By Brandi Makuski
The Stevens Point School Board on Monday continued what seems to be a never-ending debate over which of its members should recuse themselves over various discussions and votes.
While the topic of recusals wasn’t on the June 22 meeting agenda, Board members Lisa Totten and Kim Shirek argued some on the board should recuse themselves- temporarily removing oneself from participating- from a vote approving the district’s preliminary 2015-16 budget.
The issue arose as Board Member Lisa Totten recused herself from that vote. Totten’s husband is a public school teacher in the district and directly benefits financially by decisions agreed to by the board. When approving the final budget each fall, the board currently votes on budget items separately to accommodate Totten, who recuses herself from the vote relating to employee wages.
As Totten walked away from the board’s table to a seat in the audience Monday night, she said, “I believe there’s other board members that also need to [recuse themselves].”
But no other board members followed Totten, something that irked fellow Board Member Kim Shirek.
“Out of this budget, you would be making payments to such things as Partners in Education (PIE) or the [Portage County] Business Council, correct?” Shirek asked Tom Owens, director of business services, who oversees the district’s budget process.
When Owens said yes, Shirek turned to the board and asked that all members involved in those organizations recuse themselves, arguing those members gained financially from the district’s purse.
Superintendent Attila Weninger said the district only pays dues and fees to the Portage Co. Business Council in exchange for various partnership opportunities and leadership training for members of the board and other district employees. The City of Stevens Point, Village of Plover and Portage Co. Board of Supervisors also hold membership.
Weninger said district money spent within those two organizations do not go directly to individuals so there is no financial gain.
“That money goes towards the programs they provide, including those for the district,” Weninger said.
Shirek claims to have received emails from constituents asking for two board members to recuse themselves from budget votes. Judy Rannow, who was elected to her first term in April, is a professional development consultant with the Portage Co. Business Council and also involved with PIE. Shirek also pointed to Board President Meg Erler, who had filled a partial-term vacancy on the board prior to also being elected April, whose husband fills a volunteer position on the PCBC board of directors.
Shirek argued both women “benefited financially” from district funds and should not be permitted to participate in a board vote.
Erler was unmoved by Shirek’s request.
“When we get to the point where we approve the final budget, I’ll be more than happy to call out very specific items and allow those to be voted on individually,” Erler said. “But those items would probably constitute, I don’t know, .0001 percent of the overall budget of the district. But I’ll just tell you- I’m not going to be recusing myself from voting on the overall budget.”
Erler said her husband’s involvement in the PCBC was volunteer work and neither he, nor their family, received any financial gain from it.
“My suggestion to you would be, if that’s the criteria, we’d probably all have to recuse ourselves because most of us have children who are receiving benefits through the district or are on volunteer organizations that the district is connected with,” Erler said to Shirek.
Erler also said there was no requirement to recuse oneself under state law unless it was a “clear financial conflict.”
Shirek said she only brought the matter up because she “wanted to report on emails I receive from the public, so, moving on,” she said. Then, shaking her head, she uttered, “Wow.”
Rannow responded for the record that if a conflict did arise, she would have “no problem” recusing herself from certain budget items that may directly affect her.
The board then approved the district’s $92.7 million budget by a vote of 8-0, with Totten recused.