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Superintendent deals with discrimination complaint, school closing

Aug. 2, 2007

When she was a middle school principal, Deb Kerr got a 5:30 a.m. panic call from a student who forgot his wrestling uniform.

The bus was leaving at 6 a.m. for his match, so Kerr had the locker room opened and got the uniform herself.

Kerr, 50, of Antioch, Ill., has been channeling some of that get-it-done spirit as she has taken over as the new superintendent of the Brown Deer School District.

In her first month, Kerr has worked to relocate students from the closed Algonquin Elementary School, helped organize eight new modular classrooms at Dean Elementary School for those displaced students, and fielded criticism for locking down basketball hoops at Brown Deer Middle School.

She's also trying to move, get to know her staff and be available to her new community.

"This is a 24-7 job," Kerr said. "You've always got to pay attention to what's going on."

Timing not ideal

As a former award-winning basketball coach and survivor of Alaskan winters, as well as an experienced principal and school superintendent, Kerr said she is up to her new challenges.

She has previous experience with modular classrooms. Kerr needed the classrooms when she was superintendent for the Wilmot Grade School District in Kenosha County.

The new classrooms to be placed at Dean School are being shipped in nine sections and should be assembled soon.

"It's an excellent short-term solution as we begin exploring the elementary school program and a possible new building," she said.

Timing wasn't ideal for the elementary school problem - Algonquin was closed because of structural safety issues - given the recent $4.1 million referendum to renovate Brown Deer High School. That work is under way.

Kerr said the district isn't quite ready for another referendum, but one could be necessary for an elementary school.

Basketball hoops controversy

The district has faced another kind of safety issue since Kerr came on board.

District officials decided to close the basketball hoops at the middle school because of "significant police activity" there, Kerr said.

"Nobody was hurt. Nobody was killed," she said.

But there was one gunshot a couple of months ago, and someone was robbed at the hoops. Vandalism also was increasing, Kerr said.

Closing the hoops was a temporary last resort to avoid any escalation of violence, Kerr said.

"Unfortunately, it probably did not stop that kind of behavior. It probably displaced it," she said.

Kerr said she did not expect the controversy when the hoops were closed.

Village resident Henry Hamilton III filed a complaint with Office for Civil Rights against the district last week, claiming the lockdown discriminates against black children.

"They don't really teach you about that in grad school," Kerr said.

The school district is considering more lights, possible cameras and signs to deter problems at the hoops. But that won't change the situation in the short-term, and Kerr understands people's concerns.

Range of accomplishments

Closing the hoops has been a difficult decision for Kerr, who started her career in 1979 as a girls' varsity basketball coach at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.

Kerr taught physical education for kindergarten through 12th grades at the college preparatory school. She also was the high school's athletic director.

She left that job in 1985 to move to Alaska, where she became an assistant principal, then a principal, as well as an accomplished basketball coach. There, she was twice honored as basketball coach of the year. She also was honored as assistant principal of the year.

Kerr was a middle school principal in Illinois before she came to Wisconsin to become a superintendent, first for Wilmot and then for the Trevor-Wilmot Consolidated School District.

As she transitions into Brown Deer, Kerr said one of her goals is to promote diversity within the district. She also wants to increase student achievement, possibly through the use of more technology.

She also plans to be active in the community, which should get easier once she moves from Antioch to the Racine County area.

"I'm very approachable," Kerr said. "I hope (people) feel comfortable asking me questions."

FYI

• New Brown Deer Superintendent Deb Kerr is married and has two dogs, Reba and Kesha. Reba is named for singer Reba McIntyre, whom her husband likes. Her former fifth-grade class at Wilmot Elementary School named Kesha.

• Kerr is a tri-athlete. Someday, she hopes to run a marathon.

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