180429_DARIEN

An aerial view of Darien Elementary School, which the Delavan-Darien School Board voted to close at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

DELAVAN

It was the week after Delavan-Darien School District’s $3.5 million referendum failed April 3, and Karleigh Kramer-Britt was surprised she didn’t receive one of the 23 non-renewal letters handed out by the district.

At the time, Kramer-Britt was nine months pregnant with her second child, and she was planning to start her maternity leave Wednesday, April 25. Now that she thought her job was safe, she expected to return to her fifth grade classroom at Darien Elementary School after the summer.

But on Tuesday morning, the last day before her maternity leave and a year-and-a-half into her tenure with the district, Kramer-Britt was handed a non-renewal letter from the district.

“I was teaching my students, and the principal came to my door with a solemn look on her face. I was completely devastated,” Kramer-Britt said. “Teachers knew there were going to be layoffs (at first). Tuesday morning we received an email saying, yes, there are more layoffs. That was definitely not told to us at all.”

Many residents in the area felt a crippling shock when the district announced it was closing Darien Elementary School and handed out 16 additional teacher non-renewals Monday night at a special board meeting, bringing the total number of non-renewals to 39—about 15 percent of the district’s teachers.

“It was definitely something that was terribly surprising, mostly because of a lack of communication,” Kramer-Britt’s husband, Barrett, said. “Maybe if we had been told there was a second round (of cuts). We were given a false sense of security. We breathed a sigh of relief.”

Two days after receiving her letter from the district, on Thursday afternoon, Karleigh gave birth to the couple’s first son.

“That was a kind of stress … I took on a great deal,” Barrett said. “It’s the kind of stuff you shouldn’t have to deal with two days before you give birth.”

Barrett said the couple doesn’t want to be seen as “pissed off.” They grew up in Delavan, and they met at Delavan-Darien High School. The couple moved to the town of Delavan from Waukesha in January 2017, partly because the district was improving and because “we believed in it,” Barrett said.

But the couple said the school board failed to communicate to the public the severity of the circumstances that led to the referendum. If the cuts were expected to be as drastic as they turned out to be, the couple doesn’t understand why the district didn’t make them clearer to voters.

“I don’t think anybody knew what the true impact of a failed referendum was going to be,” Barrett said. “It was not made glaringly obvious. The whole reason the referendum failed was a lack of communication. Perception is reality. If you don’t get your message out there, that’s on you. That’s not on the people.”

When asked if he voted for the referendum, Barrett said, “Of course. I’ve always voted for school referendums. It’s not even really a question.”

Others in the community have echoed the the couple’s sentiments, saying they were not aware how widespread the cuts would be after the referendum’s failure. Some knew there would be staff cuts, but closing down the elementary school came as a surprise to many.

School board President Jeff Scherer said the board never discussed closing Darien Elementary before the referendum vote April 3. But once it failed—and after hiring a new district business manager about a month-and-a-half ago—the board was informed the district’s finances were worse “than we thought they would be,” Scherer said.

“Maybe I’ll take some of this criticism,” Scherer said. “I think a lot of us didn’t know exactly how many (teachers) we were going to have to lay off. A lot of places, they say, ‘We’re going to cancel football,’ knowing full well you’re not going to cancel football. We didn’t want to be a board that made idle threats.

“It’s all in retrospect. Maybe we should’ve said 39 teachers were going to lose (their jobs), and we’ll close the school. We just said ‘layoffs.’ I think we were trying to stay positive. We didn’t want to scare people.”

In many instances before the referendum’s vote, the board signaled there would be district-wide cuts. In a Feb. 24 story in The Gazette, Scherer and Superintendent Bob Crist detailed the school’s funding dilemma, pitting most of the blame on the state’s school-funding model.

They noted that at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, the district lost 1.7 percent of it’s funding per student, falling below the state-wide average.

That is largely because the district passed a three-year non-recurring $1.25 referendum in 2015, which expired last year and bumped spending per student by about $400.

With the expiration of that referendum and with perpetually low state funding for 25 years, Scherer said the cuts last week are the district’s attempt to balance a failing budget.

“We don’t enjoy this. It’s not something we want to do. It’s caused me a lot of consternation,” Scherer said

Karleigh said the district should have “absolutely” better communicated the potential cuts that ensued with the referendum’s failure. While the language on the ballot leads with updates to Borg Memorial Stadium, Karleigh said the cuts should have been the leading argument.

“It’s not the teacher’s fault the referendum failed,” she said.

For the couple, the future is uncertain. The couple moved back to the area to raise children and be closer to family. But now, the couple has to consider Karleigh’s job opportunities down the road. And Barrett said neighboring schools aren’t hiring.

“The reason we decided to have a second child (is) we felt like we had a certain level of job security,” Barrett said. “Does that mean we should move? Is our home going to be valued the same as when we bought it or significantly less because of the school district?”

Karleigh also fears their home will be devalued because the massive teacher non-renewals might negatively affect the district’s once high performance.

Just last year, the district received an 82.3 score from the state, the highest of any area school district.

“It’s really making us really reconsider should we stay,” Karleigh said. “We’re very concerned about class size for our children. I’m very concerned about my students as well. They’ve had a rough past when other teachers have left. Now they’re going to have another transition. It’s going to be large classes and a huge transition for these kids.”

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