The reorganization of the UW-Extension system, prompted by a $3.6 million budget cut back in 2015, is starting to take shape.
Lynn Feldman and Will Andresen of UW-Extension made a presentation to the Oneida County Conservation and UW-Extension Education Committee Monday afternoon, detailing the reconfiguration.
The area extension director, Steve Nelson, was also present to help answer any questions. Nelson will be in charge of Florence, Vilas, Forest and Oneida counties going forward. He will also be the "go to" link between the county UW-Extension and the university, Feldman said.
"This is a multi-month process, and this is one of the first steps," Andresen explained. "The train is leaving the station. Pieces are being put into place. It's an awkward time because we're still creating our design while counties need to adopt their budgets."
The management structure of the UW-Extension is changing. Department head and regional director positions are being eliminated, to be replaced with area executive directors. Each county under the area executive director will still formulate their own budget and make their own decisions.
Program areas will be divided into two departments, the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Department of Youth, Family and Community Development. Under each of those departments will be centers grouped under individual institutes such as the Agriculture Institute, Natural Resources Institute, Communities Institute, Youth and Family Institute and the Health and Well-being Institute.
"Every educator in the system will be assigned a center," Andresen said. "They will have a center director that will be a half-time educator and half-time administrator." According to Andresen, the goal is to minimize administration while maximizing flexibility as well as standards. Where individual educators will land, he said, will be determined as the process goes on.
"This is yet to be decided along the way, but to help you guys as far as deciding budget needs, what I've asked all of us to do is to take all of our programming and, in a chart form, (outline) where (it goes) as far as these centers and institutes," Feldman said, adding that the three employees who work in Oneida County are calculating the time spent on tasks that would fit into each of the centers to help the committee determine where their positions will fit into the overall picture.
From there, each of them will be assigned a "home" center.
Feldman explained the costs to the county for the UW-Extension educators is also changing. The costs will now be set up as an average of what each county across the state is paying. Due to this realignment in wages, the county will be looking at an additional $30,000 to provide the same services currently provided through UW-Extension.
"Right now you're paying for 40 percent of each educator's actual salary and fringes," Andresen said. "They're changing that and they are going to a flat-rate model. Each position will cost the same dollar amount in each county. Where the flexibility comes to the county committees comes from deciding which educators you want."
Each county can decide which program options it wants to fund. With the new model, however, there would be another option. There would be an option of using a regional specialist, who is funded by the state.
At this time, it is uncertain which specialists would be available in each four-county area. However, using one of those specialists in a certain program area would be an option for each county so services could be provided, services for which the county cannot budget.
"They are creating specialists outside of Madison, and that's why this is a multi-month process," Andresen explained. "It's going to take a while to figure this out and put all the pieces together. In the past, all of the specialists were in Madison and it was hard to get them to come up. Sometimes it's hard to get them to come this far north. Now we'll have the specialists throughout the state."
Each county can decide which program areas they would like to fund and work with regional specialists for other programs they would like to offer within the county but are unable to fund, he explained. Each county will have to find a balance between using educators from within the county and regional specialists.
The committee had many questions as to how the specialists would work and in what programs they would be available for each county to use.
"Will there be a list of different programming options so that we can pick and choose?" asked Jim Winkler. "And we could buy those services?"
Andresen said more information about the programming options should be available within a couple weeks, hopefully in time for counties to make the necessary budgetary decisions.
"We need to have this budget approved by this committee in September," Feldman noted.
"The other way to move the numbers around is to eliminate programs," said Robb Jensen. "Eliminating those programs keeps the cost down, correct?"
Feldman agreed and then showed the committee how they could manipulate the numbers using a spreadsheet.
"For instance, if you put me down to .5 of a full time, taking away 50 percent of my job, whatever that may wind up to be," Feldman said. "By doing that, it reduces your costs."
Specialists, who would be funded by the state, could then be used for those programs which would be cut with that adjustment.
"Coming up with an average educator price for all of Wisconsin," Jensen said. "It just blows my mind. I think it really puts burden on the three of you," he said to Feldman. "At some point we have to start ranking programs."
"You need to remember that, let's say we want to have teen court in Oneida County," Winkler said. "That doesn't mean we will necessarily have Lynn (Feldman) do that. Nancy Miller up in Vilas County has also been involved in teen court and had a little more experience than Lynn does. So Nancy might end up becoming the full-fledged teen court specialist and Lynn would become a specialist in something else."
"You're really a part of this right now in this conversation," Feldman said. "You're a part of helping Steve (Nelson) with all of this and how to make this all work for the four-county area."
"Specialists are going to be a lot different than educators," said family living educator Sara Richie. "You're not going to have a specialist come in and teach a parenting class. That's not going to be their role."
It was unclear where specialists would be located, whether their support would be to educators or to communities, nor was it clear yet what services they would provide.
"To say that we're getting a $30,000 increase in costs for the same programs is (expletive deleted)," said committee chairman Bob Mott. "I think that's terrible. It's a very poor model. I think it gives the opportunities for naysayers to say we're going to cut because we can't afford it. So you're going to cut your programs by a third and get the same results for the county? That's impossible. And you're going to fill that in with specialists? That's not going to happen."
"I think the scenario, and I'm not going to disagree with you, but I do think that specialists, they're going to be out in the community, and they are going to be serving multiple counties, and they will be serving two, three, four, five, six counties, and that will be a challenge. But state funding is going into these specialists and part of their job is to serve the county."
When asked when the committee will know which specialists would be available, Andresen said they were working diligently to get that information to the committees. He said he has talked to representatives from 22 of the state's 72 counties and none of them plan to increase their budget. For that reason, he saw specialists as filling a very important role in the system.
Mott asked for a breakdown for each extension employee detailing the programs each person worked on and the percentage of time spent on those programs. Feldman had asked everyone to complete that task by July 17. Mott also asked for information on the specialists, including details as to who would be available and for what programs.
Once those items are completed and provided to the committee, decisions will be made as to which programs to keep within the county and for which the county will need to use UW-Extension specialists.
Beckie Gaskill may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.