Dear Dave, I went to an Elmbrook listening session.

And…for the first time in a long time, I think there may have been some listening going on.

Earlier today a reader named Dave asked what I thought about the Elmbrook school district’s 3 – 5 year financial planning. Let me disclose that Dave’s IP is the same as the Elmbrook school district’s.

The Elmbrook site showed a listening session on the subject schedule for 8:30 a.m., so I decided to make it an outing. In case you are so inclined, there’s another this afternoon at 4:00 p.m. and again tomorrow morning at 7:00 a.m. In addition, the board has suggested more of these sessions, so there may be one or two opportunities to follow.

This district document outlines the current thinking. It includes icky things like cutting the BEHS 4N6 travel funding, but it also actually talks about closing schools and reducing administrative expenses.

As I mentioned, there was more listening than usual. I am a harsh critic of Elmbrook’s listening sessions. Over the years they’ve often felt more like propaganda dumps. But today Superintendent Matt Gibson gave a ten minute introduction, then the following hour and a half was participant led discussion.

And we actually discussed ideas between participants. As you might guess, I took a minority view on some things. The one I recall the best was the topic of closing a grade school or two. I advocate the district needs to look at the issue sooner rather than later. Our open enrollment numbers should not be increased before the decision is made as it could delay the action. Also, this decision must be made with real numbers and information, not the “best guess” fodder that’s been tossed around.

To my surprise I discovered the district has put together a study team, the Enrollment Management Team, of a few accountants and others to determine the true cost/benefit analysis of non-resident enrollment. As with all district attempts, I sure hope this one is a genuine effort and not an excuse to support a preconceived notion. Gibson admitted a suspicion that Open Enrollment pays back to the district in the Elementary level and may cost the district at the Middle School. He didn’t know where the numbers would fall for High School.

It’s my suspicion if Open Enrollment pays back in Elementary schools it’s because we have so much excess classroom capacity there. It will take some crackerjack analysis to truly interpret the value of extra Open Enrollment against closing the smaller grade schools.

Of course, there were those advocating for the neighborhood schools. I totally agree. In fact, I wish all of our grade schools were the size of Hillside and Tonawanda. My kiddos stayed in parochial school through 5th grade because I thought Burleigh was way too big. Elmbrook did themselves a disservice when they went to the larger schools. Can you imagine a boutique district with small, walkable neighborhood grade schools? Sounds ideal to me.

However, the district abandoned that idea forever with the monstrous additions of Dixon and Brookfield Elementary following the repurposing of Burleigh and later, Swanson. I argued today that it gave families two sets of Elmbrook experiences to offer these two tiny neighborhood boutique schools to a handful of residents in the district while everyone else wandered the halls of monster schools. (I felt a grimace or two in the room from that remark, but I stand by the comment.) A parent of one of those smaller schools interjected those schools were waiting for the physical plant improvements the larger schools enjoyed.

You can see this will be an excruciating discussion in Elmbrook’s future.

Another pet peeve of mine is the district inching towards increasing classroom sizes. I wondered how the board was reconciling an increase in this important benchmark against the public desire to market the school to increase resident enrollment? That one pretty much went unanswered.

This is about to be one of those only-Cindy-would-put-her-foot-in-it-like-that paragraphs, but here goes:

The fact of the matter remains that those parents who have ample home support, and are often either at the very top of the class or needing extra services, are at these sessions. You’ll be interested to know that many agreed CLASS SIZES SHOULD BE LARGER if it means pet specialties (German, AP, etc.) are continued to be funded. Keep in mind, the class sizes for these specially funded classes rarely hit the average size.

Also keep in mind that unless you show up and defend the rights of your average student they could well end up knee to knee 35 to a classroom designed for 25. (That was an important point a few of us won during the high school remake contest – classroom sizes were not increased in anticipation of larger class rolls.)

I put that in bold italics for a reason. It may be something you’ll want to read again.

There’s more, but it can wait. Get yourself to a session if you can. I know, you can’t believe I just said that, but do try. I’ve been assured this isn’t “the sky is falling” “the district is going to hell in a handbasket” knee-jerk threats. It’s planning. You have a chance to influence Elmbrook’s future through your participation.


  1. Kathryn says:

    The average student in Elmbrook is well above average. We’ve had classes in which the average CogAT score was a whole standard deviation above the national average. This is not to advocate for huge classes, but to point out that some of those “pet specialties” are exactly what this student population needs. Weighing priorities is going to be tough.