Op-ed: Why I Support School District Independence

School District Independence

Ed WillingWhen I moved from Cudahy to Caledonia in 2008, I came for the quiet, space, and the low taxes. While my real estate agent said the school district (Racine Unified) was “not the best,” it was not our top concern for a one-year-old. Furthermore, he told us there’s a group working on independence.

As my son began elementary school, I became aware of systemic issues that left his future success up to chance more than choice. After he failed the second year to make the lottery for a better school in the district, he needed a change, so I took him elsewhere. I was lucky, not all of my neighbors were.

I quickly found out that my experience was not an exception, and in fact among the least concerning. As neighbors, friends and even family began to leave Caledonia, the primary reason was almost universally the same: the school district.

Even now, as families research homes in Caledonia, the school district is the top concern among home buyers (This is not just anecdotal… nearly every honest real estate agent will admit this). Over the years, thousands of people have moved to our village, while arguably just as many have left when their children reach middle and high school. Our stagnant population for the last 17 years is proof of this. What are we doing wrong?

While my agent had told me of small, vocal group of parents looking to establish a new school district, I did not know them. While I was not a part of this initial group, I was aware of their efforts to create a new school district to go with our newfound identity as a village and waited to see the results. Nothing happened. I later found out it was because state law required us to seek permission from the unified district board, and they essentially said “never.”

A few years later, with some time and experience under my belt, I became involved in local politics, starting first with the parks commission, something close to my family’s history. I started to work on why in God’s name we couldn’t call ourselves Caledonia on our mail. I also began to network with other parents who still wanted their own schools. When I saw the apathy among some in leadership to look beyond the status quo, I wanted to do something about it and ran for village board. While I failed the first time, I was blessed to become a trustee in 2014.

Parents’ angst soon turned into a volunteer group of 35, an email list of 500, 1200 signatures, and over a dozen packed board meetings until finally, our board agreed to ask voters to decide on studying the creation of our own school district.

Despite heavy political pressure and misinformation, nearly 2,500 village residents said they wanted to study the possibility, and the measure passed in 2015. Sturtevant did the same. But, not without a cost to my own political capital and ruffling a few feathers.

We were asked by local and state leaders to be patient and we were, but that time has passed. Our district received another failing grade last year for academic performance, which according to the existing law allows the state to take over the district and implement fixes. Now, our state senator, Van Wanggaard has introduced a small compromise measure that grants the district one extra year to improve its scores but also holds them accountable by allowing surrounding villages the choice to leave or stay if they fail to.

This is where my heart must be clear: I do not want Racine to fail. I want RUSD to succeed! Our entire county depends on the economic and academic vitality of the education system, and I do not wish, nor expect them to fail. The current leadership has shown more drive to improve the status quo than in decades, and I trust that would continue regardless of our status as a subject community.

But, it is precisely for this reason that I do not want our own village to sit on its hands, and wait again. If RUSD improves its scores and avoids state action, it could delay us another two years. I’ve already waited for four, and others even longer. Waiting also implies that we are expecting failure. I am not. I simply want progress.

Therefore, I have asked my fellow village board members to move ahead with an independent study on the feasibility of an independent school district. After all, voters asked for it. We need more than anecdotes or logical deductions – we need numbers. We deserve an answer. And we need a two-handed approach the next year, while RUSD works on its future.

As my son inches closer to high school each year, and with all of the recent economic activity surrounding our communities, time is not a luxury.

I want to enjoy the elements of life most families my age came here hoping for. Perhaps our new district will become so successful we become a destination district for other families in the area, regardless of background or income status.

Choice is good. Parents deserve autonomy with their children. And local democracy is best. It’s time that RUSD, our village boards, and the state legislature recognizes that, and allows Caledonia, Sturtevant, Mount Pleasant and even Racine to have that ability in self-determination.

I support the state action to give RUSD a one year reprieve to improve, but I also stand with thousands of Caledonia residents who want to stay here, the many more who want to come, and see the village grow in the years ahead, as our families grow with it. We are the future of Caledonia, and we would like to shape it in our own front yard.

Ed Willing is a local Caledonia parent, and village trustee