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County: How do we fill shoes of soon-to-retire Extension educator?

November 5, 2016 GMT

Patti Herman’s imminent retirement prompted a conversation Friday among county officials, regarding the future of the University of Wisconsin-Extension programs that Herman now oversees.

Herman, who has been the Extension’s family living educator since 2007, plans to retire Jan. 3 -- a move that she’d long anticipated for when she reached the age of 60.

But the timing of her departure makes it advisable to start talking now about which of the programs Herman leads are most essential, who can run them in her absence and how or whether her job will be refilled.

That’s why the County Board’s Agriculture, Extension and Land and Water Conservation Committee held a special session Friday afternoon.

Matt Hanson. Southwest regional director for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension, said state Extension officials are expected to decide, by the end of February, how county Extension offices will be staffed in the wake of a statewide $3.6 million budget cut, which will result in the loss of about 80 Extension positions.

Although all 72 counties are expected to have an Extension presence, plans call for all but the largest metropolitan counties to be organized into regional groups for administrative purposes; Columbia County is expected to be grouped with Sauk, Dodge and Fond du Lac counties.

What that means -- in terms of how many Extension employees will be working in Columbia County, and whether a particular educator might be assigned to work for more than one county -- is one of the key issues that still needs to be worked out.

“I feel, I think, as frustrated as everyone else at how long this has been dragging on,” Hanson said.

Some of the programs that Herman now oversees must go on after her departure.

“Children in the Middle” is a four-hour class that Columbia County judges require for all parents who file for divorce, custody changes or paternity, if the children are younger than 18.

The classes are offered twice a month, with two-hour sessions on Tuesday mornings and Wednesday evenings. Herman now teaches the morning classes, and Patti Hardt teaches the evening classes -- but Herman said Hardt does not have time to take over the morning classes, too. Other tasks related to “Children in the Middle” include registration, creating class lists and follow-up.

Another essential function that needs to continue, Herman said, is support for the Columbia County Association of Home and Community Education. HCE performs several community functions; one of the most prominent is overseeing the county’s Barn Quilt program, and mapping the locations where quilt patterns are painted on barns (of which there are more than 60 in Columbia County).

Herman also oversees a program for early childhood education professional development; a voluntary computerized “Parenting Wisely” program for Columbia County Jail inmates; and Columbia County Cares, a coalition that brings together organizations and individuals dedicated to the well-being of children and families.

Hanson said there are several possible options for keeping the most essential of these programs going after Herman retires.

One option would be to extend the work hours of 4-H Program Assistant Pat Wagner, so that she can spend one day a week working on essential family living programs.

Or, he said, an interim family living educator could be hired for a year, or a year and a half, but that would require going through a hiring process, and the person would likely be on board no sooner than April.

No decisions were made Friday.

However, County Board Chairman Vern Gove pointed out that any decision will have an impact on the county’s 2017 budget, which is scheduled for a County Board vote on Nov. 15.

Even though money for a family living educator is in the proposed budget, he said, amendments would have to be made to the budget, should the County Board opt to extend Wagner’s hours temporarily.

And right now, Gove said, there’s no telling what state Extension officials will decide as to whether a family living educator serving Columbia County would, in the long-term future, also be assigned to work in other counties.

Hanson said he expects that recommendations -- fairly firm recommendations -- about county Extension staffing will be unveiled in early February, and likely finalized by the end of the month.

Herman is one of the participants in statewide work groups that are now working on how the coming changes in Extension will be implemented.

Herman made it clear that her impetus for retiring has nothing to do with dissatisfaction with her job, or with the coming cuts.

“I love Extension and believe in it,” she said. “If I chose to continue working, this is where I’d want to work.”