Editorial: School Board, as a Whole, is City’s Albatross
Photo: School Board members Kim Shirek (left) and Lisa Totten with former Member Bob Larson. (City-Times photo)
By Brandi Makuski
At least some of the Stevens Point School Board Members should have erred on the side of caution Monday night, taken a deep breath and declared, “Now just a minute...”.
First, a disclaimer: there are some members of the Board who are individually honest, hard-working, well-intentioned and objective. We know they exist and seem to operate under a higher standard of behavior; otherwise there’d be no compromise during Board meetings. But other Board Members seem to operate from long-held principles and personal beliefs regardless of facts staring them right in the face.
The School Board, in its current state, is irrevocably broken and takes a giant spotlight off the great things about our school district. It has become the albatross of the city. It holds nothing attractive to potential job applicants of the district and makes any progress impossible- at least currently- without legal advice. What an embarrassment.
Superintendent Attila Weninger submitted his prepared letter of resignation on Monday night but that resignation was turned down by the Board.
Seven of nine School Board Members instead opted to vote for non-renewal of Weninger’s contract, which expires next summer.
We’ll never know what transpired during the closed session portion of Monday’s meeting, but it held enough weight to make believers out of 7 Board Members that participating in a vote so critical for the future- and reputation- of the district without following state-level procedures was both ethical and legal enough to proceed.
According to draft minutes from Monday, Board members Chris Scott and Renae Sheibley left prior to the vote and neither returned. Calls to Sheibley weren’t returned but Scott did tell City-Times staff early Tuesday morning she “didn’t feel comfortable” with the direction the meeting had taken. She declined to elaborate. Sheibley tendered her resignation from the Board Tuesday in the form of a prepared letter for undisclosed reasons.
The Board entered into closed session at about 11:30 PM for approximately 45 minutes to address the following agenda item:
considering employment, promotion, compensation or performance evaluation data of any public employee over which the governmental body has jurisdiction or exercises responsibility, specifically the Superintendent;
The meeting agenda specifically states the Board should “take action, as appropriate” on matters discussed during the closed session. But with this particular body, who’s to say what’s “appropriate”?
The State of Wisconsin, that’s who. The Board’s vote to non-renew Weninger’s contract could very well be an illegal one under state law- something which could possibly be determined during a special Board meeting Wednesday night. According to Wisconsin Statute 118.24 (6), the Board cannot vote to non-renew Weninger’s contract without first completing several steps:
The employment contract of any person described under sub. (1) shall be in writing and filed with the school district clerk. At least 4 months prior to the expiration of the employment contract, the employing school board shall give notice in writing of either renewal of the contract or of refusal to renew such person’s contract. If no such notice is given, the contract then in force shall continue in force for 2 years. Any such person who receives notice of renewal or who does not receive notice of renewal or refusal to renew the person’s contract at least 4 months before the contract expiration shall accept or reject the contract in writing on or before a date 3 months prior to the contract expiration. No such person may be employed or dismissed except by a majority vote of the full membership of the school board. Nothing in this section prevents the modification or termination of an employment contract by mutual agreement of the parties. No school board may enter into a contract of employment with any such person for a period of time as to which such person is then under a contract of employment with another school board.
While each Board Member has varying degrees of knowledge and experience with state statutes, parliamentary procedure and open meetings law, the Board as a whole certainly has its share of members who should know better.
Certainly Jeff Presley- an experienced public servant who is an elected member of the Portage County Board and also has previous experience on the School Board- should have been aware of the statute. So should have Trish Baker, the Portage Co. Clerk of Courts who was just elected to the Board in April, but has a law degree and presumably enough experience to have cautioned her brethren about proceeding with the vote.
Whether Scott or Sheibley- two veteran Board Members- were aware of the statute and whether they voiced their concerns prior to leaving the meeting- is not known.
It doesn’t matter if you like the superintendent or not, or if you disagree with his policies, or if you believe he’s rude; there’s a lot of room for doubt in the Board’s action which only deepens the public’s mistrust of it.
There are also plenty of questions behind the intentions of Board Member Lisa Totten, who set the Board up for the vote by making the initial motion to non-renew Weninger’s contract. Several calls to Totten, who historically has enjoyed complaining to the media about the superintendent, have gone unanswered.
There is a very real cancer operating within this School Board; that it shows before dust from April’s election has begun to settle should be the most troubling fact of all, and it’s a disturbing sight from this Board which should shake each voter to the very core.