Teachers fleeing Waukesha schools

Citing lack of respect, discrimination and ‘antiquated ideology’ as they head out the door

By: - June 10, 2022 7:00 am
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“School District of Waukesha (SDW) students and staff [have] become aware of a significant increase in teacher resignations this school year.” So says the Alliance for Education in Waukesha in a June 7 press release.

“From April 1 to June 5, 2022, SDW has received at least 54 resignations from employees. In 2021, there were a total of 28 resignations from April to June 30. Because contracts from teachers are not due back to SDW until the 15th of this month, we anticipate there will be a surge in the already staggering 93% year to year increase in resignations.”

At the May board meeting, newly elected board member, Marquell Moorer, was puzzled by what he called the “hefty” number of teachers leaving. Were there exit interviews done with these resignations?

Sharon Thiede, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, said that there was no formal system of exit interviews, but employees leaving were free to give the district feedback.  A lot of people are moving to schools closer to their homes, said Thiede.

At the June board meeting, several teachers who were quitting gave the board its answer.

“I am not leaving because I am moving or because my husband got a new job. I am not leaving because of a dispute with a colleague or administrator, or because of my students,” said Stacy Kolafa, a Spanish teacher at West High School for nine years. “In fact, it is because of the students that I have stayed here as long as I have. I do not agree with the direction the school district has taken in regards to diversity and equity.”

Monica Whaley reinforced what several other teachers said that night. Much of it came down to a school district that no longer accepted diversity. Signs in classrooms supporting Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ kids were taken down. Some were nothing more than rainbow signs that said “Safe Space.” Teachers were being monitored when  they taught about race and diversity in their own classrooms.

Monica’s  own niece, Sarah Whaley, was suspended for not taking down her Pride flag. Monica had had enough; she was leaving. Sarah was going to stay.

Amy Menzel, who has 18 years’ experience, was leaving, too. “It is with mixed emotions that I resign from the school district of Waukesha. … I used to feel valued and respected as a professional. I no longer do.”

Heidi Gerlach, who has 22 years in the district, was leaving for additional reasons. The workload had become unmanageable, Two to four meetings a week left little prep time for classes; every minute is micromanaged.

Parents chimed in as well. Jan Mandela’s family is removing their children from the Waukesha schools because of the school culture’s lack of acceptance and respect. What had taken over was an “antiquated ideology,”  Mandela said. “We will be moving out of Waukesha next month so that our children can attend a district that aligns with our morals as civilized human beings of an extremely diverse and unique world that we live in.” Teachers are the “true heroes” here, Mandela added.

But not everyone agreed with that assessment. 

Paul Reese, who speaks frequently at board meetings, began with “I love this board and what it has done.” He quoted the Bible and pushed for adherence to the dress code. “People don’t want to listen to what you have to say. Instead, they shout, ‘You are a homophobic’ because you disagree with them.” Teachers should stick to teaching the basics, Reese said. “Some teachers just want to indoctrinate our kids.”

Kathy Keller, a grandparent, said, “Thank you for getting back to basics.” Some teachers are leaving because they are unable to “sexualize and politicize” their students, she added, so let them go.

School board members were given a chart which did not match what the Alliance was saying concerning the number of teachers leaving the district. When examining the numbers for resignations and retirements for 2022, superintendent James Sibert stated, “As you can see on the chart, we are trending similarly to other years.”

“That is not the impression people have,” said board member Cory Montiho. “I don’t see that the data supports what people are suggesting.”

But as the board began asking questions about the numbers, Sibert had to admit, “The 2022 numbers are not totally in yet.” The administration was comparing the total numbers of previous years with the more limited data of 2022. If the district only got another 15 or so resignations/retirements for this year, the total would pretty much match previous years.

However, Thiede had to admit “We have received resignations earlier than we have in years past — higher in April and May if you compare to the other four years.” The administration was counting on people announcing that they were leaving earlier, not that a flood of resignations was about to hit the district in the next week.

Ted Kraig is the southeastern Wisconsin regional director for the Wisconsin Education Association Council and has been following teacher turnover around the Waukesha area. “A larger and larger number of people are leaving districts,” he says. He points to district mismanagement, a total lack of consideration for staff and pay scales not keeping up with inflation. Teachers are trying to come back from the pandemic and it has been an unusually hard year. However, what he hears about teachers leaving Waukesha makes it appear that attrition is greater there than in  other districts.

What may complicate the final staffing numbers is that there are ways around the June 15 contract deadline. Teachers have been known to break their contracts and move to another district after that date. Accepting districts may give monetary incentives to help teachers move.

In the background of the June board meeting was the issue of the district giving only a 2.5% raise plus a $1,000 one-time bonus. Other districts are offering 4.7%. Some Waukesha teachers stated they would be willing to leave Waukesha schools even if it meant a pay cut given the district’s toxic atmosphere.

Even if the number of teachers leaving is not a flood, it is significant that many teachers who have  years of experience are leaving the district. Kolafa claimed that West High School had 12 new teachers at the beginning of this year; now the number of teachers claiming to leave at the end of this year is double digit.

In November 2021, Greg Deets who lost his bid for reelection to the Waukesha board in April, issued this warning: “It is going to be difficult to attract new families, new students, and new residents with all the negative publicity this is causing. In addition to that, we should be about recruiting a diverse staff that reflects our diverse student population.” Deets predicted that the number of staff members who quit the district “is going to jump and jump and jump.”


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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.