better understand what are the social or emotional things that are going on? Are there things on social media? I think we need to really understand what are the drivers for some of the violent and assaulted behavior, and then we can do a better job of addressing them. So for me, I’ll say this a lot, I think we have to get really clean data, understand what the data is, so that we can figure out where we need to go to address it.
So in your opinion, has the school board done well handling physical altercations?
I don’t. I don’t know that they’ve really set it as a priority. That’s my perspective. I don’t believe it’s been a priority. I think we’ve known since even the beginning of this year—even last year, as well—but certainly at the beginning of this year. We started with two fights the first week of school, which set a tone and I feel like there really hasn’t been much specifically done to address it. Behavior data was first looked at in February of this year, which is looking at the fight incidence of fighting policies just coming up now. The MOU program was in flight, but it still has taken six months since the beginning of the school year to get to conclusion. From my perspective, it just feels like it hasn’t been a priority. What I want to be able to do is bring much more of a focus on the challenges that we’re having so we can find ways to better address the issue.
How will you ensure that students’ perspectives are involved in that conversation?
I’ve been fortunate that Dr. Means has been willing to meet with me each month during the course of this process, we know that we’re asking students on a regular basis I think twice a year essentially a number of different survey questions. But one of those questions is “Do you feel safe at school?”. I know it’s changed a little over time; it used to be yes or no. Now the options are, always, usually, sometimes, or never. So we have that data, but then there’s no follow up question to find out why. I was asking Dr. Means “Did you ask a follow up question to say why?” because these are areas where I do think we have opportunities to find out more from the students. And I think we should be finding out more from the students, maybe the reason may have nothing to do with the fights. What I’d like to better understand is what are the other areas? What are the things that students are feeling? It’s great to get like a pulse like that’s kind of what those are. Those are like pulse surveys, but then now getting some more information, getting more feedback just helps us better realize the situations that students are going through. Or what are the things that are impacting your day to day and then we can do more things to address it.
Is there something that you think the school board has done well?
That’s a good question. I don’t know that I’ve been thinking about it too much. I think the one thing that I would say is that they did this year for sure is that they started to actually make policy updates generally across the board. The vast majority of our policies were from 2009 and hadn’t been updated since. That was actually something I had talked about doing when I decided to run. That would be one of the first things I would do because I work for a company and actually manage all of our corporate policies. We have a requirement that they have to be reviewed annually, so someone has to look at it and then you have to keep track of if it was reviewed, who reviewed it, and what were the changes. Maybe we don’t get updates on an annual basis, but maybe it’s every two years or every three years, but we should see more of a process around that and I think it just makes a lot more sense to have a way in which to do that. But I do think that that process started this year. They needed updates.
So you’re running as a part of the Tosa Dads. Can you just tell us how that group came to be and the goal that you share?
I don’t know if there’s a goal for us so much. It’s just running. I mean, I knew both of the other guys from before, Chris and I have kids the same age, so we’ve known them for forever. Our kids played sports together. And then Mike, we have a bunch of common connections through some of the guys who are lacrosse or football coaches, and so we’ve known each other from those similar circles. To be honest, those two had decided to run before I decided to run and they were saying they would like to get more people to run because it’s hard to find people to run for most anything, especially school boards right now. I was really, really hesitant. Part of the agreement to run was that we would try and help each other at least get through, like campaigning is its own animal, there’s just a lot to it. I felt like I would be overwhelmed with that and trying to better understand what’s happening in the schools and in the district. It just became sort of: “Well, we can help each other get through some of the challenges and difficulties of campaigning in the process”.
How have you funded your campaign?
I’ve only taken donations from people I know, friends, family and community members. From a non-partisan standpoint, I’m sure there’s people who are from different parties that are donating. I don’t have any PACs, political action committees, and I haven’t taken any funds from any organization like that. It’s all just people I know and people in the community
What are your thoughts regarding outside forces being influenced on school board decisions?
I think there’s a lot of concern about that right now. I think I sort of look at it just the opposite. Based on research I’ve done looking at the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, they put out eight bullet points to make a school board effective, which make a ton of sense when you look at it. One of the key things is not looking outside of your district for either excuses or for input. It’s asking “What does the community want the district to be?”, “What did the students do?”, “ What did the parents do?”, ”What did the teachers do?”, “What does the community want the school community to be?” and use that input to make decisions. So yeah, I mean, I think we should look outside for best practices and such, but as far as influence, I hope that’s not the case.
Could you tell us more about your stance on issues like banning books, inclusive curriculum and teacher retention and then how you would address these issues?
Banning books should be a no. I’m just happy for kids to be reading right now. We have 50% proficiency in our district in terms of being proficient or advanced in reading, and then 50% below that. If there is a book that interests them, let’s get it in their hands.
Regarding inclusive curriculum, there’s different definitions, but ultimately, teachers should teach to the students in their classroom. They should recognize different kinds of learners. I have a very basic understanding, but there’s going to be visual learners, written learners, different demographics and we should be inclusive from the standpoint of recognizing what those differences are. It’s important to have a curriculum so that every student has the chance to succeed. After we get past the issue of assaultive behaviors, academic excellence is critical for me, so anything that we can do to do a better job with that, looking outside for practices we’re not doing, that we shouldn’t be doing, anything that can help students. We need to bring an academic focus back to Wauwatosa. If you’ve been at the board meetings, they’re talking about the curriculum, and there’s massive gaps in terms of updating and so I’m wide open to how we address that as long as we get strong outcomes.
On teacher retention. Yeah, I think we have to keep working towards having safe schools, keeping teachers, and paying them, which I think that’s one part of why teachers would stay. But that’s only a small part of it, just like anybody in their job, the pay is only a part of it. There has to be a strong culture, you’ve got to feel respected. You have to feel like what you’re providing is valued and you want to feel safe. So, let’s improve our curriculum and get strong outcomes. Once we have addressed the safety issues, we turn more of our attention to general behavioral issues. Teachers right now just spend way too much time doing classroom management, particularly in the middle school and some of our elementary schools. We have to be able to get those behaviors addressed so that teachers can teach because that’s why they got into teaching.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Yes. It goes back to the question about outside influence. It’s top of mind to me, because it came up this morning. I had an email exchange with someone who referenced data, which was 100% taken from the DPI website. In 2013 Tosa was ranked 22nd. We were the 22nd district in the state, but as of this past scorecard we were 100th. I think the thing I just want people to understand is I totally understand that there are tons of positive things happening in the district. You could go through the things from sports programs, dance teams, APPSE, and Lincoln being the number one public elementary school in the state. That’s fantastic and it’s great to celebrate that. I think parents, teachers, and students should celebrate those things. But the way I look at it from a board perspective, just who I am personally, I’m driven by success. And for me, I think a school district is successful when it’s educating its students. So to see us fall from 22nd Best district to 100th feels like not success.It’s okay to look at that and to say it’s happened, it’s okay to accept that as fact, you need to accept it in order to change it. I really think we need to come in, everyone needs to come in and I’m coming in with an open mind to see what the pattern has been. Where are we? Where do we have our challenges? And now let’s come up with a plan to address each of those challenges. For me, that’s what motivates me. The good stuff is great and I want people to enjoy the good things. But what motivates me is how do we take it from where we’re at to a higher level to get to a level of success where we can see improvement. That’s what I get excited about. I feel like personal success, things you completed or getting a policy, things like that, I don’t consider that success. I consider that day to day. I think overall, we looked at some of these things as little victories along the way. But I think we’re maybe missing the big picture of what we are trying to do and how we are making sure that students are fully educated in the way we would expect them to be within Tosa school. Tosa schools should be a reflection of our community and I think everyone agrees that the community is amazing.