By Sam Morateck and Jerry Bader
The Oconto Falls School District eliminated a part-time social worker position for budgetary reasons after giving several administrators pay increases for the current school year, one as high as 17%. In an interview with Media Trackers, Sharon Stodola-Eslien described the need for her position at the school and said she plans to challenge the decision to eliminate it in a closed school board session Monday night.
Stodola-Eslien has been working as a part-time social worker with the Oconto Falls School district since 2014. She estimates that she had worked with 23 middle school students and 59 high school students. Oconto Falls School Superintendent Dean Hess, told the Oconto County Times Hearld that the reason for the cut was “due to fiscal realities that are out of our control.” To challenge the board’s decision to eliminate her position, Stodola-Eslien will take her case to the school board in a closed session Monday.
Stodola-Eslien stressed to Media Trackers that her motivation for challenging the board’s decision is her desire to help students:
The real goal is to help kids who are struggling, who are frustrated with life, who have been handed difficulties and just need support to get up on their feet and be successful. I want them to graduate. I personally don’t need the job. I’m retired, I love what I do. Until I don’t love what I do, I just want to help kids
A lot of kids and parents have written letters (supporting retaining her position). There are a number of teachers afraid to write letters because they haven’t received their contracts yet. And that’s a sad state of affairs when you’re talking about supporting our kids.
While the district would still have a team of school psychologists and guidance counselors, Stodola-Eslien told Media Trackers that the current staff was already overloaded with work:
How are they going to work very hard at what they do and add what I do? I don’t think it’s feasible. I don’t think it’s possible. It takes years to build relationships with kids. This is my 4th year. I’m well respected, I respect the kids. From the top down you’re not seeing the respect required. This child is not the straight A kid or born into wealth kind of kid. These kids need a helping hand. I’ve seen kids come alive and thrive who never knew they were smart…to just learn how to be successful. Learn how to do school.
While superintendent Dean Hess told the media the cut was due to “fiscal realities,” a public records request made by Stodola-Eslien showed that several administrators gained salary increases, including one who received a 17% hike. Her calculations show that administrators salaries increased by more than a combined $36,000 in 2017(Media Trackers reviewed the documents and came up with the same number), while her position costs about $23,000. Stodola-Eslien told Media Trackers the revelation left her dumbfounded:
I guess I was frustrated and heartbroken at the same time. When I saw, that the teachers staff, which I would be included in, got a .75 raise this year. The support staff got a .65 raise. How do these people who make salaries far above these teachers; how do they live with themselves? That’s what I thought. You will pocket this increase and you don’t care about these students at the bottom. I don’t know…Since I learned I was non-renewed, I’m dumbfounded and much of the time I go…really.
You see kids falling through the cracks right and left and I’m doing my best to block those cracks. I worked for people with integrity and when I saw those figures I thought: integrity, do you know what those words mean? It’s very frustrating when you put your heart and soul into this, it’s very hard to see this.
According to Stodola-Eslien’s examination of the public records request, the three highest salary increases included Oconto Falls High School Assistant Principal Danny Smith who received a 7% salary increase, Oconto Falls Elementary Principal Daniel Moore received a 10% salary increase, and Administrative Assistant Debbie Woods received a 17% salary increase.
Media Trackers reached out to former Oconto Falls Schools Superintendent Dave Polashek. Polashek retired in 2015 and was succeeded by current Superintendent Dean Hess. Polashek shared his take on the situation:
“I don’t have all the information right now, I’m a little bit out of the loop. There two trains of thought on this: ” the financial costs and the opportunity costs.
“Obviously you have to weigh those. Schools are in the people business dealing with students. I guess my first priority whenever you make any kind of decision is: what are the impacts on students. Whenever you make a decision you have to ask: is it good for students, is it not good for students. Obviously there is compromising. Weigh the financial advantages versus the impact on the work that we do with kids.”
Polashek also spoke to Stodola-Eslien’s argument that it’s impractical for current staff to continue doing their jobs and assume her duties, and that relationships between students and staff take time:
“Obviously stretching people thin is a way of dealing with issues but certainly it is more of a challenge for them. In essence, by adding this to the workload requires a certain amount of triage that is going to have to occur. Certain things that are more important will be given the emphasis, things that are less important will be on the back burner. At the end there will be a greater workload and a little less quality of service.”
“Obviously there is a lot of time invested in building relationships and a certain amount of trust that has to be built up. That’s basically starting from ground zero when you have someone new entering into a relationship. Can it be done? Probably. Is it efficient from a student services perspective? Probably less so than when you have someone has put effort into building relationships.”
As to the administrator raises, Polashek pointed to how administrator salaries were impacted by Act 10 and that the raises may be an effort to relieve those effects:
I don’t know all the details on that. Obviously there are certain things of higher value and decision makers will put emphasis on those things where they place a higher priority. Since Act 10 there has been a real hit on public sector workers including teachers and administrators, and I think what the district had to do is provide some catch up for this. I guess if there’s a more significant increase in one category than another it can reflect a couple of things
- The perceived value of the contributions that are made by that category.
- There is a very limited pool of employees in that area. There is a lack of continuity because people are leaving due to the ability to make more money someplace else. I don’t know what the rationale was, but there is legitimate rationale sometime for rewarding one category over the other.
Media Trackers left a voice mail Wednesday afternoon with current Superintendent Dean Hess seeking comment. He did not respond. Thursday morning Media Trackers, at the district’s request, emailed several questions to Hess. We were told he had a busy meeting schedule but that they would do their best. As of Friday morning, we have received no response. If and when we do, it will be added to this report. The district eliminated two full time equivalent positions, affecting four employees.