LTE – Troy Gunderson – 3-12-2014

Stand Up for Our Public Schools

On January 10, 2014 the obituary of Edward Jacob Ausderau, formerly of Whitehall, WI appeared in both the Eau Claire Leader and the La Crosse Tribune.  This particular obituary caught my attention as an acquaintance from Whitehall shares the same unique last name.  Quickly scanning the text in search of a connection to my friend, I found an unexpected connection to me – Edward was a graduate of Colfax High School.  In fact, the third paragraph of the obituary proudly proclaims “Edward graduated as valedictorian of Colfax High School in Colfax, WI.”

 The revelation Edward originally haled from Colfax resulted in a more thorough review of the obituary.  It turns out Edward, born in 1923, earned a bachelor’s degree from UW-River Falls and a master’s degree from UW-Madison.  He experienced a rich life in the Whitehall area that included a career in the Trempealeau County Extension Office, an impressive list of volunteer activities and a wonderful family.

In the time passed since first reading this obituary I find myself regularly thinking about Edward’s educational experiences.  The citizens of Colfax provided Edward with modern well-equipped schools, talented teachers and a supportive community.  All of this amidst the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  Imagine just for a second the shear difficulty of life in a rural farming village during our nation’s bleakest time.  Despite numerous legitimate economic reasons to offer less, the folks in Colfax provided an educational foundation to a young man who went on to a life of service and dedication to others.  In the nearly 75 years since Edward’s graduation, the School District of Colfax has continued to provide wonderful programing, outstanding facilities and meaningful opportunities to the children and families it serves.

While I treasure the common bond I share with Edward as an alumnus of Colfax High School, I find myself more proud of sharing a common set of “roots.”  We can both trace our heritage back to a place willing to whatever it takes to offer its children an educational foundation for success.

Looking forward, I offer Colfax and hundreds of other wonderful Wisconsin communities will find providing these opportunities increasingly more difficult.  Unlike during the Great Depression when our leaders viewed educational opportunities as critical to a better life for their children, we now live in a state where the most influential of leaders make it their daily mission to eliminate public education.  From funding reductions and voucher programs to private charters and petty fights over standards and assessments, the current leadership in our state capitol seemingly begin each session with the following pledge “what can I do today to eliminate your public education?”  I offer “how is it we could afford to educate Edward during the depression but we can’t afford to educate our children today?”

If I am fortunate enough to live another 39 years and reach the magical age 90, will my obituary look like Edward’s?  Will it include the fact I graduated from Colfax High School?  If so, will it matter to a then 51 year old who now attends Colfax Elementary School?  If we as a citizenry are unwilling to stand up for public education, an institution that defines our communities and forges our local bond, then I offer the details of my obituary will be viewed as nostalgia rather than a common bond and source of pride.  The public schools in Colfax and everywhere across the State of Wisconsin are under full-scale attack.  Now is our time to stand up, or accept a new reality – a new reality where places like Colfax no longer have public schools.

I remain amazed at the commitment and sacrifice offered to children like Edward during the depression and equally amazed at the desperate attempts to escape responsibility displayed by those in government today.  We find ourselves at crossroads.  Will we continue to provide community-based public education for our children or will it go the way of the milkman and landline telephones?  I suggest the very foundation of Colfax depends upon it.

In my 15 years as a high school principal I would regularly tell our students “no matter where you end up, you will always be from here.”  Each time I said this I would think no matter where I end up, just like Edward, I will always be “from” Colfax. Let’s do our part to make certain we offer this connection to the children and communities of our future.  Call your assemblyman and your state senator.  Ask them what they are doing to strengthen and preserve public education – demand leadership or pick new leaders.

I will end by saying I attended Colfax Public Schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.  I remain forever grateful for the many opportunities afforded me by the citizens and taxpayers of Colfax.  I remain equally committed to ensuring our state continues to make this possible for generations to come.

Troy M. Gunderson
Colfax High School Class of 1980