By Steve Gunn
DELAVAN, Wis. – Wendy Overturf didn’t last very long as superintendent of the Delavan-Darien school district.
Perhaps that’s because she reprimanded a teacher who staged a political protest by refusing to speak to students for an entire school day, explaining that Gov. Scott Walker had “taken his voice.
Maybe it was because she and the school board insisted on a wage freeze to address a huge budget deficit, after the teachers union had dragged its feet for more than a year in contract negotiations.
Or maybe the union was mad because Overturf and the board decided to replace collective bargaining with an employee handbook that called for higher professional standards.
By the fall of 2011, the teachers union was clearly tired of the superintendent who demanded accountability. Union leaders went to the school board with a list of cloudy complaints about Overturf. Rumors started spreading throughout the area about drug deals and violence in the schools, and concerned parents started complaining.
Finally the union forged alliances with several school board candidates, and all were elected last April. The new president of the board immediately announced that a new superintendent would be in place soon, and separation negotiations began with Overturf.
The school board ended up giving Overturf nearly $300,000 to go away, even though she had two years left on her contract and a spotless evaluation record.
The new school board president told the media, “We appreciate the years of service Dr. Overturf has given to the district. I know she has worked very hard – 60 to 70 hour weeks sometimes.”
Ironically, the school district is the alma mater of Gov. Scott Walker, the hero of K-12 education reform in Wisconsin.
A culture of low expectations
According to media accounts, Overturf was a highly successful elementary principal in the Delavan-Darien district before becoming superintendent in 2007.
She was familiar with the district’s culture of low expectations.
Delavan-Darien ranked 49th out of 50 in student achievement in southeastern Wisconsin. Large achievement gaps existed between white and minority students. Huge numbers of students were leaving for other districts under the state’s open enrollment program.
Overturf said she had no specific agenda when she became superintendent. She simply tried to improve the district in areas she deemed necessary.
“I had been in the district,” Overturf told EAGnews.org. ”I knew we hadn’t been doing much of anything. Everyone here always got glowing evaluations. It was a pretty laissez faire district for many years. The union is very complacent. They don’t want change.”
Overturf said she tried to combat the defeatist mentality in a number of ways.
She hired several new administrators, including two new principals who demanded higher standards from teachers. Both became unpopular in a hurry and were the subject of many complaints from teachers.
The new elementary principal “tried to institute a lot of changes, and I received nothing but complaints about her,” Overturf said. “The union finally had a vote of no confidence in her, and I knew she wasn’t going to be successful. She lasted a year and a half before I had to move her to the central office.”
Overturf forced building principals to spend considerably more time in classrooms, and use their observations to produce more thorough teacher evaluations.
“They started focusing on effective teaching,” Overturf said. “Even really good teachers need to hear what they do well, and what they could do better. It didn’t go over well with the teachers. They complained about the feedback. They felt like administrators didn’t know anything and thought teachers should do the evaluations themselves.”
Overturf said she also tried to bring discipline to the staff, and was met with resistance every step of the way.
She tried to fire one teacher, but the union protested and a mediator ordered his reinstatement. Staff members complained when they were reprimanded for misuse of sick days. Overturf suspended an athletic coach who was suspected of being intoxicated on the job, and several other coaches resigned in protest.
The high school athletic director was given a year to improve his performance, after it was learned that interview questions had been shared in advance with a coaching candidate he wanted to hire.
A reprimand went to the teacher who refused to speak because the governor supposedly took his voice by signing Act 10.
“If you don’t talk to students for an entire day, you deserve a reprimand,” Overturf said. “Teachers were mad about this all over the place.”
An end to collective bargaining
Union opposition to Overturf heightened in 2011.
The district’s budget deficit stood at $750,000, and rumors were rampant that incoming Gov. Walker would be forced to slash state aid to public schools.
The district’s attorney strongly suggested that the school board respond to the financial threat by issuing “non-renewal” notices to 41 teachers in February, to indicate they might be laid off the following fall. Usually layoff notices do not go out until April, and “non-renewal” letters are not typically used for that purpose.
“The attorney said we’d better do this now with all the uncertainty,” Overturf said. “It was just a precaution in the face of all the rumored budget cuts.
“Everyone got called back. I think half of a full-time position was eliminated. But the union said we could have done something more palatable and not upset everybody the way we did. They used it against me with the board.”
Contract negotiations with the teachers union had also become a nightmare.
The cash-strapped district had hoped to convince the union to allow teachers to pay a small portion toward their health insurance premiums, make some changes to post-retirement benefits and accept a compromise pay raise.
The union held out for more than a year, until Act 10 was introduced and it became clear that local unions should take what they could get before big changes were implemented. The two sides finally settled on a retroactive 2009-11 agreement in the spring of 2011, with staff salaries frozen.
Like many other teachers unions around the state, the Delevan-Darien union would have liked to secure a contract extension beyond 2011, to prolong its collective bargaining privileges and preserve the right to deduct union dues from employee paychecks.
But Overturf and the school board were tired of the negotiation games. With Act 10 freshly on the books, they had the option of dumping collective bargaining and replacing the negotiated contract with an imposed employee handbook.
They employed that option, to the consternation of union officials.
The new handbook introduced a new professional dress code. Forty-five minutes were added to one teacher workday per week. Seniority was eliminated as the main criteria for personnel and layoff decisions. The “just cause” standard was dumped, making it easier to terminate ineffective teachers.
Union officials seethed over the imposed changes.
“They didn’t want to give up just cause, and that made them furious,” said Steve Carlson, who was president of the school board at the time.
Promoting community unrest
Staff unrest became obvious in the summer of 2011.
The teachers were openly protesting against Walker and the implementation of Act 10. Union officials were spotted around town meeting with small groups of prominent citizens, according to Overturf. Rumors started floating about drug deals and violence at the school.
To some it seemed obvious that the union was employing the tactics of its hero, the radical agitator Saul Alinsky, who counseled his followers to “begin the task of agitating by rubbing resentments, fanning hostilities, and searching out controversy.”
Overturf said the allegations about drugs and violence were investigated and determined to be false.
Carlson said he had visited the high school over the course of the previous school year and noticed very few disciplinary problems.
“I traveled the hallways and never observed anything so calm,” Carlson said. “I was there for several lunch periods with other board members, and I never saw so many orderly kids in my life.”
Despite the lack of evidence regarding disciplinary problems, the union effort to upset the community worked to perfection. Some believe the mere suggestion of drugs and violence scared many white parents, because the student population was 44 percent Hispanic.
A district poll showed that more than 80 percent of the students who left the district in recent years were white.
“We have a high minority population,” Carlson said. “It creates an issue for open enrollment. There has been a certain amount of ‘white flight.’ There are some prejudiced people here, like in any community.”
Several hundred parents packed a school board meeting in August, 2011 to complain about student discipline, the loss of students and what they perceived as a lack of communication between administrators and teachers.
Residents obviously don’t attend school. We can only guess where they picked up the complaint about communication problems in the schools.
“It was all due to twitter and other social media,” Carlson said of the crowded school board meeting. “Several hundred people in one night. I couldn’t control it. Our attorney said to me, ‘This had to be the work of the union Uniserv director. This is just way too big to be the work of just a few disgruntled teachers.’”
Union goes in for the kill
The union took a poll of teachers and said the results indicated “no confidence” in Overturf. Union officials had a special meeting with the school board in October to air their complaints about the superintendent.
“It became the perfect storm,” Overturf said. “They were mad about Act 10 and mad about changes at the high school. So they decided to get parents worked up by telling them their schools were not safe. We tried to tell parents that the schools were as safe, or more safe, than they ever had been. But some of the parents were obviously uncomfortable.”
The pending school board election presented the union with the opportunity it was waiting for. Union leaders forged alliances with four candidates who announced their opposition to Overturf’s leadership.
At that point local union officials had accomplished their goal and stepped aside, Carlson said.
“It was a handful of hard-core teachers who got the ball rolling, then I think they took a back seat like a bunch of cowards,” he said. “It was a slam dunk at that point for the new candidates. It was amazing how easy it was for people to follow a group like this – people being that impressionable, without knowing the facts.”
All four candidates were elected on April 3. Carlson, the longtime board president who supported Overturf, resigned the next day.
“On April 4, the new board president announced in the newspaper that there would be a new superintendent within a month, and separation discussions began on April 12,” Overturf said.
Her final day on the job was May 23. The separation proved expensive for the district. Overturf received the balance of her salary for the rest of the school year, a payout for the two years remaining on her contract and a retirement benefit.
The final price tag was $283,000.
She loved her job
In the end Overturf left with an impressive record, considering she was working to change a district with a long history of failure.
The curriculum was overhauled to more closely meet student needs. A new behavioral code was established and visits to principal’s offices declined. The habitual truancy rate dropped below the state average in 2009 and 2010. The number of student expulsions dropped, graduation rates increased and in 2011-12 a record number of students took advanced placement classes, according to local media reports.
But it wasn’t enough to keep the union happy. She stepped on too many toes in her effort to restore the district and her fate was sealed.
“She tried to accomplish a change in culture,” Carlson said. “The status quo was not okay. Other districts with similar demographics had shown improvement, but we didn’t before she became superintendent.
“But change didn’t happen good enough or fast enough for some, and some of the professional staff was clearly resistant to change.”
Carlson admitted Overturf was not without faults. He said she sometimes struggled with diplomacy as she tried to implement change.
“She worked very hard, and she’s very bright,” Carlson said. “Maybe she was not real diplomatic. We talked about that during her board evaluation. But everybody on the board was willing to live with it. We wanted the firmness. We wanted it to go on.”
Several administrators in the district vouched for Overturf’s performance. Tracy Deavers, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, resigned to take another job after Overturf was fired.
“As a professional educator, I fully support the vision and direction in which Dr. Overturf has led the district,” Deavers wrote in her resignation letter. “Recent events have created uncertainty surrounding the future direction of the district and I no longer feel confident this vision will be supported.”
Overturf refused to make any negative comments on her way out the door.
“While superintendent, I always believed it was my responsibility to challenge our current educational system, especially when our student achievement results show se have a significant achievement gap, not only among our students, but compared to nearby districts and the state,” she wrote in a farewell email message.
When contacted by a local reporter, Overturf would only say that she “loved her job.”