By: Jerry Bader
Terry Fondow is content. The Green Bay East High School principal is retired and he and his wife are enjoying the good life in Merrill. When I spoke to him one day in early October he had just returned from trout fishing and said it was a successful outing. Fondow, now 70, retired in 2007 and immediately became a pariah to many of his education establishment colleagues. The Green Bay School Board and then-Superintendent Dan Nerad were promoting a referendum for a fifth high school, citing overcrowding. Fondow argued their enrollment projections supporting the need were flawed. Fondow won that battle. But the district is back; apparently ready to pitch a fifth high school again. And Fondow is back as well, again accusing the district of using “phony projection numbers” to make their case.
Fondow told me that the school district has always done their own enrollment projections and they were historically reliable. He said those projections didn’t justify a fifth high school in 2007. The district instead employed a land use methodology that he argued wasn’t a good fit for the Green Bay area. As public awareness of issues with the enrollment projections grew, the district changed the proposal to a grade 6 through 12 facility. Voters weren’t fooled, and the proposal failed by a nearly 70% to 30% margin.
Fondow argued back then that a space crunch wasn’t the motivation at all for a fifth high school (enrollment figures since then prove him right). He believes it was an effort to spur economic activity on Green Bay’s Far East side. That of course is the reverse of how it should work; school construction should be in response to growth in a community. As the school district now builds toward a possible April 2017 referendum, Fondow and his brother, Randy Fondow, are convinced the district again has an ulterior motive for construction of a fifth high school and are using what the brothers call “phony numbers” to achieve that result.
In March of 2016 the school district began a “visioning process” which led to a school board discussion in June and July of possible referendum projects. In September a “Facility Task Force” was selected and began holding a series of four “Community Engagement” sessions. Randy Fondow told me he went to all four sessions because he had seen a newspaper story about a year earlier reporting significant enrollment increases in the Green Bay School District causing bursting classrooms and a need for new facilities. But he also knew that high school enrollment had actually decreased by more than a thousand students over the past decade. Randy Fondow began asking questions that made school officials uncomfortable and he said that made him a pariah at the subsequent listening sessions.
“They tried to shut me up. They would interrupt me; they would call on other people. At the third meeting I waved my hand and they refused to call on me. Superintendent Michelle Langenfeld said my information wasn’t relevant,” Fondow told me.
He said school officials attempted to prevent him from passing out information at the third public session that challenged the district’s enrollment projections. The Fondow brothers say that their issue is with the numbers the district provided to the Wisconsin Applied Populations Laboratories when contracting with the WAPL to provide enrollment projections for the next decade.
You are now entering the sausage factory portion of our tour.
Terry Fondow told me that the WAPL used what the school district calls “membership numbers” to calculate the enrollment projections. This number includes students currently attending other school district’s through Wisconsin’s open enrollment program (it does not include students attending private schools). Fondow considers this number deceptive and believes any enrollment projections should be based on the official “Third Friday in September” student count school districts are required to provide to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. This is a measure of students actually in the district’s classrooms.
During a meeting with school district Chief Financial Officer Andrew Sarnow and Communications Director Lori Blakeslee, I was presented with a written statement which told me the use of membership data was an honest mistake:
“The District did not recognize the error at first, since the report was labeled ‘enrollment projections’ not ‘membership projections.’ When Terry Fondow and his brother Randy brought up the discrepancy between DPI numbers and the APL projection numbers, several staff members reviewed the APL report and the District’s 3rd Friday count numbers. Upon review the numbers it became apparent the APL report included the approximately 2,000 students who choice out of the District.”
Sarnow and Blakeslee also told me the district is grateful that the Fondow brothers pointed out the discrepancy. Terry and Randy Fondow are bemused by what they say is a sanitized version of events and the district’s “gratitude.” Randy Fondow was treated as persona non grata at the public sessions when he attempted to point out the problem with the enrollment projections. Terry Fondow sent Sarnow eight emails trying to arrange a meeting and was ignored.
I should also note that when I emailed Sarnow looking for a response to Terry Fondow’s assertions the response I got was a phone call from Blakeslee and the school district’s attorney, Melissa Thiel Collar. After I mentioned on my radio show that I felt Blakeslee and Collar were attempting to stonewall, I then received an email from Sarnow offering a meeting. None of this gives the appearance of a school district eager to have its work scrutinized.
Further, Terry Fondow does not accept the school district’s explanation that the use of the larger membership number was unintentional for four reasons.
First, Fondow says three emails and two conversations with the WAPL employee who did the projection for the district are not consistent with the district’s claim. Second, Fondow argues that the district’s own website states that it had 21,000 students in the 2015/16 school year, not the 22,000 listed in the WAPL report and the district’s own projection lists the 2015/16 enrollment as 20,693; Third, Fondow says the district’s own projection lists the expected enrollment in 21/22 to be 21,600, not 23,600 as listed in the WAPL projection. Fourth, the Board President and Superintendent coauthored an editorial in the GBPB on September 10 of this year that stated the enrollment was 21,000, not 22,000. Fondow tells me, “It is very hard to believe that the CFO and Superintendent could fail to recognize the significant difference between their own numbers and the inflated WAPL numbers that they used for 9 internal meetings and 3 community engagement meetings between March and September, a period of 5 months.”
Green Bay currently loses far more students to other districts to open enrollment than it takes in. According to the Green Bay Press Gazette, in the 2015-16 school year, Green Bay was a net loser in open enrollment. This school year, 384 students came into the district through open enrollment, and 1,924 students attended school in another district. And, counterintuitively, Fondow believes this loss of students is why he expects the task force findings to call for a referendum on a fifth high school in April.
“They want a high school that looks like a suburban high school to which they are bleeding students,” Fondow told me. And a brand new school on Green Bay’s far east side would give them such a school. Fondow also believes that there are community leaders pushing the effort that believe, as some did in 2007, that the new school would be an economic driver for the area.
But the Fondow brothers also doubt that a 5th high school on the East side will have a significant impact on choice out numbers for the district. They argue that the families on the west side that are using choice to have their children attend school in the Ashwaubenon school district are likely to continue to do that.
Fondow doesn’t dispute that there is a space crunch in the district. He believes it can be handled by a redrawing of the existing school attendance boundaries.
Given that he spends his days in retirement trout fishing in Central Wisconsin, I asked Fondow why he’s putting so much effort into challenging the school district again.
“My wife just asked me that,” he chuckled. “I grew up in Green Bay; I graduated from East High School. I worked in the district for ten years. I have expertise that the average citizen isn’t going to have. I’m able to look at numbers do the research and find out what the rue number is. And I feel I have a civic duty to make sure the public has access to accurate information to make decisions about school facilities and funding.”
One thing you can be sure of is Fondow isn’t doing it to make friends, based on his experiences from 2007. Many of his former colleagues in the education profession saw him as a traitor. And he said following his efforts to stop a fifth high school a decade ago UW-Green Bay withdrew plans to present him with an honorary doctorate.
Fondow is frustrated that the rest of the Green Bay media aren’t interested in his story. He pitched it to a newspaper and a television station but they showed no interest. Fondow is hoping that will change once a referendum question is set. And if it calls for a fifth high school, as he suspects, he hopes his effort to get out the word now will show voters that such a facility was baked into the cake from the very start.
Jerry Bader is a news-talk radio host in Green Bay whose show airs on three stations in northeast Wisconsin.