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Ertl calls speech decision a mistake

Superintendent says students should have been allowed to watch Obama live

Sept. 16, 2009

If he could do it over again, Superintendent Phil Ertl said he would have allowed students to view the live broadcast of President Obama's speech to students last week.

"(In) hindsight, I think I would have made a different decision on it," Ertl said. "As I look at it, it is our president of our country and the opportunity for him to speak without disruption, I think, would have been a decision I could have made that would have been beneficial to everyone in our district."

Ertl banned the speech from being shown live, but said teachers could play the address at a later date with parent permission. That choice was made when only limited information about the speech was available, Ertl said, and that information led him to believe the event would have disrupted the classroom learning environment.

Not alone in decision

Wauwatosa was one of several area school districts that decided not to allow students to watch the speech live. The Elmbrook, West Allis-West Milwaukee and Waukesha districts are among those that took the same step after some officials heard from parents who said they would pull their children out of class if the speech aired.

Critics argued that the speech and suggested accompanying activities were an attempt to indoctrinate students. In response, some districts agreed not to show the speech at all, or to show it only after school administrators reviewed the content.

Criticism plentiful

Ertl said he has received a lot of feedback from district residents and staff regarding the issue. That feedback continued at Monday's School Board meeting, when all seven board members and six residents roundly criticized Ertl's decision to not show the 20-minute speech that was focused on working hard in school, setting educational goals and taking responsibility for learning. No one present spoke in support of Ertl's decision.

Board member Michael Meier said the nonpartisan speech got inappropriately bogged down in politics.

"My understanding from what I'm hearing from the community is that most of us are not political, and most of us just don't want to be separated from our president," Meier said. "If he has something to say, people want to hear it, and they really don't think of him as head of his party on a day-to-day basis."

Several board members said they have received many e-mails and phone calls from residents opposed to Ertl's choice, but few who backed the decision.

Policy called for

Meier called for a policy to guide future decisions about similar speeches. The board was split on whether a policy was appropriate, but member Mary Jo Randall agreed to draft one.

Some members asked for the speech to be shown districtwide, but Ertl said enough students have already seen it that an all-classroom showing would not be productive.

NEXT STEP

WHAT: School Board members are expected to discuss a proposed policy on presidential speeches

WHERE: Fisher Building board room, 12121 W. North Ave.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Sept. 28

MORE INFO: wauwatosaschools.org

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