Program expansion challenges school board

Print Print
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
— Janesville School District administration officials are proposing to expand a program next fall even though it has estimated a budget deficit in the millions of dollars.

So it was perhaps no surprise Tuesday night when school board members probed the reasons for expansion of the Challenge Program.

The board took no action, and it was not clear whether a majority would vote for the expansion.

The Challenge Program serves selected talented-and-gifted students in grades 4-8, putting them in separate classrooms, where they advance at accelerated rates in their core subjects. Students qualify through testing

The administration proposes to add third grade to the existing program at Roosevelt Elementary School on the east side of the city. A second third grade would be planted at Madison Elementary School on the west side. The west-side program would add a grade each year until it matched its east-side counterpart.

The cost for the first year would be about $168,000, although that could be reduced by $72,000 if enough third-graders shift from one school to the Challenge Program, allowing a teaching position to be moved as well, officials said.

Costs would increase each year as a successive grade level was added at Madison.

The district also could gain new revenue from the program if parents from outlying districts sent their children to Janesville for the Challenge Program.

Officials said the program already attracts such students, and it attracts families moving in from out of state who are looking for this kind of program for their children.

Janesville is the only district in the immediate area with a magnet program for high-achieving students, officials said.

Two Challenge Program parents, Renae Henry and Christina Jensen, spoke in favor of expansion.

Henry said her family chose Janesville when relocating from Iowa specifically because of the Challenge Program.

Jensen said she sends her children to Janesville for the program, even though she lives in Milton.

The parents said these highly talented children deserve to be challenged to reach their full potential, and attracting new students would increase revenue.

"It's a win-win situation," Jensen said.

School officials said students of this caliber who are not challenged can become bored under-achievers or become frustrated, discouraged or angry and might even drop out.

Henry noted that 52 students have qualified for the fourth-grade Challenge Program next year, but there is room for only 28 of them.

District officials said students are regularly turned away for lack of space.

The administration plan does not contemplate expanding the fourth grade, but board member Lori Stottler wondered if it should.

Superintendent Karen Schulte noted that the board has set a goal for her to increase enrollment and the expansion would be one way to attract new students.

Twenty-seven students from other districts attend school in Janesville this year because they or their siblings are in the Challenge Program or they hope to qualify for the program, according to a memo describing the proposal. Those students represent $187,596 in revenue this school year.

"This proposal could also attract more families currently sending their children to Montessori, parochial or other private school institutions," the memo states.

But exactly how much revenue might be realized with the expansion was not clear. Board member DuWayne Severson grilled officials at length in an attempt to figure this out. He did a thumbnail calculation, based on a variety of assumptions, that new students might bring in $140,000, which wouldn't cover the $168,000, he pointed out.

"I've had kids in the program. It's gone well, but in the light of the budget, we have to balance those things," Severson said.

Board member Scott Feldt countered that over the long run, the district could make money through increased enrollments.

Board member Kristin Hesselbacher, who like Severson and Stottler has had a child in the Challenge Program, said the expansion would help the district include students from groups that are under-represented in the Challenge Program. She said the district could address a longtime criticism that the program serves mostly white, middle-class students from the east side.

The board can mae decisions on what members think and what they feel, but the board has embraced the principle of making decisions based on data, and there's not enough data to make a decision about this expansion, Severson argued.

Suspended administrator will retire

A Janesville School District administrator who has been on paid leave pending an investigation is retiring, the district announced Tuesday.

The school board approved Barb Hilliker's retirement after meeting in closed session Tuesday night.

Hilliker has been on paid leave since Feb. 10. Officials have not said why. Her retirement goes into effect March 31.

The Gazette has requested copies of documents relating to the investigation.

"The District is currently processing this request and will work diligently to provide such records as soon as practicable," according to a statement.

Hilliker led the district's special education department, overseeing programs for students with disabilities.

"The Board appreciates Ms. Hilliker's many years of service with the district and wishes Ms. Hilliker well in her retirement," according to the statement. "Ms. Hilliker thanks the board for the opportunity to serve the district."

Superintendent Karen Schulte said Feb. 20 that Hilliker was being investigated for work-related issues.

Hilliker had worked in special education in the district since 1980. Her salary this year was $112,707.

Last updated: 7:51 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

Print Print