Officials detail fall-out of failed referendum

By Michael S. Hoey


Delavan-Darien School District officials outlined the affects of the failure to get a referendum passed on April 3 and the need to pass a referendum in November.

Superintendent Robert Crist said accurate accounting ahead of the April election might have helped the district better know its needs and might have given the district a better chance of a successful referendum last month. An accounting error was discovered after the election that put the district in an even worse financial position than district officials previously thought. Crist said knowing the accurate information before the election would have been useful.

In response to criticism that the district did not effectively communicate the need for the referendum or what the money would be used for to the community, Crist said he was not sure what more the district could have done to get the word out. The district used its own website, social media, mailed fliers, visited several area groups and hosted several public information meetings.

Though people in the community expressed confusion about the referendum after the election, Crist said he thought the district had been very straightforward about what it was for. The referendum would have raised the tax levy by $3.5 million for three years and then $3 million after that.

Most of the need for the referendum was for operational costs. That portion of the question was for $3 million on a recurring basis, meaning the one-time increase in the levy would not end. The district was also asking for $500,000 a year for three years, making that portion of the question non-recurring, which is why the increase in the levy would decrease to $3 million after three years.

The smaller non-recurring portion of the question was for improvements to Borg Stadium that included an artificial turf football and soccer field and improvements to the culinary arts and automotive facilities.

More layoffs needed

Crist said the district specifically said before the election that up to 23 teachers could have their contracts non-renewed if the referendum failed. Because of the accounting error, that number increased to 39 and it still wasn’t enough to plug the hole in the 2018-19 budget, so the idea to close Darien Elementary School came to fruition near the end of April.

Crist said the board could look at splitting the referendum into more than one question in November. Board President Jeff Scherer agreed and also said the board could consider asking for a non-recurring referendum.

Crist said the district hired a consultant to guide the district through the process. He said the consultant had success getting several other referendums passed including in Elkhorn.

Scherer said hiring a better consultant or firm might be a good idea going forward, though he also said the district spent less than $5,000 and only met with the consultant a couple of times to collaborate on brochures and the timing of things. He said that was not sufficient.

Scherer said the district needs to do a better job to get the word out and use a more professional public relations approach. He also said the district should have been more truthful and forthcoming about the consequences of the referendum failing.

Superintendent removed

One of those consequences was a vote by the board on April 23 to move in a different direction with its superintendent. Crist will retire on June 30. Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jill Sorbie will take over as interim superintendent. Scherer said the district will give Sorbie several months to settle in to the job, and the board might hire her permanently. Sorbie said she could potentially be interested in the job permanently if both sides are happy. Sorbie was hired as director of curriculum and instruction in August and said she loves her job.

“The district needs consistency, stability and transparency,” Sorbie said.

Sorbie said her short-term goals are to answer any questions people have and to make staff feel at ease and that the district is still a great place to work. She also intends to meet with community members to get their input about how the district can improve, and she intends to meet with officials from the Village of Darien about its concerns about the closure of Darien Elementary School.

Long-term, Sorbie said she wants to restore the pride in and reimage the district and keep the district accountable.

As for the referendum, Sorbie said the district needs to develop a better outreach program and improve communication with the community with honesty and transparency. She said the district doesn’t know yet if more cuts will have to be made if another referendum fails in November.

Sorbie said the open enrollment problem needs to be solved for the district to be in better financial place. That ongoing problem makes financing the district a moving target, she said.

Crist said open enrollment for next year is at 154 students, up from 112 this year, though that number is merely applications at this point. Some of those students might not actually leave. Crist was also not sure what affect the referendum had on that number since this is already the time of year most open enrollment applications are made.

Crist said if another referendum fails in November, the district can try again in April. If it fails again in April, it might be time to do some soul searching about dissolving the district. That would mean parents would have to send their kids to other neighboring districts that he said have higher tax rates than Delavan-Darien, and the district could lose a sense of identity.

Scherer said he is not sure if another failure in November would lead to more cuts. The district, in his opinion, has already cut down to the bare bone. He said if open enrollment stabilizes, the district could be OK.

If a referendum passes in November, Crist said quite a bit of what has been cut could be reversed, though it would take some time. Crist said the district lost quite a few good teachers, many of whom have already found new jobs elsewhere.


Coach among staff gone

One of the teachers who lost his job was physical education teacher and head football coach Bret St. Arnauld. St. Arnauld has since been hired as the new head coach at Mount Horeb-Barneveld. St. Arnauld said leaving the football program is extremely difficult.

“I poured a lot of my life over the past four years into the program and the kids,” he said.

“I love the kids like they are my own,” he said. “I am invested in them, and I care about them more than I can say.”

St. Arnauld said he was saddened that things in the district have come to this, but life happens and he has to go in another direction. He said the program is headed in the right direction with great staff camaraderie, buy-in and consistency in the past couple of years.

“Delavan-Darien will survive, but it needs the support of all who live here,” St. Arnauld said. “I wish the program, the kids, the school and my colleagues all the best of luck.”

Scherer said a majority of non-renewed teachers could be re-hired if a referendum passes in November and, if the community wants to keep Darien Elementary open, the board would have to take a look at that as well.

Sorbie said she hopes a majority of non-renewed teachers can be rehired if a referendum succeeds, but she just doesn’t know yet for sure. She said the district needs to come up with an honest figure of needs vs. wants and it needs to be fiscally sound to the taxpayers.

Sorbie said the community has a right to be angry, but the district has to move forward. She said she does not have all the answers but she is willing to listen, and she is an honest and transparent person.

“We need problem solvers to offer what is best for the education of our children,” Sorbie said.

Leader’s achievements

As for his retirement, Crist said he was surprised by the board’s decision. He said he thought he has made several changes that have resulted in better education for students. Crist said the average length of tenure for superintendents depends on how much change is needed as change often makes people unhappy.

Scherer said it was time to make the move as the average length of tenure for superintendents is 3 1/2 years and Crist has been in the district for six.

“It is time for new blood and a new direction,” he said.

Scherer said Crist did an excellent job of hiring staff to do the job the board thought needed to be done, and the recent state report card shows the district has improved much. He also credited Crist with the district’s one-to-one technology program, the first in the county, and the center-schools model, which he says has been very successful.

Scherer said the move to Sorbie will be a new beginning for the district. He said she might provide the district with a better public relations person who is more visible in the community and who is more vocal about the issues facing the district.

Crist said he has grown very fond of the community and he is disappointed in the outcome of the referendum. He said he thought what the district was asking for was reasonable. Crist said many teachers and staff have been pulling together to help kids, and he hopes a new referendum can pass in November.

Crist has a long list of things he is proud of in the district that he helped make happen. He said the capstone was this year’s state report card. He is also proud of the center-schools model, the one-to-one initiative, the dual language program, the efforts to make district buildings more energy efficient and the staff he has hired in six years. Crist said 11 district staff members have National Board certification and many staff have won awards and been recognized for their excellence.

Crist said the district also hired several support staff members in the past few years who have helped the district serve the many needs of district students.

“I have always based my decisions on what is best for kids and their education,” Crist said.

Crist said he is proud of the efforts to restore the automotive and family and consumer education programs and the involvement of many local businesses to make that happen. The district also hired a registrar to accurately report data to the Department of Public Instruction.

“I want to thank everyone for letting me work with them,” Crist said. “I will treasure that.”


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