By Brandi Makuski, Editor-in-Chief
Some members of the Stevens Point School Board appear to need some schooling of their own in the subjects of time management and ethics.
The March 30th school board saw a return to embarrassing antics and continued in-fighting by members, largely centered on two issues the board can’t seem to put behind them no matter how hard it tries.
The search for a new superintendent, which begun only last November, continues. Despite having spent $16,000 to hire a firm which specializes in finding qualified superintendent candidates, the board ultimately decided not to hire any of the applicants.
After narrowing down two final candidates from a pool of about 30, the board did plenty of due diligence, insofar as they could on such a short timeline: it scheduled a public meet & greet event with the candidate finalists; it organized an online, anonymous survey for residents to opine on the finalists; and it held a public listening session, all designed to allow public input on which candidate would best represent the district.
Both candidates had impressive credentials related to education administration, and both seemed to be well-liked in the community. But for reasons not truly known, the board first decided to delay a final vote on which candidate to hire, and then announced it would hire neither one.
That $16,000 bought us a giant waste of time and resources.
Also at the March 30th meeting was a last-minute change on the agenda. Board members voted to move a previously closed-session discussion into open session at the prodding of Board Member Lisa Totten.
The issue at hand was Totten herself. Totten is married to a public school teacher, and due to that conflict she recuses herself from various discussions and votes relating to district employees. But Totten doesn’t leave the room when she recuses herself, which some on the board argue itself is a conflict of interest because she then becomes privy to information and strategies the board uses during contract negotiations with teachers and other union groups.
Totten defended her actions publicly, pointing to a written legal opinion from the district’s legal counsel she requested on the subject. The opinion does indicate Totten is legally allowed to do what she’s doing, but also states her presence does put all teacher employment contracts at risk. Her presence after recusal, according to the district’s lawyer, could be considered “participation” in the discussions under state law.
“Given the penal nature of the statute, the strict liability it imposes, and the policy underlying the statute, it would suggest that a full recusal- not just abstaining- would be required,” the opinion read in part.
The 12-page legal opinion was not considered a public record until the board voted to move the discussion into open session on March 30th, but that didn’t stop Board Member Kim Shirek from publicly stating she shared the document with a third party prior to that meeting.
“I read this, and I had someone else read it so they could read it to me, in layman’s terms, I guess, and what she (Totten) has done for the last four or five years is exactly what they’re suggesting she do,” Shirek said.
Some on the board, to include legal professionals Meg Erler and Trish Baker, were in visible disbelief over what they called a “lack of understanding” on the issue, as were many in the audience that night.
Even Board Member Alex Kochanowski participated in the conversation, pointing out a majority of the board previously voted against a proposed third-party investigation into alleged leaks from closed session meetings. Kochanowski flat-out said the five members of the board who voted against the investigation “were likely at fault” for the alleged leaks.
And so the board continues its habit of finger-pointing instead of problem-solving. Perhaps the board wasn’t able to find a candidate they like because of the short timeline they allowed themselves to search. But it’s also a likely bet the constant communication struggles are a big part of the problem.
The board is nearly an institutional failure for the voters of this district, and that seriously reduces its chance to find a top-notch candidate to fill the position of superintendent.