Up to speed: Supervisors study county operations
Supervisors elected to the 2012-’14 Walworth County Board completed their first month of meetings. The board’s organizational meeting took place April 17. Nancy Russell was re-elected as county board chair, a position that she has held since 2007. Jerry Grant was voted in as vice-chair, a role in which he previously served during the 2002-’04 and 2008-’10 terms. The final leadership post, chairman of the executive committee, went to Dave Weber. That position is third in the line of succession to lead the board. It will be Weber’s fourth consecutive term in that position. Following the board’s first business meeting on April 19, standing committees of the new board met, for the first time this term, during the last week in April.
One of the challenges at the start of any board term is to educate supervisors regarding the programs over which they will be providing policy guidance. It has been interesting for me to watch, over the years, that without any prompting from supervisors or myself, many departments have been assembling detailed information regarding their departments and key programs that they provide, and sharing it with board members at the first committee meeting. This information typically takes the form of booklets outlining the various statutes and rules that govern their operations. In some cases, a history and budgetary information are included, as well.
As the roles between staff and supervisors have been clarified and made formal in county ordinances, board members have a greater say in the policy direction of departments than they did a decade or so ago. The booklets are an attempt to bring new supervisors up to speed and to provide a refresher course to returning supervisors so they can put upcoming decisions into a historical and legal context. One of the best informational booklets that I saw during committee week was put together by Tracy Moate and her staff with the Walworth County Children with Disabilities Education Board.
Walworth County’s special education program is a rarity among Wisconsin counties. While state law permits counties to provide the service to children with special educational needs, the vast majority do not. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction website, our county is only one of three in the state that provide the service. The other two CDEBs are located in Brown and Calumet counties.
Walworth County’s commitment to serve educational initiatives dates back to 1949, when County Superintendent Sheridan Ellsworth helped organize the effort. According to a newspaper reporter of the era, Walworth County was the first rural county in the nation to provide special educational services and to dedicate a school for that purpose. The program began in September 1950 with just 14 students. Classes were held in space that the county leased in the basement of the Veterans of Foreign Wars building in Elkhorn.
Over the years, CDEB enrollment grew. A new school was constructed in 1954 at a cost of $84,000 with additions built in 1957, 1962 and 1970. While Walworth County was most closely identified with the Lakeland School, the lion’s share of county educational programming actually took place within the county’s 15 school districts. At the height of its operation, our county’s CDEB provided services for more than 2,000 students.
As the Lakeland School began to show its age, the county entered into a lengthy period of indecision with respect to the future of special needs education. As it was not a state-mandated program, there was reluctance by some supervisors to invest in a new or remodeled facility, given increasing budgetary pressures. In their defense, taking responsibility for all special needs education in a rapidly growing county like ours was a daunting task. With attendance increasing each year, the county’s tax levy associated with the program soared at double-digit rates, threatening the ability of the county to fund other services.
In 2006, a compromise was reached that cleared the way for construction of a new school.
Over a 10-year period, the county would transition out of providing services in the school districts and focus its energy on operating a new Lakeland School. That facility was completed in 2008 at a cost of $17.5 million. (The old school was sold for $400,000 in 2008). The purpose of the lengthy transition period was to give school districts and teachers plenty of time to adjust to the change. That plan will be fully implemented upon completion of the 2015-’16 school year. Despite the challenge of debt service payments associated with the new facility ($1.2 million in 2012), CDEB’s tax levy has actually decreased each year since 2009. This year’s budget is supported by a levy of $8.4 million.
In an era when many are calling for less government, Walworth County’s special needs education program is a notable exception. With its state-of-the art facility in operation and the transition plan in place, it’s been quite a few years since I have heard complaints about the county being in the education business. Students with special educational needs have benefited from the county board’s decision to go beyond providing only the minimum services required by law.