Educational collaborations will be goal of Waukesha County listening sessions

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State Rep. Paul Farrow (R-Pewaukee) and Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas are teaming up to host listening sessions to seek public input on Waukesha County’s higher education.

The effort is aimed at giving more students an opportunity at higher education while also meeting the needs of the business community and employers in the area, Farrow said.

“The need for public input became even clearer to me earlier this year when I was reviewing the transfer of credits between the colleges,” Farrow said. “There is some benefit in streamlining their processes and we want to find out from the community the best path for developing the higher education system in Waukesha County.”

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Under the state of Wisconsin’s new legislative districts, both the Waukesha County Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha are in Farrow’s district.

Farrow said he and Vrakas have scheduled a meeting with Barbara Prindiville, president of WCTC; Harry Muir, dean and chief executive officer of UW-Waukesha; and Doug Hastad, president of Carroll University, which also is located in Waukesha, for early in January to discuss the future of higher education in Waukesha County.

WCTC and UW-Waukesha receive state funding, and Carroll University, a four-year degree institution in Waukesha, also plays a key role in higher education in the county, Farrow said.

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“Our plan is to come up with eight common areas we’d like to discuss with the community,” Farrow said. “We want to work with the community, students, businesses and stakeholders to determine what the next step is. We need to develop an education system to take us through the next generation. Everyone agrees on that.”

Vrakas hopes the listening sessions will provide students, parents, businesses and taxpayers with an opportunity to connect with their elected officials about the future of secondary education in the county.

“These are very good institutions, they are full of good teachers and administrators, and what Rep. Farrow and I are trying to do is ask a difficult question about whether or not there are things, in the best interest of the students and the community, we could do better,” Vrakas said.

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At a minimum, Vrakas and Farrow agree that there are ways the institutions could work together to maximize resources within the community.

Consolidation of the WCTC and the UW-Waukesha is another option that has been discussed.

“At a minimum, my expectation is that these institutions will find areas where they can work together where they currently are not,” Vrakas said. “At a maximum, they may find that they need to become one institution and join forces to get the job done even better then each one is currently doing on their own. Sometimes one plus one can equal something greater than two, but that’s not something we’ll know until we have input from everyone.”

Farrow said he is looking to solve issues of accessibility, accountability and flexibility.

“Our economy demands a workforce that is both diverse and adaptable,” Farrow said. “Wisconsin’s job market is constantly evolving, and we must ensure our education system keeps pace. Our goal is to study what other states are doing and evaluate whether or not we are using the taxpayer’s money as efficiently and effectively as we can.”

Vrakas and Farrow plan to meet with the educational institution heads early in January. Those meetings will be followed by a series of listening sessions at both UW-Waukesha and WCTC, Farrow said. There might also be an additional listening session at Carroll University.

“The initial meeting is where we will put together a framework of topics to be discussed,” Farrow said. “We’d like to keep the conversation focused to the issues at hand, but also want to make sure everybody’s concerns are heard.”

The dates are not currently set for the listening sessions, but according to Farrow, there will be day, evening and perhaps weekend time frames to accommodate schedules. The sessions will most likely be held the first two weeks in February.

“We haven’t worked in a vacuum,” Vrakas said. “We’ve met with the dean of UW-Waukesha, the president of WCTC, the head of the state technical college system and the head of the two year UW System. We’re trying to bring everybody together because we understand that change is sometimes difficult, but it’s also necessary. Representative Farrow and I think we can be doing it better and more efficiently. I expect we’ll get a lot of input on a variety of issues effecting higher education in Wisconsin.”

Prindiville discussed the sessions with employees during two listening sessions in December.

“There appears to be many good reasons to give serious consideration to the idea advanced by County Executive Vrakas and State Rep. Farrow,” Prindiville said. “WCTC is committed to serving the needs of our students, employers, and taxpayers that will help Waukesha County continue to be a leader in the state. We welcome the idea and upcoming discussion on the issues and encourage the citizens of Waukesha County to participate in the conversations that will take place in the very near future.”

Ray Cross, chancellor of the UW-Wisconsin Extension and UW-Wisconsin College system, publically stated in an op-ed column for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that it is premature to assume a merger between the two schools is the best solution.

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea or not. But I do know it is premature and probably counterproductive to say merger is the answer before we know what all the questions are,” Cross wrote.

According to Muir, the discussions are consistent with what he, Prindiville and Hastad had already been working on.

“My hope is these listening sessions will continue the process we’ve started to hear the ways we can serve the Waukesha community even better and to inform residents of the many options that already exist at UW-Waukesha to meet their higher educational needs,” Muir said.

“I can tell you that the business community is in a position to support higher education financially,” Vrakas said. “They realize that if they are getting a product that’s of value it’s worth their investment. My hope would be that whatever emerges here in Waukesha is done in close collaboration with the business community. As needs come up, our education institutions need to be able to adapt and bring business inside the classroom. The world of education is changing and we want to make sure the two public intuitions are changing along with those needs.”

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