Exclusive: School Board Secretary Quits After Alleged Mistreatment
Left, Barb Portzen (left), with Board Member Jeff Presley, shakes hands with community members at a recent school board meeting. Portzen recently left her position with the district over what she described as “abuse” from some board members. (City-Times photo)
By Brandi Makuski
After serving as the School Board Secretary for just under fourteen months, Barb Portzen has resigned.
Portzen was hired as a district employee in January to work as a secretary for the Stevens Point Public School Board. Portzen, who retired in 2008 after teaching high school classes at Pacelli, then 27 years of teaching business classes at Mid-State Technical College, said her job with the district involved organizing agendas, keeping minutes of meetings and various other office- related duties.
But she said serious problems between the district and the public were evident to her immediately.
“It was the very first meeting I noticed problems,” Portzen said. “I wasn’t taking minutes yet, I was just observing. This was during the time that the board was talking about renewing the superintendent’s contract, and during the public comment period people got up and they just slammed him. In all my years of teaching- and I was active in the union- but never would I have gotten up in the public meeting and say negative things about my boss.”
Portzen said she realizes there’s been a difficult transition for public sector unions since Act 10, but said the raised voices and name-calling aimed at Superintendent Attila Weninger made for an uncomfortable working environment from the start. Some current members of the school board- whom Portzen declined to identify- share that anger, she said, and take whatever steps they can to micro-manage every detail of the district as well as the dynamics of the working environment for full-time staff.
Shortly after taking the job Portzen said some board members made her feel as though she needed either align with the superintendent or take a stance against Weninger. She said that was not only unfair but also inappropriate.
“I don’t have to like somebody to work with them or joke around with them,” she said. “There was the appearance I liked Attila and therefore sided with him. But I had nothing to do with voting so I don’t understand how it was important at all what my personal feelings were. I loved what I was doing, I loved working at Bliss. But there was a target on my back.”
Portzen said some members of the board began to “nitpick” how she performed her own duties, including the type of punctuation she used while taking meeting minutes.
“It was the dumbest thing ever,” she said. “There’s a minority group on the board who seem to thrive on nitpicking those little things, and then people wonder why the meetings are so long.”
Portzen said each time a board member wanted to discuss an issue relating to her duties, however small, they had to be placed on the official meeting agenda so it could be openly discussed, which she said turned a small matter into a large-scale event.
Away from the camera and the public eye, Portzen said that discussion soon turned to a series of insults and yelling.
“Some of the board works best in a ‘gotcha’ mode,” she said. “And that’s what I was beginning to feel- they were just looking for any little thing I did wrong because they thought I was on Attila’s side.”
Portzen said when she first took the job as secretary, she was initially told to report directly to the Board President, a position currently held by Terry Rothmann. In the event he wasn’t available, Portzen went to other ranking board members for her answer.
“At one point I had a question and I couldn’t reach Terry, so I called another board member to ask the question. He told me, ‘I don’t have time to deal with this (expletive) now, I’m at work’, and then he hung up on me,” she said. “I was flabbergasted- I just couldn’t believe it.”
Portzen also pointed to another incident when another board member yelled at her over the phone for trying to clarify whether to send out a public notice for a last- minute closed session meeting. Portzen said she eventually got her clarification from the district’s legal counsel to ensure she followed state law, but not before being chastised for double- checking.
“I think this board member thought I was questioning the need for the closed-session meeting that was requested,” she said. “This board member read me the riot act and said I didn’t have the authority to question their actions. This board member said I was being insubordinate and told me I ‘didn’t get paid to think’. I told the board member I didn’t have time to argue because I had a meeting packet to put together, and this person’s reaction was, ‘Well, your evaluation is coming up’. That sounded like a threat to me. It was abuse.”
Portzen said she later confronted the board member, who denied the exchange took place. For Portzen, that was the last straw.
“I’ve never been talked to like that in my life. Not even in my own house did my teenagers talk to me with such disrespect,” she said.
Portzen said she informed board members during a closed- session meeting earlier this month of her intentions to leave. In compliance with state law, Portzen was unable to offer specifics but did say she spoke for 3-4 minutes in a “raised voice” informing the board of the ongoing mistreatment.
“The board is power-hungry,” Portzen said. “They worked very hard in the past year to make sure the president didn’t have authority to really do anything. And it drives some of them crazy when (board policy) says the president can decide whether speakers can have 3 minutes or 5 minutes (during public comment). Ever notice how some board members always complain about that? But that’s in the policy.”
For the future, Portzen said she plans to enjoy her annual trip to Milwaukee Brewer’s spring training camp in Arizona, and plans to spend “all the time I can” with her five grandchildren.
“I really loved my job there,” she said. “But enough was enough.”