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Assembly speaker hears from local educators

Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos listens Monday as UW-River Falls Chancellor Dean Van Galen describes new programs at the university. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

RIVER FALLS — One of the state's top lawmakers heard highlights and concerns from local school district leaders who shined a light on education issues in western Wisconsin.

Officials from River Falls and Hudson school districts, along with UW-River Falls leaders, presented the state of affairs at their respective campuses to Assembly Speaker Robin Vos during a visit Monday to the university campus.

Vos, accompanied by fellow Republican Assembly member Shannon Zimmerman of River Falls, heard support from local educators for provisions in Gov. Scott Walker's budget that call for increased K-12 funding.

"We're obviously very supportive of the governor's budget," Hudson Superintendent Nick Ouellette said at the meeting.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (right) listens to River Falls Superintendent Jamie Benson. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia

He and River Falls Superintendent Jamie Benson described different evaluation programs in each district — Hudson with a performance-based system that includes market stipends, River Falls with a 12-point compensation program — that both leaders said have been successful in their respective districts. But Benson cautioned Vos that the teacher shortage "is very real" and will grow. Compensation and insurance deductible costs will play a role in attracting and retaining teachers, he said.

Ouellette and Benson also championed specialty programs in their districts that include partnerships with businesses, tech schools and UWRF. Those include STEM and health care-based academy programs in Hudson, while River Falls offers similar vocational-based academies that provide post-secondary options.

Benson said a program underway could offer next year's incoming freshmen a path to acquiring a two-year business degree while in high school. But, he said, post-secondary options come at a cost to taxpayers who shoulder the tuition costs.

Those local costs must be stemmed "if we're going to be a big player at the table," Benson said.

School officials listen Monday as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos talked about education issues. Mike Longaecker/RiverTown Multimedia

Zimmerman asserted during the meeting that education is a pipeline to the workforce, but Hudson School Board member Sue Kattas said that shouldn't be the sole end-game. She said she sees education not based on a hierarchy, but "as a continuum."

"It's about the foundation" of learning, she said.

Zimmerman responded that it doesn't have to be an either-or scenario.

As the topic turned to higher education, Vos told UWRF Chancellor Dean Van Galen to expect the 2 percent employee raises sought by UW-System to be included in the budget Walker signs later this year.

"I hope that the raises that we are going to give in this budget are not an abnormality," the speaker said.

Vos also said that while he supports performance-based funding for higher education — as is requested in Walker's proposal — that there must be a closer look at the formulas. Metrics like graduation rates aren't necessarily reflective of success, depending on which campus is measured, he said.

"We've got to figure out some things to measure accountability if we're going to measure at all," Vos said.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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