Column: School Board Watch
Making a Case for Recall
By Sara Marls
Strong opinions and passionate debate have historically been staples at meetings of the Stevens Point School Board, but recent sparring between its members have some on social media asking for a recall.
The passing of Act 10 in 2011- a statewide move which restricted negotiating powers of public unions- seemed to result in a split board, with two unmoving factions either supporting or opposing Superintendent Attila Weninger, who arguably was placed in a no-win situation involving a tightening district budget, pending teacher contracts and new state laws regarding union negotiations. Votes of no confidence against Weninger were held, and while some on the board and in the business community rallied to support the superintendent, he eventually gave his resignation effective next June.
But some on the board continue to be widely critical of Weninger, to include a recent request from Board Member Lisa Totten that all email, texting and phone communications made by the superintendent be available to the public in printed form at the front desk of the Bliss Educational Services Center, 1900 Polk St. More recently Totten supported his immediate dismissal without pay or benefits. The latter stems from an abrasive verbal exchange with an area resident who says Weninger publicly tarnished his reputation, with Totten and fellow member Kim Shirek publicly calling the superintendent a “liar” over the matter.
While Weninger may have been a central preoccupation for some on the board, personality disputes also create a problem. Totten regularly interrupts other board members, as well as department heads, when she perceives someone to be speaking in a disrespectful tone. Totten also frequently complains of poor Internet service in her rural home as a sometimes-hindrance of her ability to research past board decisions or upcoming meeting agendas in a timely manner, insisting meeting packets are hand-delivered to her home in Junction City.
Shirek, in turn, regularly complains of not having enough time to read through all the information provided in the meeting packet prior to each meeting, citing her fulltime job as her main priority.
Shirek and Totten have regularly insulted other board members, as well as Weninger and department heads, in open session and full view of the public, but often quickly change the topic before being called out of order by Board President Angel Faxon. Both Shirek and Totten audibly scoff and sigh heavily, roll their eyes and giggle in response to other board member remarks on a regular basis.
The matter of objectivity has also been a sore spot with some on the board. Totten, whose husband is a public school teacher, will recuse herself from discussions and votes on matters relating to district employees and bargaining strategies with local unions, though she refuses to leave the room- a customary, though not legally required, element of recusal- despite being asked to do so by others on the board.
Board newcomer Alex Kochanowski too has had his impartiality questioned when, earlier this year, it was discovered he was a member of a local bus driver union while simultaneously representing the district’s negotiating team with employee groups from the same union. He argued his intentions were to represent the employee groups, but others on the board pointed out employee groups already had representation, and negotiating team’s job was to represent the school district. He continued to argue it was not a conflict of interest but was voted off that committee by fellow board members.
Though their conflicts are most obvious, Kochanowski and Totten are not the only board members whose objectivity have been questioned. Faxon came under fire from Kochanowski, Totten and Shirek earlier this year prior to a vote approving construction of the long-debated Life Skills Center, which teaches independent living skills to developmentally delayed or disabled students. The three complained Faxon made an off-the-cuff remark last year about being excited for the project because some of her own children could possibly benefit from the new building. While she garnered support from the majority of the board to stay, Faxon said she would recuse herself in order to prevent further argument or additional delays on the project and left the room. Others on the board, to include Meg Erler, have also recused themselves at times because of personal involvement in organizations that partner with area school programs requiring board approval.
While Kochanowski has served for less than one year and is not eligible for recall- and Faxon and Erler continue to perform their duties quite well and should not be considered for recall- the actions and behaviors of Totten and Shirek, both in their second term, consistently waiver between abusive and utterly unbelievable.
In a November 20, 2014 email to Weninger, Totten explained her belief that the board has a legal duty to keep all of his communications available to the public, also making an open records request for the information:
I believe we have a statutory requirement to keep on file, all phone and text messages made by our superintendent. I am therefore requesting that the district puts these records, since the beginning of your employment, in a permanent location accessible by the public through the utilization of Wisconsin’s open records laws. In addition, I am making a public records request for those records. I expect a response from you asap. [Sic]
It was not immediately known how much time or expense would be involved in compiling the information requested by Totten, which covers nearly 5 years’ worth of communications from Weninger’s office.
Earlier this year the board spent almost half an hour debating whether the annual budget should be printed in landscape or portrait orientation at Shirek’s prompting. Shirek was also the preemptor in delaying several votes on the Life Skills Center over several months, arguing she either didn’t understand the district’s contract with the construction company or felt she did not have enough information to cast a vote.
District officials had to gain city approval before breaking ground on the new Life Skills Center. Totten attended that City Council meeting last year to argue against the city’s approval, saying she and others on the board did not want the project to move forward, citing incomplete information. City leaders at that time told Totten her argument wasn’t appropriate for the Council to consider, saying it was a School Board matter.
Totten, Shirek and Kochanowski also recently argued for unwavering opportunities for public comments during board meetings, despite no such requirement under state law. Totten has even said the public comments should be permitted regardless of how long they extend the length of board meetings, which currently hit the 3+ hour mark on a regular basis and often include presentations from young school children.
Shirek and Totten have also been criticized for their behavior during social gatherings at annual school board conventions, as well as the duo’s unsuccessful request to be booked in a double room at the Hyatt for the state convention in Milwaukee, despite a less expensive rate offered at another hotel where the rest of the School Board was staying.
Talks of recalling a School Board Member are not new to the area. In 2005 an unsuccessful recall of then- Board President Mike O’Meara, who currently is a member of the City Council, failed after the recall committee did not gain a sufficient number of signatures supporting a recall election.
The process of initiating a recall is simple, according to the Government Accountability Board (GAB), but also lengthy and detail-oriented, according to Karlyn Krautkramer, who helps oversee district elections at Bliss. The procedure involves creating a recall committee and filing the proper paperwork; then gathering signatures totaling 25 percent of all votes cast in the last gubernatorial election from within the school district.
Krautkramer said in 2005 three reasons were given for the attempted recall of O’Meara: refusal to openly and honestly communicate with constituents; sending messages to children which reflect lack of accountability; and ignoring strategic plans, procedures and policies set by the Stevens Point Area School District.
Under state law, a recall can be initiated for “any local elected officeholder who has served one year of the term for which he or she was most recently elected….After one recall petition and recall election, no further recall may be filed against the same official during the term for which he or she was elected.”
“There’s a huge recall manual on the GAB website,” Krautkramer said. “Basically with a recall election, the first step is file a [form] GAB1, which would register the recall committee. So this is prior to circulating any petitions.”
Within that form, she said, the committee needs to state its intentions of circulating a recall petition and specifically identify which elected official is targeted for recall.
“But it can’t be someone in their first term,” Krautkramer added.
Petitions must be completed and returned within 60 days of registering a recall committee, she said. Krautkramer said the recall election must be held on the 6th Tuesday following the date the petition has been verified by her office, provided enough signatures were gathered.
But Krautkramer also added a caveat: “It would be a lot of cost to the district,” she said.
We’ll break down the costs associated with a recall election in Wednesday’s School Board Watch column.
But cost aside, the public has lost faith in too many members of its School Board; it’s a feeling of mistrust that is cultivated in our children, creates resentment among parents and staff and makes us a laughing stock among others in the education industry. Given that broken public trust, one must ask themselves if there is any cost too high which results in renewed control of the body which oversees such a large part of our children’s day.