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Public education as a punching bag PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 07 March 2012 16:38

Once revered, the institution that helped transform an immigrant nation into an economic superpower is now denigrated as political sport

America is an unlikely country to be in the throes of a campaign against public education.

    In a nation founded on the principle engraved on history by its Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal, public education has been the great equalizer.

    With education paid for by the public and available to all regardless of means, a nation of immigrants, many of them impoverished, became the greatest economic power on earth, and it remains so.

    Rick Santorum, a candidate for president who has ranked first or second in opinion polls of Republican voters, attacks American public schools as “big factories” that spend too much time on academics and too little on teaching morals. The father of seven children who are being home-schooled, he says education should be run by parents.

    Generations of Americans, including presidents, rocket scientists and business titans, are products of those “factories,” yet public education, once revered, is now disparaged as a symptom of something wrong with society.

    Santorum’s attack on public schools has   consisted only of words, but Wisconsin has been witness to actions that have the potential to cause lasting damage to public education.

    Wisconsin has cut aid to public schools more than any of 24 states studied by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. At the same time, the budget proposed by Gov. Scott Walker and passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature increased taxpayer spending in support of private schools.

    There is a whiff of that sentiment in the Port Washington-Saukville School Board election, in which three of the candidates are running on a single issue—cutting teacher compensation.

    They have criticized the School Board for agreeing to a contract with teachers before the state’s Act 10 limiting teacher benefits and collective bargaining took effect—even though the contract required greater teacher concessions than Act 10 and resulted in a decrease in the local property tax rate.

    With state tax revenue shrunken by the recession, increased teacher contributions toward their health and retirement benefits were needed, but to keep hammering on the issue is to say that teachers should be paid less. More so than in other occupations, benefits are part of teacher pay. The candidates should explain how they think education is served by further reducing that pay.

    Wisconsin ranks in the lower half of states in teacher compensation. Overall, its public employees, including teachers, earn 4.8% less in total compensation (salary plus benefits) than comparable private sector workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a non-partisan research organization.

    The U.S. ranks below most developed countries in teacher pay. American teachers earn less than 60% of the average pay for college-educated workers.

    American students are lagging in achievement behind those of a number of other countries. A common denominator in many of those countries is that teaching is an honored profession that demands more from its members than in the U.S., but more generously rewards its best practitioners.

    In the U.S., a presidential aspirant says public school teachers are essentially unnecessary; meanwhile local candidates promise to try to cut teacher pay if elected. If there’s a formula for improving education here, we’re missing it.

      Santorum’s backward ideas on education may soon be forgotten sound bites. But in the Port-Saukville School District, two of candidates campaigning to cut teacher benefits got the most votes in the primary election, suggesting that their chances of success in the general election are good.

    Surely, then, they owe the citizens who will vote in that election more than yet another attack on teacher benefits. Let voters hear what they propose to do to improve, or even maintain, the quality of education in Port-Saukville schools. If the cost of education is their issue, what is their plan for implementing merit pay that would help meet budget restraints but encourage and reward the best teachers? Or do they have a better idea?

    Are some constructive ideas about public education too much to ask?

Talk is not enough to save farmland PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 29 February 2012 16:07

Officials of the towns of Port, Saukville and Grafton say they want to protect farmland, but when it came to supporting the Working Lands Initiative, they passed

Officials of the townships of Ozaukee County have generally said the right things about farmland preservation: That steps need to be taken to protect land used for agriculture from development so farmers can continue to earn their livelihoods and other residents can continue to enjoy the towns’ rural character.

    Yet when it came to acting on these good intentions by participating in the state program designed to preserve farmland and the farming life, three town governments took a pass.

    The Port Washington, Saukville and Grafton Town Boards voted to not participate in the Working Lands Initiative. Only the towns of Belgium and Cedarburg agreed to take part in the program. The Fredonia Town Board is considering it.

    The three towns that rejected the Working Lands Initative gave essentially the same reason—we don’t need the state; we can protect farmland with our zoning.

    Perhaps, but the Working Lands Initiative was approved by the Legislature expressly because local governments in many counties had been ineffective in protecting farmland.

    While the state initiative offers a stable framework for protecting farmland, local zoning can change at the whim of current office holders. Saukville Town Chairman Barb Job lent credence to that, perhaps inadvertently, in a letter to Andrew Struck, county director of planning and parks, that was meant to explain her stand against the Working Lands Initiative. She wrote that in the past the town had failed to follow its own preservation guidelines and rezoned so many acres for residential use that much of the town is no longer viable for future farming.

    Struck has been working to fulfill the state’s requirement that Ozaukee County create a county Working Lands Initiative. The town boards’ refusal to join the initiative not only complicates that effort, but makes the farmers in their townships ineligible to benefit from the $7.50 per acre annual tax credit available to farmland owners in designated preservation areas.

    The Working Lands Initiative is, however, not the only route to preserving farmland. The gold standard in that realm was on display recently when the Ozaukee County Board accepted a donation from the Tim Kaul family of a conservation easement on 41 acres of pretty farmland in the Town of Grafton.

    Conservation easements protect farmland from development in perpetuity. As in the Kauls’ case, farmers and their heirs continue to own land, farm it and live on it, often with provisions for home sites for family members.

    This is absolute protection of farmland, keeping it safe from zoning or law changes and tempting offers from developers. The Kauls accepted no payment for the easement, but conservation easements often involve a financial consideration, and there is hope that funds will be available in the future to make it easier for others to follow the Kauls’ inspiring example.

    Tim Kaul, in his service as a County Board member, chairman of the county Land Preservation Board and founding member of the Ulao Creek Partnership, has been one of the county’s leading advocates of farmland preservation. It’s personal with him—his family has farmed in rural Grafton for 123 years, and he has shepherded the protection of 112 acres of his family’s land with easements. But his efforts have been motivated too by knowledge that preventing the wholesale development of farmland is in everyone’s interest.

    Sure, it’s about farming. Development, like those countryside subdivisions with five-acre lots, diminish the land available for agriculture—in the past 30 years, Ozaukee County has lost more than 30,000 acres of farmland—and can put pressure on farming operations in other ways. Occupants of McMansions are usually not too enthused about the smell of manure on the morning air.

    But it’s also about the future Ozaukee County residents want. Survey after survey has shown that people here value the rural character of the land surrounding the county’s cities and villages. Farming, meaning not just the tilled fields, but the natural areas, including wetlands and woodlots, that are part of many farms, keeps land open and green, protecting clear vistas and habitat.

    It’s true some farmers want to harvest value from their land as real estate when they’re done farming. That’s understandable, and possible, where zoning permits it. But others want their land to stay in service as a producer of food, honoring their family traditions of working the land.

    They could use some help. The Working Farms Initiative, in which participation by farmers is totally voluntary, provides it. The towns that have rejected it should reconsider.

Life after Smith Bros. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 22 February 2012 16:43

News that the former home of an iconic restaurant will house a major retail outlet replaces the shadows of a once declining downtown with rays of sunshine

The news that a Duluth Trading Co. retail store will occupy the entire first floor of the Smith Bros. building in downtown Port Washington was judged by Ozaukee Press editors to be the most important story in last week’s newspaper, worthy of a banner headline at the top of page one. Here’s why:

    Duluth will transform an iconic building that for the past five years has been perceived as a sign of a struggling business district into a symbol of progress and commercial vitality. For decades the home of the popular, nationally known Smith Bros. Fish Shanty restaurant was synonymous with Port Washington’s prosperity and nautical appeal. But as a mostly vacant building in a prime location, it cast a shadow on the downtown. The Duluth store will cast sunshine. The shadow will be gone.

    Duluth is a profitable company with a solid record of success as a mail-order niche clothing marketer, not to be confused with a start-up retailer operating on a dream, a wing and a prayer. Duluth will be in Port Washington for the long haul.

    Duluth gets it about Port Washington. Company executives made it clear they did not choose Port just because a large retail space was available, but because they are confident the community’s character, history, natural beauty and incomparable downtown lakefront will contribute to their store’s success.

    Duluth will bring people to Port Washington. The store in the Smith Bros. building will be the firm’s second outlet. The first is in Mount Horeb, also in an historic building. It has become the town’s leading tourist attraction, said to account for more than 40,000 visitors a year.

Duluth promotes the charms of that southwestern Wisconsin community as well as its store. The visitors brought here by the Duluth store will also be customers of other Port Washington stores, restaurants and various businesses.

    Duluth will bring new stores to Port Washington. Vacant storefronts gained appeal overnight with the announcement of the coming of an anchor retailer that will serve as a downtown business magnet.

    Port Washington deserves Duluth. While the Duluth coup was scored in large part because of the dogged efforts of a local real estate agent and the Duluth CEO’s vision of the city as the right place for the store, it is nonetheless a reflection of the efforts of a small town that refused to accept the decline of its downtown and has worked relentlessly to reverse it. Notable among those efforts were the city government’s decisions to redevelop the waterfront into a unique asset—name another community that has a marina, harbor walk and maritime park in the heart of its downtown—and the rebuilding and streetscaping of Franklin Street.

    The original products of the Duluth Trading Co. were work clothes. That’s fitting. Port Washington has worked hard for this day.

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