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Nicolet School District to address morale problems laid bare by staff survey

Some say outside mandates could erode quality of education

Dec. 19, 2012

Glendale - Staff morale is becoming an issue in the Nicolet School District, a recent survey commissioned by the School Board shows.

Bill Foster of research firm School Perceptions presented survey findings to the Nicolet School Board last week, which he said should help the board and administration in future decision making.

"The purpose of doing this is really planning and establishing priorities," Foster said.

The survey of 128 staff - a 90 percent participation rate - indicates a number of concerns and suggestions from Nicolet staff about a range of topics, from low morale among staff, issues with overachieving and underachieving students, communication between district staff, and professional development, among others.

Superintendent Rick Monroe said it's important to "take the temperature" of staff after the controversy of Act 10 in 2011 and the loss of most collective bargaining, among curricular changes at the federal level and evaluation changes on the state level. Foster agreed that the changing environment is having its effect.

"There's a lot of stress on teachers in general," Foster told the board, "which affects morale."

District staff cited a number of reasons for low morale in a comment summary provided to the board by Foster.

Fear of young staff leaving

Several mentioned new state laws which restrict pay increases and supersede the old pay scale that rewarded teachers for experience and professional development.

"(New teachers) are stuck at the bottom of the pay scale with little to no opportunities to move up," wrote one respondent, "and will leave to seek out other professions."

Some criticized building and district administration and leadership, while others brought up increased workloads and added responsibilities. Many responded that the district doesn't do an adequate job with underachieving students. Others mentioned the contentious political climate regarding education in Wisconsin.

"We may never again feel as valued as we once did, which is too bad," wrote another respondent, "but we may have to accept it as the 'new normal.' "

Special Education teacher and President of the Nicolet Education Association Robert Rinka said the main driver behind lowered morale is the fear that, as a result of budget cuts and shifting responsibilities, teachers won't be able to teach adequately.

Staying at a high level

"The theme here is making sure that students' needs are being properly met," said Rinka in an interview. "It's all about knowing that, when students are walking through the door, that they're being served at the highest level."

He said he would recommend to the board that it take measures to "stay the course" in terms of programs and staffing, and that even slight reductions are felt throughout the district.

"It doesn't take much to, all of a sudden, erode what's been built up," Rinka said. "That's a concern. It can be the small things."

Foster pointed out that the board should take comments about administrators with a grain of salt, likening them to reviews students may have of teachers.

"Don't use a survey to do a performance evaluation," said Foster, though he later said that after the board establishes a plan to address survey criticisms, "let's hold the administration responsible for accomplishing those goals."

Board member Morton Grodsky said it may be difficult for the district to affect morale with so many changes being made on the state and national level.

"A lot of (things mentioned in the survey comments) are outside pressures for us," Grodsky said. "Everything is changing, curriculum-wise. It's difficult to say we're hammering this down now. Things are changing every day."

Monroe said the board will begin to come up with a list of priorities and possible solutions at a January meeting, after taking time to consider the survey responses.

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