Tag Archives: West Bend School Board

West Bend School Board Responds to Privilege Test

There was a lot going on in West Bend last night as I was sitting on my arse watching that awesome College Football National Championship Game. Last night the West Bend School Board responded to the use of a Privilege Test in the classrooms of Badger Middle School several weeks ago. First, a little background…

The Washington County Insider broke the story last month that Badger Middle School English Language Arts students in 8th grade were given an optional “Privilege Test” that asked the students things that many consider inappropriate for a government official/teacher to ask kids – particularly without parental consent. You can follow the link to the original story to see the actual survey.

Some parents complained to the Principal and to the School Board. Last night a couple more parents spoke and the board shared their response to the controversy.

Overall, the school board got it right. The said that it was wrong for the teacher to issue the privilege test, discontinued the use of the test in the future, and have instructed the district administration to review the district policy regarding controversial subjects with the staff. This is the appropriate response from the board. I do have some lingering concerns.

The role of the West Bend School Board is to set and direct policy. The board approves curriculum, but teachers are allowed to supplement the curriculum as they see fit without board approval. This is an appropriate balance. In this case, the survey in question was presented as optional supplemental material for a part of the English curriculum.

The rub comes in from the fact that the survey introduces controversial material. The introduction of controversial material is permissible, but there is a specific board policy that addresses the introduction of controversial material. In that policy, it explicitedly states that they may study controversial subjects, but the staff is not permitted to inject their own opinion. In short, they can help the students think about the subject, but not tell them what think. It’s a classic Rousseauian educational approach.

But the policy does not leave such decisions to the teacher. The policy instructs, “Consultation with the principal shall precede the study of controversial issues…” It is not clear to me in this case if the teacher reviewed this survey with the principal prior to doing it or if the teacher was out on his or her own. What is clear to me is that the district administration and teachers involved either don’t view this survey as particularly controversial, or they outright support its use in the classroom.

Badger Middle School Principal Dave Uelmen, Assistant Superintendent Laura Jackson, and others have all expressed to various media outlets that while they can see that the material is controversial, they don’t oppose its use. Uelmen spoke at the meeting last night not to apologize or acknowledge the error, but to give a shout out to his staff. Uelmen’s wife spoke up at the meeting to chastise the parents who complained for setting a bad example for their kids. After the meeting last night, reporter Judy Steffes asked board member Joel Ongert about it and he said in respect to the specific teacher involved, it’s “a personnel matter – but the teachers are taking this hard.” That tells us that the teachers are upset that this teacher is being called out for using the survey.

And if I add into the mix some of the statements we read in the chats from the four fired English teachers at the West Bend High Schools where one teacher introduced controversial supplemental material and said, ““F*** it, there are other things parents can complain about. It would just make them look stupid,” the evidence indicates that there is a pervasive culture in the West Bend School District – particularly in the English and Language Arts departments – that wants to use classroom time for liberal social engineering instead of education. And they get really angry when parents disagree.

That’s a problem.

As I said, the School Board got the response right, but I fear that this is not the end of this issue. The staff is going to fight them on this and I suspect we will see controversial (always from the liberal perspective, have you noticed?) material foisted on the kids again.

Five Candidates to Vie for Two Seats on West Bend School Board

The fifth candidate triggers a primary election.

Jan. 2, 2018 – West Bend, WI – Five people have applied to run for two open seats on the West Bend School Board.

The five candidates include Carl Lundin, incumbent Monte Schmiege, Kurt Rebholz, Mary Weigand and Chris Zwygart.

There will be a primary election to trim the field to four candidates. That will be held Tuesday, Feb. 20.

2nd Candidate Files for West Bend School Board

There’s only one day left to file. The deadline is next Tuesday and offices are closed until then.

Dec. 28, 2017 – West Bend resident and business owner Kurt Rebholz submitted his candidacy papers for the West Bend School Board on Thursday morning.

Rebholz is the Co-Founder and President of Bay MarketForce, LLC.

Letters to the Editor

This post is for my fellow Benders. The rest of y’all can talk amongst yourselves for a few minutes…

There are two really good and interesting letters to the editor in the Washington County Daily News today. The first is from Jim Geldreich, the Chairman of the Washington County Republican Party, who takes one of the local liberal columnists to task for his tired pro-tax rhetoric. Geldreich begins:

The most overused mantra of Democrats and liberal columnists is “tax breaks for the wealthy.”. We’ve heard this timeworn and uninspiring allegation since the GW Bush tax cuts of 2002. When an effective, fact-based argument cannot be put forth against Republican tax cuts, we’re told they’re “tax breaks for the wealthy” and nothing more. Therefore I’m not surprised this was the overriding theme of the majority of the last two columns by Daily News writer Al Rudnitzki. Instead of using his bi-monthly column space to educate the readers on the tax plan, he chose to demagogue the issue calling it the “Trump Tax Scam” and to take cheap shots at the Republican Party and its leadership.

Go read the whole thing.

The second letter is from Therese Sizer, who is a former West Bend School Board Member. Sizer resigned after the board passed a policy regarding board members and nepotism (as an aside, I thought her resignation was unnecessary under the policy, but she clearly thought differently). Sizer has some insightful commentary on the culture around the West Bend School Board that keeps driving good people, like the former superintendent, away. She concludes:

Let’s vow to look beyond social media gossip as our news source. Let us demand that media reports be fair, unbiased and well researched. Finally, let’s consider that real issues only find real answers through collaboration and respect. Local government is about transparency and accountability. But those can’t be just words used to whip each other. They must mean something about community spirit, collaboration and responsibility. I respectfully disagree with recently published opinions that encourage us to support one group of school board members over another. Partisanship and bullying have no place in a board room.

Go read that whole letter too.

West Bend Schools Superintendent Resigns

As expected, the West Bend School Board met this evening to accept the resignation of Superintendent Erik Olson before the end of his contract. Here is his resignation letter.

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His comment about the new school board having a different vision is spot on. The board that hired him was decidedly more rational and results-oriented than the current board. The new majority on the current board has proven to be leftist, opaque, and unprofessional. It was clear from the beginning that they did not like Superintendent Olson and were working to force him out. They succeeded and can now fill the position with someone more in line with their leftist agenda. This comes at a time when the district is implementing a new compensation plan for teachers and will be asking the voters for a more money via referendum.

I wish Superintendent Olson and his family the best. He moved his family to West Bend and invested in the community for a job where I’m sure he planned to make a positive impact. Unfortunately, he has become another victim of this dysfunctional district.

On another note, there is an election in April for two board seats. One of them is open. The other is currently held by one of the two remaining conservatives on the board, Monte Schmiege, who has not declared whether he will seek reelection. The district needs some sensible conservatives to run for the open seat and for Schmiege to run for reelection.

Closed Meeting for West Bend School Board Tomorrow

This is interesting. The West Bend School Board called for a closed session tomorrow. This is on the agenda:

b. Administrative employment contract

c. Administrative compensation

d. Clarification of roles and responsibilities of specific administrators

e. Discussion of performance evaluations of specific administrators

Bear in mind that the West Bend School District’s superintendent has been on leave since August reportedly for a medical issue. Last Week, John Torinus has a column where he suggested that the School Board was looking for a new superintendent. Is he right?

On another note, I would point out again how deplorable this school board and the district have been at communicating with the public. This meeting was posted sometime late Friday or Saturday morning. That’s within legal guidelines, but hardly open communication. The Daily News doesn’t publish again until after the meeting and much of the community was already into their weekend and won’t look until Monday. Thankfully, an observant reader tipped me off to the notice or I probably wouldn’t have seen it either. Secrecy and obfuscation have become the hallmarks of this board.

West Bend School District’s CFAC Exposed as Sham

I attended the latest meeting of the Citizens Facility Advisory Committee (CFAC) for the West Bend School District last night. They accidentally dropped a bombshell.

First, a little background. The CFAC was created by the School Board. It’s specifically charged with:

…identifying and confirming needs and exploring potential solutions to our district’s facility needs at Jackson Elementary School and East/West High Schools

I will remind the gentle reader that when this was created back in August, I wrote extensively about how this was a sham process designed to lead to a referendum. Bray Architects was hired by the district to run this process and they have a sales model of selling new schools to gullible taxpayers using faux “advisory” committees that always seem to end up at the same conclusion. My interpretation has been vehemently denied.

At the meeting last night, they all but admitted that the CFAC is not about assessing needs and evaluating options – as stated in the committee’s charge. No, the decision to build a new Jackson School has already been decided and the committee’s job is to help Bray and the School Board find the best way to sell it to the taxpayer.

Fortunately, you don’t have to take my word for it. The Washington County Insider was there and has it on video. Here is the relevant video. Skip ahead to about 4:45 and listen to that exchange.

Here’s the exchange in print:

Bray facilitator: “The decision to build a new Jackson school was made in the prior efforts that was reviewed at the last committee meeting.”

Committee member: “Why do we need to go through all of this?”

Bray Facilitator: “Because we need to help the community understand why a new Jackson is being considered.”

There you have it.

The committee members are not actually determining needs and evaluating potential solutions as their charter states. The solution has been determined and they are just trying to identify the hot button “needs” that will sell it. The committee members are being used as a community focus group to help the School Board and Bray figure out the best way to sell a new school – funded with a referendum – to the citizens.

One final related, but side, note. The School District has been a woeful job of keeping the community informed. In this case, the CFAC website is hasn’t even bothered to post the agenda or minutes from the last two meetings. They don’t even have the dates and times of the meetings posted even though it is a public meeting. This is consistent with visibility to other meetings. Since earlier this year, they are doing a very poor job of posting agenda, minutes, videos, etc. like they had been doing previously. Transparency at the West Bend School District has taken a big step backward.

 

Two Seats to be Elected on West Bend School Board

FYI

Nov. 29, 2017 – West Bend, WI – Notice is hereby given of an election to be held in the West Bend Joint School District No. 1 on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. The following offices are to be elected to succeed the present incumbents listed.

The term of office for school board members is three years beginning Monday, April 23, 2018.

The following at-large seats are to be elected to succeed the present incumbents. Two 3-year seats with an expiration date of April 2021. The seats are currently held by Monte Schmiege and Tim Stellmacher.

The candidates receiving the highest number of votes will fill the two 3-year seats.

Notice is further given that a campaign-registration statement and a declaration of candidacy must be filed no later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018 at the Education Service Center, 735 S. Main Street, West Bend.

Notice is further given that if a primary election is necessary the primary will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018.

I hope that Monte Schmiege chooses to run again. He has been an insightful and steadfast conservative voice on that board.

West Bend Looking for New Superintendent?

John Torinus has a rather interesting column about the West Bend School District that has something of a bombshell at the end. The majority of the column is kind of a “let’s all get along and support the new school board” piece, but he drops this at the end:

Their leadership will probably mean further change at the executive level. The board majority deserves to have its own team in place.

[…]

The foremost ingredient in that effort will be leadership. Let’s get behind the new board majority and its selection for superintendent.

Here’s the back story… the current Superintendent, Erik Olson, was hired by the school board in July of 2016. In April of 2017, a triumvirate of candidates swept the board and, with Board President Tiffany Larson, constitute a new majority that has a much more liberal governing philosophy than the previous board.

In August of 2017, Superintendent took ill. I know for a fact that this was not fabricated or a cover. He was seriously ill and had to take a leave. He hasn’t returned since – presumably because his health won’t permit it, but the school board can’t comment due to privacy laws.

Now, in November of 2017, we have Torinus essentially saying that the board is embarking on a search for a new superintendent. Is the School Board using an employee’s illness as an excuse to purge him to hire their own superintendent? Is West Bend a district where the administration will be purged after every change in the school board? It would be very difficult for them to get a new superintendent in place before they put the expected referendum on the ballot next year, but perhaps they want “their guy” in place before doing that? They are also about to release a new compensation plan for the teachers that was essentially written by the teachers union. Do they need Olson out of the way before doing that?

An interesting point is that Olson has been on an Administrative leave instead of using the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The difference is that if he was out on FMLA, the school board is required to hold his position for him. If he’s on an administrative leave, he retains full pay, but the board doesn’t have to maintain employment. Convenient, eh?

I have asked Tiffany Larson for comment, but she has never responded to me since she was elected.

School Board Sets Budget and Looks at Teacher Compensation

There’s some good, some bad, and some worrisome stuff at the meeting of the West Bend School Board last night.

First, the good… The School Board held the property tax levy flat. Actually, it was a $21 decrease, but it’s statistically flat. This is the most important number when looking at the property tax burden. The levy is the amount of taxes the district will be demanding from taxpayers. Once that number is set, the tax rate (mill rate) is a function of the aggregate property values. At that levy, the tax rate is expected to drop by 5.8% with a 6.1% increase in property values.

Second, the bad. The approved budget has about $1 million more revenue than expenditures. According to the story in the Daily News:

It was also explained that the current budget had a revenue with more than $1 million than expected expidentures.

It was recommended that the cushion of funding go to the fund to rebuild the Jackson Elementary school.

Board members Tim Stellmacher and Ken Schmidt liked the recommendation.

Board Vice President Nancy Justman suggested a smaller amount go toward the Jackson fund and Board President Tiffany Larson asked if some of the funds could go toward current needs.

Ummmnnnn…. did it not occur to anyone to just not spend it and let the taxpayers keep it? By definition, if something did not make it into the budget, then one can’t call it a “current need.” If it was needed, they would have budgeted it. The School Board had an opportunity to actually reduce spending and taxes and chose to just keep the money as a slush fund. That’s not cool.

On a side note, the school district spends about $2 MILLION per year on travel. Where the heck are they all going?

Third, the worrisome… the school board heard a committee report about changes to teachers compensation. The Washington County Insider has a very good rundown with video of the presentation. I’ve asked for a copy of the presentation, but haven’t seen it yet.

The plan is to rework the compensation plan for teachers for the 2017-2018 school year. They plan to present and approve a new plan in January. The committee that has been evaluating and putting together the new plan is comprised of teachers. More specifically, it is comprised of some of the most activist, union, liberal teachers in the district like WBEA President and Washington County Democratic Party Chair Tanya Lohr and WBEA representatives Jason Penterman, Kara Petzhold, and Shelly Krueger. As one would expect, the compensation framework they are advocating is a teachers union’s wishlist.

It is also questionable how in a district with hundreds and hundreds of teachers, the WBEA leadership ended up with so many people on this committee. It stinks of an end-around of the Act 10 prohibition of the School Board negotiating with the union. Specifically, Act 10 says:

The municipal employer is prohibited from bargaining collectively with a collective bargaining unit containing a general municipal employee with respect to any of the following: 1. Any factor or condition of employment except wages, which includes only total base wages and excludes any other compensation, which includes, but is not limited to, overtime, premium pay, merit pay, performance pay, supplemental compensation, pay schedules, and automatic pay progressions.

While the union dominating this committee does not appear to be a direct violation of Act 10, it sure is a fig leaf of a difference.

Board member Monte Schmiege made the excellent point after the presentation that there was a lot of talk about teachers and not much talk about students or student outcomes. I would encourage the school board to evaluate any compensation plan on the basis of driving better student outcomes. And those evaluations should be based on actual performance data and not on a subjective “happy teachers = good teaching” equation.

West Bend School District Considers Facilities Needs

I had the opportunity to attend the West Bend School District’s Citizens Facility Advisory Committee (CFAC) meeting a couple of nights ago. If you would like to see the raw videos of what happened, please check our Judy Steffes’ YouTube channel and look for the CFAC videos. Steffes is a member of the committee in her role as a citizen and taxpayer, but she was also the only member of a media outlet to attend. Thankfully, she recorded most of the meeting so people can be involved even if they can’t attend.

Before commenting further, let me remind you of my bias going into the meeting. I believe that the school board really wants to push a referendum to get money to replace Jackson Elementary and make substantial expenditures on the High School. To that end, they hired a firm, Bray Architects, that specializes in running a biased process to end at that result. I can’t say that my beliefs were disproved by participating in the meeting.

The flow of the meeting was relatively simple. The first half of the meeting was just a recap of the previous meeting and some additional information. Then we took about an hour to tour some of the key infrastructure elements in the building. The focus this meeting was on “behind the scenes” items like the boiler room, server room, etc. The next meeting will tour classrooms and learning areas. After the tour, the CFAC members broke into small groups to discuss and respond to specific questions from the facilitators.

Here are of my observations in no particular order of priority or importance:

  • I am incredibly thankful for the members of the community who participate in these things. They are long, often boring, and require a lot of personal time and effort to participate. Same goes to school board members. Two of them, Joel Ongert and Tonnie Schmidt, attended the first half of the CFAC meeting and ducked out during the tour.
  • The above nature of these kinds of process also skews the participation. People with a direct interest in the outcome – like district employees, relatives, etc. – are more likely to make the personal sacrifice to participate. The membership of the committee reflects this systemic bias.
  • That being said, there were some excellent questions and excellent discussions. For example, in discussing buildings, one of the CFAC members mentioned that the test results disclosed at the School Board meeting earlier this week did not seem to correlate with the age of the buildings. In other words, some of the best results came out of the oldest buildings. She asked if there was a general correlation between building age, etc. and educational outcomes? The answer, by the way, is no. Once basic thresholds of space and safety are met, the rest has little impact on outcomes.
  • The entire process reminded me of a maxim that Mark Belling frequently touts. Namely, you can only react to the news you know. Let me explain… the tour took us to the server room which serves as the hub in a hub-and-spoke network for the district. I’ve seen a lot of server rooms and this one wasn’t great, but there wasn’t anything surprising. Clearly it was located in a less-than-ideal location years ago without much thought. It lacks a raised floor and industry-standard cooling, but it’s fine and I’ve seen a lot worse in private companies.The tour guide explained that there is a large hot water unit above the room that would essentially shut down the district if it leaked into the server room. OK, good to know. At the end of the meeting, the CFAC small groups were asked to list the “items in most need of improvement?” What made the top of the list? The risk of the server room being flooded, of course. The small groups largely just parroted the concerns and perceived risks from the district employees back to the Bray people running the meeting. But as you can see, now those concerns and risks have been laundered from employees’ concerns to citizens’ concerns. When presented to the public, these concerns will be labeled as coming from the CFAC.
  • Going to the point above, some of the great questions from some of the committee members highlighted the difference between theoretical risks and real risks. For example, when asked during the tour of the server room if the server room had ever actually flooded, the answer was that it had almost flooded once in the last five years. Watch this video about 2:15 in. And then later in the meeting, an audience member went into great detail about other mitigation techniques that could be used to prevent flooding. Watch this video about 1:45 in. In short, while there is a theoretical threat of the server room flooding, it hasn’t ever happened in anyone’s memory and there are some simple things that can be done to prevent it.
  • Going back to the way the meeting is designed to get a specific result, once the tour was complete and the CFAC members broke into small groups, the two questions they were asked to respond to were, “What surprised you the most?” and “What items were in most need of improvement?” As expected, the responses were a reflection of what district employees told them during the tour.
  • At least at the high school, the district facilities staff seems to do an excellent job. All of the equipment look well maintained and on a regular maintenance/replacement schedule.

The process continues in a couple of weeks. The next meeting on the 25th, the CFAC members will get a briefing on the latest trends in school design, a lesson in School Funding 101, and a tour of the educational areas of the building. The design of the meeting is intended to show CFAC members how neat new schools look, compare that to our “old crappy” schools, and show how there isn’t any way to build new cool stuff within the confines of the existing budget.

I encourage the committee members to continue to ask tough questions. When presented with a theoretical risk, they should ask questions like, “has that ever happened?” and “what can be done to mitigate the risk?” That way, they can discern if it is a serious concern or not. Also, I encourage committee members to figure out if and how any suggested proposals tie into improving educational outcomes. As I said, once the basic standards of safety and space are met, how do buildings correlate to better education? Frankly, I’d rather hire and pay for great teachers than build different-looking buildings.

Sleaze and corruption on the West Bend School Board

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

Several weeks ago, I raised serious concerns regarding the capricious, unethical and arguably illegal process by which the West Bend School Board created, and then appointed, two high school principals. After receiving 444 pages of public documents from the school district, those concerns have been confirmed and heightened.

As a brief background, West Bend had two high schools with one principal. The district was working on hiring that principal when, in a matter of days and with virtually no public input, the school board split the administration into two principals — one for each high school. Then the school board appointed two existing district employees to those positions without posting the jobs, accepting applications, conducting interviews or engaging in anything that resembles a typical hiring process. The entire fiasco was government at its worst.

Now we get a look at the new principals the school board appointed, and there are some alarming red flags. Ralph Schlass was appointed principal for West High School. Schlass has been an administrator in the district since 1999 and has served in various roles — most recently as an assistant principal for West. His tenure and performance evaluations indicate that until recently, Schlass was a relatively pedestrian employee going about his job. Then, in 2015, his performance began to deteriorate.

In December 2015, Schlass was accused of threatening and intimidating teachers regarding a petition being circulated. He was accused of telling a group of teachers something akin to, “I am the person who does your performance evaluations. If I find your name on that petition, I won’t be happy. … I am telling you, don’t sign it.”

Schlass denied making that statement, but a statement to that effect was corroborated by several staff members. Schlass was suspended three days without pay in January 2016 and told to refrain from actions that “engages staff in a threatening or intimidating manner.”

In July 2016, Schlass was put on a one year Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). A PIP is a plan given to an employee who is underperforming. It is usually meant as a “shape up or ship out” employee performance tool. The PIP indicated that, among other things, Schlass, “has inconsistently demonstrate(ed) leadership for student learning,” “failed to consistently support staff development” and “failed to follow policies, rules, regulations and routines.”

Schlass was combative through the year and accused the process of being “discriminatory, arbitrary, and capricious.” After March, he stopped completing the documentation required by the PIP. At the end of June, the recommended outcome for Schlass after the PIP was to “remain on a Performance Improvement Plan.”

Three weeks after that recommendation, Schlass was promoted by the West Bend School Board to be the principal of West Bend West High School.

The new principal of West Bend East High School is Darci Vanadestine. Vanadestine joined the district as an assistant principal in 2014 and was promoted to director of teaching and learning a year later. Unlike Schlass, Vanadestine’s employment history is impeccable and reflects career of progressive growth and advancement.

Vanadestine is so well regarded that in June she applied to be the high school principal — when there was to be just one. After a rigorous interview process, indications were good for Vanadestine. On July 14, she was informed that the district was checking final references and the superintendent would follow up the following week. On July 20, Vanadestine found out “through a posting” that the school board was going to meet that evening to “hear public comments on the reconfiguration of the HS configuration.” Several hours later, the school board voted to have two principals instead of one and, as a consequence, eliminated Vanadestine’s job.

The next morning, July 21, Vanadestine was told by the superintendent that he recommended her for the job to be principal of both high schools on July 18. The superintendent then told Vanadestine that the board had split the position into two principals and instructed them to give her one of the jobs. On July 23, Schlass and Vanadestine were introduced as the new principals and their contracts were ratified Aug. 14.

Vanadestine writes, “This is not the job I originally applied for and knowing that my current job was eliminated due to the decision to have two principals I struggled greatly with the poor ethics and lack of process with the appointment.” Indeed. Any ethical person would.

Although it was necessary, the point of this narrative is not to dwell in the employment histories of either Schlass or Vanadestine. The point is that through their unscrupulous and erratic actions, the West Bend School Board has chosen to promote one male employee who had been suspended and flagged for poor performance and deprive a female employee of the larger job for which she was eminently qualified and had been recommended. Such actions are not only an incredible disservice to the children of the district who deserve the best possible leadership, but they erode employee morale, sow distrust with the citizens and expose the taxpayers to considerable legal liability.

School Board President Tiffany Larson did not respond to repeated requests to comment on the board’s actions.

In an effort to “show my work,” here are a few of the public documents that were mentioned in this column:

Here’s the letter where Schlass was suspended.

Whenever you do an open record’s request like this, the person involved is informed and allowed to include any commentary. Here is Schlass’ letter that he included. I would note that while he blames the former superintendent, he was suspended under the former superintendent, but put on a PIP under the current one.

Here is Sclass’ PIP conclusion.

Here is Schlass’ official reflection about his performance plan.

Just like Schlass, VanAdestine included a note with her released documents. Here is Page One and Page Two.


Finally, I want to emphasize again what I said in the column. It isn’t really about Schlass or VanAdestine. They are both just district employees doing their work to the best of their abilities, I’m sure. But diving into their employment histories was necessary to show why the school board’s actions were so egregious. This new majority on the school board that ran on a platform of “transparency” and “running the district like a business” is running it like Enron. I truly hope that the board members reassess their actions and live up to the rhetoric they used to get elected.

 

New Property For Sale Next to West Bend High Schools

Well, this is curious. A couple of weeks ago the West Bend School District started down the process to a referendum(s). They want to look at Jackson Elementary School, which has been brought up as an issue in the past, but then they also threw in a look at the High Schools, which hasn’t. Here’s the charter:

As part of the 17-18 Strategic Plan, the district has committed to evaluating the district’s options to address an aging Jackson Elementary School and the East/West High School facility. To that end, the district has hired Bray Architects to assist in the process.

Three days ago, a large parcel of land that borders the high schools went on the market. Here it is:

property

Long time Benders might remember that this exact property was for sale once before. Several years ago the West Bend School District was asking the voters to pass a huge school referendum. In fact, it was the largest referendum in Wisconsin at the time. As part of that referendum, the district wanted to buy this parcel and build a new middle school on it. That referendum failed and this property hasn’t been for sale since. Until now…

Timing is everything, isn’t it?

West Bend School Board Ratifies Contracts for New Principals

As expected, the liberal majority on the West Bend School Board rammed this through.

August 15, 2017 – West Bend, WI – During Monday night’s West Bend School Board meeting the board voted 5-2 to approve the contracts for Darci VanAdestine as principal of West Bend East and Ralph Schlass as principal of West Bend West. No details on their contracts were released.

Board members Monte Schmiege and Ken Schmidt were the two dissenting votes.

Ken Schmidt – “I’ll be voting no on this. Not as a reflection upon the qualifications or anything in regard to the candidates but in regard to the process by which this happened and that’s why I will vote no.”

Schmidt’s comment dates to the July 25 school board meeting and questions others had, including school district staff, about how the principals were selected.

West Bend High School assistant principal Jenn Johannsen addressed the board asking about the hiring process for a second principal at the high school. During a special meeting Thursday, July 20 the board voted 4-1, with two members absent, to move forward and add a second principal to the high schools.

-“I was looking for clarification on the administrator hiring process for assistant and head principals that are appointed,” said Johannsen.

-“I also would like to know if it had been considered to open up the hiring process again before the second principal prior to appointing somebody? With a smaller school to head we may have had a larger pool of candidates to interview which would have been exciting. I am asking this as an assistant principal of the high school right now because I was not included or aware of an interview process for a second candidate and I was part of the first candidate’s interview process”

They also moved forward with forming a committee to lead the way to a referendum. Interestingly, they said that they had allocated $35,000 with Bray Architects for the process. I have asked the board president how Bray was selected, but I have not yet received a response. Was there an RFP process to pick the best company? Were local building and architectural firms considered? What was the selection criteria? That’s a lot of taxpayer money to go out the door without some sort of process.

West Bend School District Heading to Referendum

The West Bend School Board is going to start the ball rolling to ask for a referendum next year. They won’t likely admit that, but that is the inevitable outcome of the process they are starting. This is the relevant item on Monday’s School Board agenda:

Topic and Background:

As part of the 17-18 Strategic Plan, the district has committed to evaluating the district’s options to address an aging Jackson Elementary School and the East/West High School facility. To that end, the district has hired Bray Architects to assist in the process.

Public engagement with the process will be crucial. The team is recommending the formation of a board appointed, citizens committee to analyze possible solutions and ultimately make a recommendation back to the board in spring of 2018.

Rationale:

It is extremely important to keep the Board apprised of the activities that are taking place. The formation of the citizens committee is a key component of the plan as we move forward.

Budget:

$35,000 which has already been budgeted for activities related to this strategic plan item.

They have also included a handy document describing the process. You can find that here.

The process is designed to gather public input (good), assess needs (good), and make recommendations to the board (good). The process is also designed to lead to one inevitable conclusion – referendum.

What’s the tell? Look at the firm contracted for the engagement. Bray Architects is a firm that specializes in helping school districts get referendums passed to fund projects that Bray then completes. On their website, they even brag about their role in recent school referendums that passed.

cheerleadingreferendums

They even talk about how they helped get referendums passed that had previously failed:

HUDSON MIDDLE SCHOOL

After an unsuccessful referendum with a previous partner, the Hudson School District collaborated with Bray Architects to identify and evaluate potential solutions for the District’s secondary (6th–12th grade) space needs.

Following the completion of the needs analysis and an extensive planning and community engagement process, the School Board placed three referendum questions on the April 2016 ballot. All three questions were approved, including $7.9 million for an addition and renovation to Hudson Middle School. The addition and renovations will focus on grade-level house organization, classroom layout, gymnasium space, educational resource areas, Small Group Instructional rooms, and Special Education learning spaces.

The addition will feature a new gymnasium with one main basketball court and four side courts, two Special Education classrooms, three general-purpose classrooms, and one science classroom. A classroom will be added to an existing “house” on the first floor, while second floor renovations will include improvements to an art classroom and the conversion of an existing space into a science classroom. New lockers will be added to existing “houses” on both floors.

The School Board has contracted with Bray for one purpose and one purpose only – to get a referendum passed. That is the expected outcome of this process. Here is how this has happened in other districts and what we can expect:

  1. Form a committee loaded with people predisposed to support more spending
  2. The committee will conduct a needs analysis that has a very wide definition of “need”
  3. Conduct a propaganda campaign through the committee (so that it appears to be coming from the community) that bemoans all of the facility “needs” (expect to hear about sewage backups in Jackson Elementary again)
  4. The committee will determine that existing district resources are inadequate to meet the facilities “needs”
  5. Conduct a community survey with slanted questions, e.g. “Would you support a referendum to prevent the children having to learn while standing in a foot of sewage?”
  6. The committee recommends that the board go to referendum based on the survey results
  7. The School Board puts the referendum(s) on the ballot

I will be gleefully pleased if I am wrong, but I plan to pull this post back up next year to show how predictable this was.

West Bend School Board earns detention

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

You can see the signs all around. The Wisconsin State Fair is in full swing. The first Packers preseason game is this week. You can’t drive three blocks without finding the stand full of delicious sweet corn for sale. The signs are undeniable. Summer is coming to an end, and that means that school will be back in session in a few short weeks. But while the kids have been enjoying their summer, the West Bend School Board has been very busy running roughshod over any semblance of good governance.

In less than a week, the West Bend School Board abandoned the search for a new principal for the West Bend High Schools, restructured the administration into two high school principals and appointed two people to be those principals. Let’s look at the timeline.

Sometime late in the day on July 19, the School Board gave notice of a special meeting to happen the next day at 5 p.m. Special meetings are rare and usually only called for emergencies, but the opaque agenda referenced “review and consideration of high school administrative assignments.”

At the meeting on the 20th, two board members were absent and the attendance was sparse. Board President Tiffany Larson read a lengthy prepared statement saying that they wanted to create two high school principal positions out of the one. After a short 35 minutes and only board member Monte Schmeige asking any serious questions, the majority rammed through the decision. West Bend now has two high school principals. Several things are untoward about this.

First, this was the first time the issue had been addressed at a public meeting and the school board was already acting on the move. There had been no public outcry for the change and the issue of two principals was not even mentioned in the superintendent’s list of concerns identified after canvassing the community, teachers, parents and students. The School Board acted on a significant change to the district’s structure in a special session with no notice and without inviting any public discussion.

Second, Larson and Schmeige both referenced that the board did discuss the issue of two principals in a closed session earlier in the week. Closed sessions are only allowed to discuss very specific things like personnel issues and legal matters. Also, the agenda for that closed session did not reference a change to the organizational structure. Such a discussion in closed session would appear to run afoul of Wisconsin’s Open Meetings Law. One of the principles of good governance is for our elected representatives to conduct their business in public view.

Third, the decision appears to have been made with no research, thought or planning. Nobody on the board asked the superintendent for his input during the meeting. The board did not share any cost estimates (yes, it will cost more), reporting structure, job descriptions, ideal candidate qualifications, etc. Either the board acted rashly in utter ignorance of the impact of their decision, which would be an abominable act of incompetence, or they had vetted these issues in private, which would have been a violation of the principle of open government.

Two business days after the special session in which the School Board created the two principal positions, the board appointed two district assistant principals, Ralph Schlass and Darci VanAdestine, to be those principals. Once again, the board has acted in complete opposition to any sense of good governance, transparency or propriety. And in this case, they have likely exposed the district and the taxpayers to significant legal liability.

Normally an employer like the school district would initiate a defined and legal hiring process whereby they post the positions, solicit applications, filter down to final candidates, conduct interviews and then make a selection. The purpose of such a process is to ensure that the employer finds the best possible person for the position and to make sure the process is fair, thus insulating the employer from accusations of discrimination. By scrapping a real hiring process in favor of a snap appointment, and by completely bypassing the superintendent and human resource processes in place, the School Board has made itself the hiring manager and is engaging in exceedingly risky behavior.

Why were Schlass and VanAdestine selected? Is the board clairvoyant that they know these two people to be the best possible people to lead the high schools? Do any of the board members have a personal relationship with either of them? Were minorities given a fair shot at the jobs? What process was used to decide on these two? Who was involved in that process? Given that the board members did not discuss who to appoint in open session and these two were presented as a fait accompli, when did they decide on these two? Why were other district employees not considered? Did either of these appointees have any disciplinary issues in their current roles?

Incidentally, I have asked the School Board president for insight and filed several open records requests to answer some of these questions. So far, nobody has seen fit to illuminate the process. The school board seems intent on obfuscation and obstruction despite duplicitous protestations to the contrary.

It is entirely possible that having two high school principals is better than one and that Schlass and VanAdestine are the best people to lead our high schools. But the citizens of the West Bend School District will never know. The School Board’s insistence on abandoning any normal, deliberative, competent, open process has robbed the public of ever knowing for sure and has disavowed any expectation of good governance.

The final act in this bad school play is that the School Board is planning to ratify the contracts for Schlass and VanAdestine at the regular meeting on Monday. They still have the opportunity to correct course and allow for an open, fair, and legal hiring process to commence. They should seize that opportunity.

 

Promoting Friends

An anonymous reader alerted me to a possible conflict of interest on the West Bend School Board. You may recall that the West Bend School Board has been on a tear recently. With no public input or discussion, and after apparently illegally discussing the matter in closed session, the school board split the high schools principal position into two positions and appointed two vice principals to those positions. The board bypassed any semblance of a hiring process. They did not post the positions internally or externally. They did not accept any applications. To date, nobody on the school board has explained why the two new principals were chosen over their peers or why the district did not solicit applications for the jobs.

We may be getting closer to an explanation.

The two appointees are Ralph Schlass and Darci VanAdestine. I have been told by multiple sources that Board President Tiffany Larson and her husband, Ron Larson, are friends with Ralph Schlass. Larson has been the one responsible for driving the hiring process and bypassing normal hiring procedures or best practices. The anonymous reader who contacted me is a graduate of West Bend West and has access to the yearbooks from 1989-1990. Mr. Schlass and Mr. Larson were both graduates of West Bend East (classes of 1990 and 1989, respectively) and both played on the basketball, football, and baseball teams their entire high school careers. In short, these two spent a lot of time together and it is not much of a jump to think that they were close acquaintances if not fast friends.

So… given the apparent close personal relationship between the Larsons and Schlass, is it appropriate for Tiffany Larson, in her role as the West Bend School Board President, to bypass a fair hiring process to appoint promote Schlass? Schlass may indeed be the best candidate for the job, but we will never know if there isn’t a fair process that is open to all applicants.

The School Board has not executed the contracts to appoint Schlass or VanAdestine. That is on the schedule for the August 14th meeting. I have also heard whispers that they might call another “emergency” special session and do it earlier. In either case, it is not too late for the School Board to slow down and allow for a fair, open process to find the best possible principals to lead the West Bend High Schools forward.

I have contacted Larson for comment, but she has refused to respond to me on previous inquiries.

West Bend School Board Calls Another Closed Session

The agenda of tomorrow’s closed session by the West Bend School Board has a few interesting items like this one:

3. Pursuant to Wis. Stats. 19.85(1)(f) to consider financial, medical, social or personal histories or disciplinary data of specific persons, preliminary consideration of specific personnel problems or the investigation of charges against specific persons, which, if discussed in public, would be likely to have substantial adverse effect upon the reputation of any person referred to in such histories or data, or involved in such problems or investigations, and take any such action, if necessary, based on its discussion namely: Initial review of results of exit surveys received from former central office administrators.

Also, in response to the potentially illegal and certainly intemperate actions by the board lately, former School Board President Rick Parks sent them this letter (subject to open records) urging them to slow down, allow public input, and follow normal board good governance protocols. He also makes the extremely valid point that as board members circumvent the normal hiring process and become active hiring managers, they are exposing themselves to some substantial personal liability for possibly violating hiring ethical standards and laws.

To:               West Bend School Board Members

From:           Rick Parks

Date:            July 30, 2017

Re:               Board Member Responsibilities in Hiring

It was not my intent to pepper you with unsolicited advice after my “retirement” from public life.  Public bodies make their own path, and at the end of the day, things usually work out.

But I do feel an obligation to the community, and to individual board members, to point out some areas to watch as you move up the level of board involvement in individual employee hiring decisions.

Based on the public statements I’ve seen, and the manner in which announcements have been made, it appears that the board has taken the lead on how administrative positions are organized and has even gone on to in effect become the “hiring manager” for filling some positions.  While directing organizational structures is not unusual for school boards, with the proper community discussion and vetting, moving on to decide which individuals will fill these roles, rather than the traditional process of ratifying selections that have been advanced by the administrator, is quite unusual.  It may be unique. This also exposes the district, the board as a whole and individual members to risks that may not be fully understood or contemplated.

My business conducts employment law refresher training about every two years for all of our Supervisors, Managers and Executives.  We just had one last week, conducted by a partner from Quarles & Brady, who has also been the employment law resource for the school district.  I thought I’d give you the benefit of some observations I made in the update that are relevant to your current process at the schools.

“Hiring Managers” take on a significant liability for their organization, and in some cases, personally.  When the board moves to making these decisions they must understand and follow proper hiring practices.  When the board acts in a governance manner, by setting expectations that administrators follow all best practices in screening and selecting candidates, there is some defense that flaws in a hiring process fell outside the scope of how an administrator was expected to conduct the process. This could minimize or deflect liability if things don’t go well.  This almost certainly relieves a board member from personal liability for their decision.  By becoming a hiring manager you take on the full risk as a body and perhaps even individually.

As a hiring manager I’ll offer some freshly reinforced best practices each member of the board ought to observe:

  • All positions should be posted internally before being filled. In the case of the newly organized and established dual high school principal positions, you appear to have skipped over this requirement, which is troublesome.  While it might seem that posting for one principal for both high schools suffices, I would suggest it does not.  The feedback at the last board meeting revealed concerns and disappointment on this.  Why is posting so important?  Currently in employment law failure to post is a leading reason for successful discrimination lawsuits.  You expose the district and yourselves to risk when you do not do this.
  • When acting as a hiring manager each of you are responsible for conducting due diligence on individuals you intend to hire. This would include as a minimum:
    • Reviewing a comprehensive background check
    • Reviewing the work history and professional qualifications of each candidate, which for current district employees should involve your own review of their personnel file
    • Conducting an interview with all candidates
  • Excusing yourself from a hiring process if you have a personal relationship with a candidate. In tort law this is a broader standard than the current district ethics policy or even state statutes on conflict of interest.  It could include friendships that might promote favoritism in the hiring process.

None of this is an issue of course unless someone begrudges your hiring process and then takes the next step of pursuing litigation.  Unfortunately we’ve already seen some rumbles of resentment on the process of hiring high school principals, which could set the stage.

As a public board you also face the court of public opinion, even if events don’t move to litigation.  If the board takes on the additional responsibility of being a hiring manager, and skips over the required due diligence, the public relations impact of not properly vetting background checks (with even innocent flaws) or work history would be painful.  And we should never take comfort that information such as this would not publicly surface due to its confidential nature.  At this point there are many people formerly associated with the district that have deep knowledge about any internal candidate the board might advance as a hiring manager.  It would be naïve to think that the rumor mill would not advance any issues that may have been missed by lack of proper due diligence.  This would harm the credibility of the board and any candidates that might have flaws in their record.  Since some members of the current board have placed a focus on using ethical hiring processes a slip here would be especially damning.

Some parts of a best practices hiring process for the high school principal positions are behind you now and can’t be implemented.  It’s too late to post positions and go through a formal vetting and hiring process.  Realistically it’s also too late to interview candidates.  But the remaining due diligence is available to you all and I highly suggest you do the following:

  • Personally review background checks for each designee. Don’t delegate this.
  • Review the personnel file for each candidate.
  • If you have a personal relationship with any candidate, excuse yourself from the vote to approve their contract.

If all board members go through these processes and are comfortable with what they review, the routine process of approving contracts in the consent agenda on August 14th would be completely appropriate.  On the other hand, if even one board member has reservations based on their due diligence review, it would be appropriate to pull out these contract approvals and vote on them separately from the consent agenda.  This would allow that member(s) to be on record as not supporting the process and offer them some legal protection, and also some protection in the court of public opinion.

In open session this of course could not involve a discussion of why a contract was being approved or not approved, but all contract offers do contain the disclaimer that they are subject to board approval.  I don’t believe there would be exposure to liability for an individual board member, or the board as a whole, if a contract that had been offered were not approved.  This should have been part of any written offer.

While my professional life puts me in a position of interacting with attorneys that work directly for my company and are hired for specific purposes (including employment law) on an almost daily basis, I am not an attorney and can’t offer legal advice.  This is decidedly a friendly “heads up.”  Any board member that wishes to interact with the district corporate counsel for legal advice involving their board service is always free to do so.  If you have questions or concerns about what I’ve shared here I encourage you to do just that.  As for the court of public opinion, I did live with that for six years and have some understanding of how things work there.  It can be brutal.

Rick Parks

 

 

County School Districts Merging

Here’s a good example of two local unit of governments deciding to merge in order to save costs and better serve the community.

After lengthy consideration and much input, the Friess Lake and Richfield Joint 1 school districts have agreed to consolidate into one district for the 2018-19 school year.

Both districts’ boards of education approved identical resolutions during their own recent regular meetings so the legal process can proceed. Friess Lake’s board approved the resolution last week, while the Richfield board approved the proposal Monday.

Richfield Joint 1 School District Administrator Tara Villalobos said both boards feel that the community’s students will be better served if the districts join.

On a side note, the the mergers of the administrations will necessarily mean that some folks will be looking for work. The superintendent of the smaller district, Friess Lake, is John Engstrom, who is actually a resident of the West Bend School District. Local folks may remember him because he was a vocal member of the local lefty establishment and ally of the teachers union fighting conservatives on the school board a few years ago. He even filed several ethics complaints against the School Board – including at least one in cahoots with then union president, Jason Penterman.

At the time, Engstrom had some comments that would apply to the current board:

“he said the board member had a duty to keep an open mind and refrain from making a decision until all the facts were in, according to board policy.”

[…]

“A school board member is not a city councilman; they’re not a pothole-fixer, they’re not a person who was elected by a group of constituents and their job is to take care of the people who elected them,” Engstrom said. “That’s hard for the general public and a new school board member to grasp.”

[…]

“I’m just kind of concerned that the new normal for the West Bend School Board is ‘We’re each going to go off and do our own thing’ and ‘Ideology trumps policy,’ ” he said.”

I would note that Engstrom and Penterman have been silent about the current board’s corrupt behavior – in fact, Penterman has been aggressively defending their allegedly illegal and undemocratic actions of late because they are ramming through initiatives he supports.

Given that Engstrom is a liberal superintendent who will likely be looking for a job and the majority of the West Bend School Board seems to be intent on pleasing the teachers union and local lefties, will we see Engstrom joining the West Bend School District?

West Bend School Board Proceedings

The Washington County Insider has a couple of stories (story one and story two) up about the West Bend School Board meeting last night in which they rammed through appointments for the new high school principals. She has a lot of video so you can see for yourself what transpired. I found this part very interesting:

Decorah Elementary School Principal Nan Lustig also addressed the board during the meeting.

-“I have some questions about what this is.  I didn’t realize the positions were already filled.”

-Lustig talks about transparency. “None of us knew that any of these meetings were going to take place. You asked for input from a wider audience and open meetings that were videotaped but I couldn’t find those things.”

-Lustig talked about her memories of a two-principal system and said she the system works and she had not issue with that. Her questions were about the hiring practice. “I was confused at less than 24 hours for such a huge meeting. I’m wondering why we didn’t gather more input from a wider audience. We got a lot of questions and concerns about ethical hiring practices.”

-“We went from a practice where we openly posted positions, we checked references, we asked the same list of questions to all references, we completed the documentation and we sent that to HR where we forwarded the contract.”

-“Did we post it internally? … Did we ask who else was interested?”

-“We’ve always been told as administrators when we come before the board we need a plan, a process and a financial impact of a decision. I didn’t read any of those things in the paper. I want us to be concerned and as a taxpayer I wonder what the answer to those things are.”

So an existing principal in the school district didn’t have any notice that this was going on. Looking at her comments and the comments of others, it does not appear that the school board made any effort to ask interested employees to put their name up for consideration or post anything internally. It looks like the school board had their two people chosen and slammed them into the jobs. The school board didn’t bother with interviews, applications, discussions, or anything else.

So the question is, why these two people? What makes them so much more qualified than other district employees like existing principals or other assistant principals? Why were they the only two even considered? Hmmmm…

Former school board members Rick Parks and Randy Marquardt also admonished the board for their process. Parks, a person whom I respect but did not originally support for the office, was very direct.

Those of you who only weeks ago campaigned on a platform to be transparent and inclusive have let us down.

Indeed. The hubris of this board is astounding.