By LeAnn R. Ralph
ELK MOUND — After 27 years, Margaret Dieter has retired from the Elk Mound Board of Education.
Dieter, who has served as the school board clerk, said that three years ago, she began debating whether she should run again for another term.
“I had just retired and debated whether to serve again. I held on. My husband said give it three years after you retire to see what you think,” Dieter said.
This time around, the decision not to run for re-election came easily.
“It was time for me to go. I want to do traveling. This way I don’t have to worry about that I have a meeting this day and that day. When I bought my plane tickets, I would have to try to schedule them around meetings,” Dieter said.
“I think I have only missed two meetings in the whole 27 years. That’s one thing nice about our board. Everybody comes to the meeting. There have been very few meetings where someone was missing. If you miss meetings, you lose continuity,” she said.
Dieter began her service on the school board when her children were in school.
“I had four kids in school, so I wanted a voice in their education. This gave me a little bit more than going to the school. Education has always interested me,” Dieter said.
One of Margaret Dieter’s daughters teaches in the Milwaukee Public School system.
The Milwaukee school district “is a whole different animal than the rest of the state. The kids have so many social and economic problems,” she said.
“There are absent parents, poor parents, parents on drugs, parents on alcohol. Kids coming to school dirty, not bathed, no clean clothes, no breakfast. The schools are serving breakfast, lunch and sending home supper. In some families mother and dad both have to work to make ends meet,” Dieter said, noting that it is difficult for teachers to teach when their students have so much to deal with before they can even think about trying to learn.
“If a legislator walked into some of the Milwaukee public schools, unannounced, and would sit in the classroom and see what those teachers are dealing with every day. Our daughter is K-5, 27 five-year-olds in her class,” Dieter said.
As you might imagine, over the years, Margaret Dieter has seen tremendous changes in education and in the Elk Mound school district.
“Education has changed a lot since I first got on the board. It always used to be involved in the day to day. And now, the board focus is on what are the kids learning, not — does this boiler have to be fixed today. But what are the kids learning? What benchmarks are we meeting? And that’s the way it should be. For boilers, we have maintenance people to take care of those things. What do I know about a boiler?” Dieter said.
“Our district has changed so much too. It used to be Spring Brook and Elk Mound. Now it’s all Elk Mound, all one area. It has grown,” she noted.
Elk Mound is one of the few school districts in the state that is experiencing an increase in enrollment rather than a declining enrollment.
“Declining enrollment hurts the school districts so much. The state aid is determined by how many kids are sitting in the classroom,” Dieter said.
“When you go back in the history, there’s a cut and a cut and a cut. Finally, with this round (the governor’s proposed budget for 2015-2017), we can’t do it anymore. We are at the bottom now. Our teachers have not had the raises they should have had. The pay scales were based on education, but they are no longer based on education. They are based on merit. But who decides who is meritorious? Sometimes there are personality conflicts, and a good teacher may not get along (with the administration),” Dieter said.
“And if we didn’t have Dr. Walsh to look after our finances. . .What do I know about all of those budget numbers? I can look at the numbers and see it matches here and here, but to know the ins and outs of refinancing and why to do it. He has the willingness to go after the facts and gather the information and then disperse the information in a way that ordinary people can understand,” Dieter said.
Dr. Walsh has been “a very strong administrator. It will be interesting to see who the board will find next … Administrator of the Year for Dr. Walsh was not at all a stretch,” she said.
The Elk Mound Board of Education has been recognized nationally twice in the past several years with a Magna Award.
“It would not have been possible without Dr. Walsh to draw us together to do board development … you can get beyond the pettiness on the board to get to higher levels of learning. That’s where it is important,” Dieter said.
Computer technology also has been a huge change for school districts both in the classrooms for students and teachers and for administrative services.
“Paperless meetings have been nice. I went through a couple of years ago and shredded a whole stack of papers. And I thought — why did I bother to save these? They have copies of everything at the school district. If someone wants a copy they can go there,” Dieter said.
The Elk Mound Board of Education now has everything available to them online through a program called Moodle rather than stacks of paper in board packets for each school board member.
Along the way, there has been a change, too, in the attitudes of school staff and administration.
“I’ve seen a change in attitude of teachers and administration working collaboratively, more in the last ten years than before,” Dieter said.
When the state implemented two-thirds funding in 1993 and also implemented the state-imposed revenue limits, it created problems for school districts.
“In the two-thirds funding in 1993 with all of that contention, it built a wedge between the administration and union. I remember sitting up until one or two in the morning, negotiating. Where did that get you? Heartache. A couple of coaches said, ‘We’ll walk off the job and you can coach.’ … There was too much contention there. You are better off if everyone is working collaboratively, because then you have a mission. Everybody works together,” Dieter said.
Dieter’s retirement also has brought a different kind of change to the Elk Mound Board of Education.
“I have been the only woman on the board for the longest time. Now there will not be a woman on the board, and it’s kind of disappointing. They really need somebody to speak up,” she said.
Dieter said school boards need the diverse representation of both men and women.
“You need diversity. Although board development has helped a lot with our board. We meet a couple of times a year. It is not so much the content as it is getting to know the other board members, why they are thinking the way they are thinking … I would not want to sit on a board where they were all said ‘yes’ because then why have a board?” Dieter said.
“I’ve met a lot of really good people. Kathy Scharlau was on the board. Elton Christopherson. Luther Grohn. It’s been a good run and it’s been interesting. I’ve been to a lot of workshops. WASB (Wisconsin Association of School Boards) has workshops. (School board members should) take advantage of them. Learn what is going on. It’s important. If you can get the rest of the board to go to a few, they learn so much,” Dieter said.
“Bill (Vincent) was the superintendent when I got on the board. He laid a lot of the foundation of where we have ended up. His planning. Equity in Funding. That was a big thing … coming out of a little school district,” she said.
“Education is so important. It’s the whole basis of what we are doing (as a country),” Dieter said.
It seems that some people do not value education as much as they once did, and perhaps that is because they cannot remember a time when the education was not available, she said.
“Your agenda (for being on the school board) changes after a while too. When you first get on, you want to say this and that. But then you sit back and listen, and you say, ‘I can live with that adjustment, with that change,’” Dieter said.
As a school board member, “you have an effect on every child in that district. A board might think a classroom doesn’t need an aide. But maybe an aide is needed. Maybe there is one child who needs that extra help coming from a different personality. Someone who will sit down and say, ‘hey Johnnie, let’s try it this way, let’s read it this way.’ Then you are building an education for that child, because then the child begins to think he can do it,” Dieter said.
“It’s nice, too, to see younger people coming on the board … if you had them all coming from the same voice, it would not be good,” she said.
While Dieter places a high value on education now and has been a strong advocate for education, it was not always that way.
“I struggled in school. I hated school. I almost got kicked out of fourth grade. I couldn’t stand the teacher, and I didn’t want to do the work,” Dieter recalled with a laugh.
“Father finally came to our house and told my parents, ‘She’s got to do the work, or she can’t go to fifth grade.’ I was grounded in the spring. I had to do all of my work. By seventh grade, I had a good teacher, and she sparked an interest in learning,” she said.
Dieter grew up in Rice Lake. Then her family moved, and she went to school in Manitowoc for four years along with a year of college at Silver Lake. Her family moved to Eau Claire in 1967, and then she met her husband, Steve.
“He’s got the roots. But he always says, ‘Margaret, you know more people in this town than I do!’ And that may be true. But he has the roots. He knows the people who have gone before,” Dieter said.
Margaret Dieter also has served on the CESA No. 11 board for a number of years.
Some of the state’s legislators are looking at closing the CESAs down, she said.
“All these little schools. The shared services, the cooperative aspect. It helps their budgets. They share the (personnel) that they could not hire on their own,” Dieter said.
As for no longer serving on the school board, “I would hope that if (the school district) needed an advisory committee, they would call me and ask if I would be on it, because of course I would,” she said.