SPOTTLIGHT — Is There Any Value to Upgrading My Home?

September 1, 2017

By Toni Spott

Toni Spott

So you’re thinking of maybe upgrading some rooms in your home and you’re wondering if there is any value to it. The simple answer is yes!

But first and foremost, do the upgrade for you! Live with it and enjoy it. What I see time and time again is people living for a long time with some aspect of their home that doesn’t thrill them. Then they do the remodel or upgrade right before they sell which means they’ve fixed it up for someone else.

Which home upgrades are good investments? Well, not all home improvements are good ones.

According to Remodeling Magazine (, you’re less likely to recoup your investment in a major kitchen or bathroom remodel than with basic home maintenance or upgrades such a such as new siding. Siding replacement recouped 92.8 percent of its cost, according to the study. Replacing roofs and windows was also high on the list, returning 80 percent or more when the home was sold.

The only home improvement likely to return more was a minor kitchen remodel that would cost, roughly $15,000. That, on average, returned 92.9 percent. Don’t let that discourage you from redoing the kitchen or bathroom, since buyers see those two rooms as those they want upgraded.

What Remodeling Magazine doesn’t state is that the most important thing you can do is take care of the basic home maintenance. Things that you need to do on a yearly basis are to have the furnace and hot water heater inspected, and if needed, repaired or replaced. Check your roof and gutters to make sure they are in good condition, and if not, replace. Make sure you do not have water in your basement and the foundation is in good condition. These are not the sexy things to do but they are essential to the upkeep of a home and should be done before any other upgrades!

Deciding what rooms to upgrade is important. If you are thinking about upgrading your kitchen perhaps but you only have one bathroom in the house, I would highly recommend that you try to add another bath, if possible, first. That investment returns an average of 86.4 percent.

Please don’t do the work yourself! Hire a licensed contractor to it. Get permits and lien waivers for the work done. Shop around for a good contractor, seek referrals, and do your own research after you’ve narrowed down the field to one or two that seem like the best choice.

Curb appeal is also important. This too can be an upgrade. New siding or paint or a new front porch can be a game changer.

As for color, most homeowners think it’s good to follow the current trends, but that’s not always a good thing. Today’s trends become yesterday’s not-so-cool thing in a hurry. Find something that has a timeless feel to it. As much as you may think that neutrals have a boring feel to them, they work for most people. When you have incorporated a neutral palette, it makes it easier for potential buyers to imagine their preferred color palette.

In the end, what you get back on your home after home improvements, really depends on the value of your home, the value of the homes in your neighborhood, and what’s going on with the housing market in the area you live in. Over-improving your home for the area you live in doesn’t make any sense nor will you get your money back.

To read the 2017 Cost/Value Report for Milwaukee: Note, you will have to register (free) before you are able to view the data.

Toni Spott Sustainable Agent,
Keller Williams Realty;

Facebook: Toni Spott’s Real Estate Resource;
Twitter: @ToniSpottsRealEstateResource

HALL MONITOR — A Signature Euphemism; a Daft Solution

September 1, 2017

By Jay Bullock

Im so lucky! My school is a “signature school” in the Milwaukee Public Schools this year!

In 20 years of teaching I’ve seen my share of reform efforts and euphemisms. But “signature school,” as a way of indicating schools that failed to meet expectations on the last state report card, may be the craziest.

The designation entitles us to some bonus resources, like a “hotline” for administrators to call in emergencies (not, sadly, a Commissioner Gordon-style red phone) and “resources gathered to counter inequitable patterns,” whatever that means.

During a full week of professional development before students returned, teachers in “signature schools” were presented with a hefty list of “Classroom Set-up Expectations.”

These elicited actual laughs from my colleagues. A classroom library with a carpeted area, so students can sit at our feet? Where does that fit among the 40 desks for my sophomores? Posted weekly lesson plans? Come on, I have to adjust my lessons on the fly almost every day!

Let us not forget the in-class “cool down space,” complete with noise-canceling headphones, lavender-scented pillows, and “a small trampoline.” I am not making this up.

What’s not funny is mandatory posting of achievement, attendance, and discipline data on a “data dashboard,” updated hourly and prominently displayed outside the door of every “signature school” classroom.

This dashboard is clearly designed so central office personnel can see at a glance whether a classroom, and its teacher, are failing because getting to know us and our kids by investing real time among us simply takes too long.

The shame (guilt, stigma — pick your noun) associated with bad data on our dashboards is somehow supposed to motivate teachers and students to do better.

Here’s the thing, we have pretty clear evidence that data walls don’t work.

They originated with University of Chicago’s David Kerbow, who saw data visualization as a way for teachers and administrators to identify problems early. Private data walls in the office or staff lounge provide school adults with big-picture insight and prompt good discussion about what has worked, what hasn’t, and what to try next. They should be a tool for informing next steps, not for judging students or staff.

Importantly, there was never any intention to have “data walls” in view of students or the public. But why should that deter education reformers?

Despite the experiences of places like Holyoke, Mass., that had probably the most famous uproar in 2014, worthless public “data walls” have steadily spread among low-performing schools and districts nationwide.

Yet, we do know what does work. Let’s set aside policing-style classroom set-ups and shaming teachers and students, and instead focus on research-based solutions for “signature schools.”

So what works?


Our must-post data comes from the district’s “universal screener” test, STAR. A screening test is not a test of student achievement; it is, as the label suggests, used to identify early students who need remediation and intervention.

STAR covers only math and literacy, and only in some grade levels. It is not aligned to district curriculum and it is given
just three times a year. My sophomores took the STAR test on August 28 and will not test again until January. Of what value is that January score to anyone visiting my class in, say, November? What use is STAR data posted outside of, say, an art class, ever?

No reputable researcher or organization anywhere recommends using screener data this way, including state and
national Response to Intervention (RtI) groups.

Better achievement happens when teachers track and celebrate individual student growth over time on specific
key skills, which can’t be reflected in a single number. Such growth should be monitored constantly, not checked a few times a year.

As noted by the Achievement Network, a national nonprofit that partners with schools to boost academics, “This is not just about looking at the numbers, but looking at student work that illuminates specific needs of students.” No data dashboard can do that.


Evidence is overwhelming that attendance improves when schools make personal connections to students and families, including through dedicated mentors. Some MPS high schools benefit from City Year, an Americorps-funded program that places recent college grads in the role of mentor and interventionist for ninth-grade students only.

This is a start, but not enough, especially
as City Year interventions miss the vast majority of MPS students and don’t quite go far enough with those they do reach.

According to a guide for schools from Hanover Research, mentors should do more than make a few calls home and see students at school. They should “meet with parents and occasionally participate in home visits for students with attendance or behavior issues.” Mentors should “monitor student progress and work alongside families and communities to improve attendance.”


We must post how long it has been since we wrote a discipline referral, like the signs in factories that read, “This plant has worked x days without an accidental injury.”

There is research to suggest that such workplace signs indeed help minimize
injury, but only after extensive safety training and building a shared sense of community responsibility among workers.

Posting referral data may well work when students have a shared sense of responsibility for each other. Simply posting it won’t do the difficult work of creating such a community.

MPS has made some baby steps with Restorative Practices and trauma-sensitive training. But how do creating tension, competition, and division through these artificial, meaningless “data dashboards” build a caring, connected community?

Real change requires complicated and undoubtedly expensive work. A “data dashboard” is easy and cheap, but utterly useless to anyone except those who want to make snap judgments about students and their teachers.

Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School. Email him at

Goodbye Old Friend

September 1, 2017

By Katherine Keller

South Shore Park’s iconic beech tree has died

The trunk of the State Champion European Copper Beech in South Shore Park will remain in place for a time as local groups, Friends of South Shore Park among those, consider ways to memorialize the tree. PHOTO Katherine Keller

I hate to see it go,” said Lauri Gorton, who lives on Estes Street across from the State Champion European Copper Beech tree in South Shore Park.

The iconic Bay View tree has reached the end of its life and is giving way to Milwaukee County Parks arborists, who began removing its limbs August 9. The beech succumbed to old age and a fungal disease.

“The tree is so significant,” Polly Caster said. She was among a group of people who gathered at the tree to pick up pieces that the arborists placed at its base for those who wanted to pickup a souvenir. “It’s been like a neighbor. I see it every day when I walk my dog.” Caster has lived on Mabbett Avenue since the early 90s.

Jan Grimes has lived on Superior Street since 1985, and like Caster, has admired the tree for decades.

“I see it every season. It’s delicate leaves in spring and fully leafed out in summer. It was magnificent,” Caster said.

Log Ladies Jan Grimes and Polly Caster took a break from a painting project to gather slabs and logs that were cut from the Eurpoean Copper Beech tree in South Shore Park. PHOTO Katherine Keller

The stately beech is believed to have begun life in the mid-1800s. That means it may have been part of the South Shore landscape for about 160 to 170 years.

The beech would have sprung up on the land some years after Elijah and Zebiah Estes purchased their land in 1835 or 1836 and developed their home and farm on the land above Lake Michigan. A section of their land was later incorporated into what is now South Shore Park.

Residue from the Bay View rolling mills likely settled on its limbs. Perhaps social activist and “civic saint” Beulah Brinton strolled past the tree as she introduced new immigrant families to the developing village of Bay View.

The tree survived the many changes to the land that nurtured it over a period of 16 or so decades.

In 2016 we reported that Milwaukee County Parks Forestry Supervisor Gregg Collins said that the majestic beech tree was in poor health and “over-mature.” In other words, the tree had exceeded its species’ typical lifespan. He compared it to a human being who was 105 years old.

Collins said that beginning in 2012 the tree lost several large limbs and that missing bark was evidenced at the base of the trunk. Missing bark indicated tissue dieback, another symptom of a tree in decline.

In 2015, he hired Wachtel to examine the tree. He said they observed canopy thinning, gypsy moths, aphids, carpenter ants, more tissue dieback, and fungal infection. Different strategies were deployed to support the tree — an antifungal treatment, ant killer, compost tea, watering the root zone, and adding mulch at the base of the tree.

The tree’s distress was exacerbated that year by hot dry weeks in June, July, and August.

Last year, the majority of its leaves dried and shriveled by midsummer. Collins decided to give the tree one more year but it failed to rebound.

Jeffrey Gollner, Milwaukee County Parks arborist and natural resources technician was in charge of the crew that removed the beech tree’s limbs.

“Fungus killed it,” he said. “We tried various fungicides, fertilizers, and plant growth regulators.”

A plant growth regulator is a hormone, Gollner said, sometimes used on large old trees. It slows growth, allowing the tree’s “energy to be directed toward maintenance,’ to its existing limbs, leaves, and roots.

He said there are numerous European Copper Beech trees growing along the lake in Milwaukee County, but also along the lake as far south as Racine and to Green Bay on the north. noting they don’t grow farther inland.

Mike Gagliano, Jeff Gollner, Ellen Stollenwerk, and Joe Wilson used their skills and expertise to remove the limbs of the Wisconsin State Champion European Copper Beech tree in South Shore Park. It is thought the tree is approximately 160 to 170 years old. The rings will be counted if the trunk is not hollow. PHOTO Katherine Keller

Gollner said there are many Wisconsin State Champion Trees in Milwaukee County Parks and on private land. He noted that one of those is an Ohio Buckeye that is growing on private property on the little section of Euclid Avenue, east of Kinnickinnic Avenue, in the little neighborhood behind Walgreens.

Not far from the dead beech is a Norway Maple that was marked for culling that Gollner estimated to be about 60 years old. Trees are culled when they begin to die. Dying or dead limbs fall and pose a hazard to park-goers.

He said parks are relatively harsh environments for trees. The Norway Maple’s native habitat is a forest where the soil is covered with decomposing leaves, bark, and other plant material with nutrients that are absorbed by the tree’s roots. By contrast, park trees are surrounded by turf that “sucks nutrition” for itself, disadvantaging the trees. Human traffic compacts the soil — trees require porous soil for good root growth.

Gollner said that the trunk of the European Copper Beech will remain in place for a time as local groups, Friends of South Shore Park among those, consider ways to memorialize the tree, perhaps with tree carvings, a bench made from the wood, and salvaged slabs.

If the trunk is intact, Collins said his staff would do its best to get an accurate count. If some of the trunk has rotted away, he said they’d get an approximate date, working with what remains.

“While it is very sad to see the tree that provided so many with shade and climbing fun for kids go, our tree actually lived longer than many of its kind,” said Milwaukee County District 4 Supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic. “The Milwaukee County Parks, Friends of South Shore Park, and the Bay View Historical Society are all in talks about how to best memorialize the remaining stump.” South Shore Park falls is in Dimitrijevic’s district.

The South Shore Park European Copper Beech was included on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ list of State Champion Trees. Although it is currently on hold, the champion tree program is a database of the state’s largest trees. DNR’s website notes, “DNR keeps big tree records to encourage the appreciation of Wisconsin’s forest and trees.”

Andrew Gawin, a member of Friends of South Shore Park, said his group requests suggestions about how to memorialize the tree. Cutting boards for a bench is one idea. Another is to take a cross section.

Gerry Thieme, who worked for the parks department at the time, planted the second European Copper Beech tree that is growing about 50 feet east of the original old tree, said Gollner. Gregg Collins said it was planted 17-20 years ago.

KK’s Glorious Flower Baskets

September 1, 2017

By Sheila Julson

This summer Kinnickinnic Avenue from Morgan Avenue to Becher Street was again beautified with bountiful hanging baskets. A project of the Kinnickinnic Avenue Business Improvement District (BID), the basket arrangements will be displayed through September or mid-October, weather permitting.

The more successful of the baskets that bedeck Kinnickinnic Avenue are planted with Supertunia Vista Bubblegum, a bright pink petunia, and Supertunia Vista Silverberry petunias, typically white with pink accents. PHOTO Jennifer Kresse

This was the second year that Custom Grown Greenhouses (4507 S. Sixth St.) created the baskets for the KK BID.

“We’re really pleased with the beauty of the baskets,” said Mary Ellen O’Donnell, BID board member and chair of its streetscape committee. We continued the contract with them this year and didn’t go out to bid because we were so happy with them last year.”

O’Donnell said this year they deferred to Custom Grown owner Paul Budzisz and his team, allowing them to select the flowers, whereas, in previous years, she and other BID members helped select them. Each basket is a little different and is planted with varieties of petunias, dragon lady begonias, sweet potatoes, lantana, and Carlina, among others.

Custom Grown handled all aspects of the project. They selected the flowers, planted the baskets, placed them on the brackets, watered them, and will remove them at the end of the season. The baskets are saved for reuse by the BID, O’Donnell said.

The 2017 budget for the project was $9,000. “There were high watering costs last year, so what we did was up-the-budget a bit to accommodate that,” O’Donnell said. “But we’re on track to be a little under budget this year.” There are about 58 baskets, she noted.

Budzisz has owned Custom Grown Greenhouses since 1988. “This year, they (BID) let me do my own thing to see what works best and what doesn’t,” he said. “There are some combinations where maybe we can cut down on the watering, and we also want to see people’s reactions (to the plant choices and designs).”

The more successful baskets are planted with Supertunia Vista Bubblegum, a bright pink petunia, and Supertunia Vista Silverberry petunias, typically white with pink accents. Neither requires deadheading and both are drought resistant. “They perform the best and most baskets with those turned out very well,” Budzisz said.

Some of the other baskets include Dragon Wing begonias with yellow sweet potato vines, lantana, and pink begonias. Budzisz is particularly pleased with the results of the baskets near the Immaculate Conception church on the corner of Kinnickinnic and Russell avenues. Those baskets hold begonias, Carlina, a white cascading plant, purple petunias, and blue ivy. They have grown successfully and Budzisz has heard good feedback from passers-by when he watered the baskets.

Custom Grown Greenhouses owner Paul Budzisz and employee Claire Raasch try to incorporate plants that don’t need much maintenance when designing their hanging baskets. PHOTO Jennifer Kresse

Budzisz, along with employee Claire Raasch, who has been at Custom Grown for 25 years, tries to incorporate plants that don’t need much maintenance.

Challenges like inclement weather and vandalism have been minimal. “We might have to touch them up occasionally,” he said, “but the only thing that happened was last year, when a basket fell. The hanger broke and the basket was lying on the ground. We think it was because last year’s sweet potato vines grew to where they nearly touched the ground and they got caught on something or had been tugged. This year’s vines don’t grow that long.”

Custom Grown works with other municipalities including Whitefish Bay, Wauwatosa, and Germantown, providing and caring for flowers and other plants. While much of their business is retail, they also grow plants for the Wisconsin State Fair Park grounds and for the Milwaukee County Zoo.

More color on KK

In addition to the hanging baskets, the KK BID also maintains the Art Stop site north of the KK/Howell/Lincoln avenues intersection and about six concrete planters owned by the BID, located in the vicinity of KK and Lincoln. O’Donnell said they were purchased and installed by a former, now defunct Bay View business association.

“Not every business was (using) the planters in front of their businesses,” said O’Donnell. The BID let businesses that wanted to use its planters continue doing so. For those who did not, the BID took them over. The BID added an additional planter at the south end of KK in front of Rusty
Sprocket Antiques.

PHOTO Katherine Keller

Additionally, Custom Grown provided the plants at the base of the new gateway signs on KK at Morgan Avenue and at Bay Street. The Becher sign was installed on an existing landscaped mound that is maintained by the city, O’Donnell said.

The sign just south of Morgan Park was installed on a barren island. “We wanted to put some nice landscaping around that sign, so we purchased planting materials from Custom Grown for both locations, as well as for Art Stop,” O’Donnell said. The BID contracted Curative Care, a nonprofit that hires people with disabilities. “They have a landscaping team as one of the services they provide. We were really excited about working with the organization. They planted at the two sign locations, as well as on the bare areas of the Art Stop. Custom Grown is doing the watering until the plants are established. Curative Care is handling the weeding and cleaning.”

Budzisz credits projects like KK BID baskets for promoting gardening and encouraging people to add more beauty and color to their properties. He said he hopes the trend continues to catch on with individuals and businesses.