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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.

Franklin, if we're going to have a referendum, no shenanigans


Here’s a portion of a blog I wrote two years ago this month that bears repeating given that Franklin school officials are hell-bent on putting a referendum to voters on school facilities:

The Sheboygan Press reported last week that fliers in support of a referendum produced by Parent Teacher Organizations (PTO’s) in the Stevens Point Area Public School District  “were distributed to teachers at school, who then placed them in folders students use to take messages home.”

The same newspaper’s editorial board wrote this:

"We do not object to the PTO's drafting and sending a pro-referendum letter. But the method of delivery -- stuffed into homework folders and shuttled home by students -- led the group into an ethical gray area..  It also is unclear whether teachers put these notes into the folders. If they did, was it part of the workday or was it on their own time? District employees are free to campaign on their own time but not when they are being paid by taxpayers. The incident also begs the question of what is and isn't acceptable material to be sent in homework folders that go directly into the hands of parents.”

Yep. There are all kinds of red flags on this one.

School officials should never use school time to lobby and campaign for or against an increase in your school taxes. Period.

Franklin went through the same problem during debate surrounding the massive $78-million referendum in April of 2007.

In an issue of Wisconsin School News put out by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards around the time of the 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 School District got the word out to parents, 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 Elmbrook referenda may have overshadowed our slightly smaller ballot questions. But it appears the school district needs 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 School District 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. 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 (There were two questions) failed overwhelmingly in the 60-40 range.

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

The personal comments on the survey are 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 not too long ago, 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 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 Valley said the community-driven “yes” group was the “number one key to passing.” The NO vote in Franklin 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 need 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.

Not very ingenious, Sheboygan, if you ask me. You need to at least utilize a different approach, much like Franklin did in 2007. It didn’t work, maybe because this blogger caught it and exposed it. But not a single law-abiding Franklin citizen bothered to file a citizen’s complaint. No heads rolled. And school taxes still jumped through the roof.

Forget stuffing the kids’ backpacks with your tax and spend propaganda. That’s old hat. Try what Franklin so cavalierly and arrogantly did.

The Friday before Election Day, April 2007, during school time, hundreds of Franklin High School 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.”

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?”

Sheboygan taxpayers, I strongly urge you to keep a vigilant watch over what teachers, the school district, and even parents do between now and the April vote. Those in support of a big fat tax increase can’t be trusted. They will try anything, ANYTHING to get the referendum passed because they don’t care, they feel they won’t get caught or punished, and they justify any violation of ethics or laws because it’s for the children.

Back to January 2012: Just a reminder to Franklin school officials that a lot of us haven’t forgotten what happened in 2007.

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