Board Talks of Paying for Business Council Class Turns to Argument
“People- do you have any idea the damage you’re doing to the reputation of this district?” -Trish Baker
By Sara Marls
It took nearly 3 hours on Monday for the Stevens Point School Board to successfully pass approval of the district’s September bills.
Normally a routine task, approval of accepting the monthly bills was stalled after Board Vice President Jeff Presley objected to a single expense of $3900 to pay for leadership training at the Portage County Business Council (PCBC).
“First, let me apologize to the board, because this is not going to be a short conversation, unfortunately,” Presley said, adding he’d been a long supporter of the PCBC but said recent events were cause for “great concern” and doesn’t believe the board should support the council any more.
Presley said the PCBC overstepped its bounds in August when it organized area business and community leaders to formally request the school board overturn Superintendent Attila Weninger’s resignation and instead ask him to stay in his position. The board had accepted Weninger’s resignation in May after months of debate and votes of no confidence from area union groups.
“The Portage County Business Council has turned on one of its own members- we are that member- and has sought to overturn a 8-0 decision by this board to accept the irrevocable resignation of our superintendent,” Presley said. “Why, as a duly elected and appointed board, would we embrace as a value to our leadership that style of ambush and attacking its own membership?”
Presley also apologized to Weninger, who has said he had no knowledge of the PCBC’s plans to object the resignation three months afterwards, for being stuck in the middle of the situation, saying the PCBC should have, “at least, consulted you before coming to us.”
“It shows a value that is contradictory to our showing respect for our employees,” Presley said. “Why would we want to encourage future leader to not respect our employee’s wishes? I can’t see sending people at this time to the business council.”
Presley suggested the school district not participate in any further business council events because the council would not release meeting minutes relating to the decision to support Weninger without first seeing a formal resolution requesting it from the school board.
“Then no more Business After Hours, no more annual dinner, no candidate forum for those who sit on the board because it’s not sanctioned by the board,” Presley said. “It’s a ridiculous position,” he said. “We pay dues to this membership, and this is how they treat the membership; second- class citizens, that’s how we’re treated.”
Presley called the PCBC a “secret society” that should not be part of the values of a public institution.
Weninger explained the $3900 payment was tuition for a series of Leadership Portage County classes, saying the district had sent 3-4 employees annually through the program. But Presley interrupted, saying it was inappropriate for Weninger to be involved in the conversation due to his conflict of interest, as Weninger is the board’s representative at the business council, leading to several moments of debate between the two.
Board Member Trish Baker called for a vote, saying there was no reason for the board to not approve paying its bills.
“There is a motion on the table right now to pay the bills with the exception of this one check for $3900. I think we should pay all of our bills. We have a number of people going to this program,” Baker said, adding she was one of those who attended the leadership training in the past. “I thought it was fantastic there were teachers there. The educational value of the program…we shouldn’t even be having this discussion. This isn’t a payment for dues; this is a payment to send four people there for training to become leaders in our community… and I feel strongly this is a program we should be supporting as a board.”
Board Member Lisa Totten said she also took the leadership classes in the past, but said she didn’t want to support the business council for the same reasons as Presley.
Before any vote took place the conversation soon turned to conflicts of interest, as Board Member Meg Erler disclosed her husband was a member of the PCBC on behalf of Sentry. Erler said she felt disclosing the information was the right thing to do, but added she would not recuse herself from the vote because she did not consider it a conflict of interest, as she had no direct involvement with her husband’s membership.
Erler’s disclosure prompted rebukes from board members Presley, Alex Kochanowski, Totten and Kim Shirek.
“You don’t think that’s a conflict of interest? You really don’t? And yet you can say my involvement with a union is a conflict of interest? You’re splitting hairs,” said Kochanowski, who last month was voted off the district’s negotiating team because of his own involvement with the same union as some district employees.
Presley agreed, saying Erler’s conflict was obvious as her husband sits on the board at Sentry and also is vice president of the business council.
“She needs to recuse herself out of the 3 or 4 speeches that probably took 20, 25 minutes of our life that we’ll never get back,” Shirek said. “If there is any speculation (of impropriety), she needs to recuse herself.”
Totten referenced an earlier statement Erler made about the appearance of a conflict being enough of a litmus for recusal.
“Meg, if you firmly believe in your words, if you believe in what you say, then I’m in agreement you should recuse yourself,” Totten said.
After being recognized by Board President Angel Faxon, Weninger pointed out many members of the school board were involved in some way with area organizations and businesses that worked with the district.
“No individual of this school board are members of the Portage County Business Council; your membership is not as individuals, the district is a member,” Weninger said.
He also warned the board it was damaging the district’s relationship with the business council and its members.
“Saying publicly that the Portage County Business Council is a secret society is effectively declaring to this body- that is, the Portage County Business Council- ‘I dare you’. Weninger said. “It’s not a good move, politically, I’m telling you that.”
Weninger said the relationship between the board and the community were “in shambles” when he was first hired four years ago and pointed out one of his main directives from the board at that time was to improve those relationships.
“Taking this step will damage not just with this entity, but the over 350 members that are the Portage County Business Council. I just caution you to please be careful,” he said. “The reputation of this district rests with the actions of the board.”
Presley then questioned why Weninger was the board’s representative at the business council, saying he doesn’t believe the board ever formally appointed the superintendent to be the face of the district for the PCBC.
“My assumption is that we have not, as a board, so until that is resolved, your participating in that, unless it’s been affirmed by the board- I don’t know if you should be participating,” Presley said, saying the relationship between the two entities was in jeopardy but by fault of the PCBC.
The board continued to argue despite Faxon’s multiple attempts to quell debate, which included members taking short breaks away from the board room table. Three of the votes were tied at 4-4, with Board Member Jeff Ebel absent.
The lack of progress was beginning to wear on Baker.
“People- do you have any idea the damage you’re doing to the reputation of this district? I mean… just… we can’t even pay our own bills? We can’t even come to an agreement simply for paying our bills? We’re writing checks for electricity; we’re writing checks for Staples, school supplies. We have four people enrolled in Leadership Portage County that have already been in three classes-”
“Then maybe Leadership Portage County needs to figure something out,” Kochanowski interrupted.
“People are counting on us,” Baker continued. “They have this commitment from the district to go through this program. We’re not voting on our membership in Portage County Business Council, we’re voting on an education program for three people. More importantly, our reputation is at stake- we’ve got people in the press here tonight, and that’s going to be their headlines that we can’t even pay our own bills, that we are so dysfunctional we can’t pay our bills. This is terrible, I mean, we’re talking about our bills. Oh, my gosh; we have such bigger things. As a parent you learn to pick and choose your battles- is this truly a battle we want to take on?”
More than two hours later, and after conducting other district business, the board unanimously voted shortly before midnight to approve the September payments with the exception of the $3900 check. The board agreed to discuss that payment at its Oct. 27 meeting. The board then entered into closed session for just over an hour to discuss employee compensation.
The district’s bill were never in danger of going unpaid, said Business Services Director Tom Owens. He pointed to a 1975 policy created by the school board- which was most recently updated in 2004- which gives staff in his office the authority to pay certain bills in a timely manner and within 30 days as required by state statute.
“I don’t think in reality, payment of bills was truly in jeopardy, and even if it was they would have come back in two weeks and approved it then, probably, and they would have been paid in a timely manner anyway,” he said.
Owens said he believes Monday’s heated discussions had little to do with actually paying the bill, but instead is was “an attack on the business council” made by board members who felt slighted because the council publicly disagreed with the board’s decision regarding Weninger’s resignation.
“Checks are released each Friday,” Owens said. “So the item (Presley) was referring to, which was payment for attending those leadership classes, it’s already been paid. The check’s probably already cleared the bank by the time they brought this discussion up.”