By Brandi Makuski
The Stevens Point School Board will undergo additional training on the state’s open meeting laws.
The board inadvertently violated state law, according to Board President Meg Erler, during a February meeting held at Jackson Elementary School. Erler said Angel Faxon, who was the board’s president at that time, made an announcement to fellow board members which was not on the public meeting agenda, and after some on the board had already left.
The item in question, according to Erler, involved the superintendent search.
“While driving to the meeting that night, School Board President, at that time, Angel Faxon received a call from the consultant we were working with on the superintendent search,” Erler read from a prepared statement. “The consultant told Angel that one of our three finalists had recently lost a close family member in a tragic accident and was withdrawing their name from consideration.”
Erler went on to say board members at the meeting did voice their concerns the topic was not listed on the publicly posted agenda and therefore could not legally be discussed at that time.
According to the official meeting minutes from the Feb. 23 meeting, the board adjourned immediately following board members voicing those concerns and three board members- Jeff Presley, Kim Shirek and Lisa Totten- left the room. Faxon then informed the remaining board members- Chris Scott, Alex Kochanowski, Jeff Ebel, Trish Baker and Erler, of the withdrawn candidate.
When Board Member Lisa Totten heard about Faxon’s announcement, she filed a complaint with the Portage Co. District Attorney’s Office, alleging the meeting violation and asking for an investigation. Totten also requested the board members involved be fined for the violation. Under state law the fine for an open meeting violation ranges from $25 to $300.
In her statement to the DA’s Office, Faxon said the information related to the superintendent finalists was to be released to the media the following morning, and she wanted to inform the board first. She said the conversation lasted “approximately 30 seconds.”
DA Louie Molepske released his findings following the seven-month investigation, which was undertaken in partnership with Stevens Point police detectives. In an Oct. 5 letter to the board, Molepske said the board had been referencing the wrong state statute when it entered into closed session- which board officials have previously said was used on advice of district counsel. His letter also indicated Faxon was “incorrect” when she made the announcement.
But Molepske said he would not levy fines against board members.
“I do not believe your remedy of forfeiture action against your fellow school board members is warranted,” Molepske’s response to Totten reads. “There is disagreement whether the members singled out by [Totten] knowingly violated the meeting law.”
Molepske also wrote the board would benefit from “further education” on open meeting laws and more attention to detail on public notices.
“On behalf of the board, I want to apologize for the use of the inaccurate statutory reference,” Erler said. “I want to assure district residents that Superintendent [Lee] Bush and I have conferred with district counsel with respect to DA Molepske’s concerns. District counsel has also spoken with DA Molepske…we will continue to confer with district counsel to ensure we are in full compliance.”
During Monday’s board meeting, Faxon said she welcomed the additional training.
“I would like to know what I could have done differently,” Faxon said, adding the situation was an unusual one.
The school board has discussed open meeting laws during a series of meetings in early 2015, when some on the board alleged closed-session information was being leaked to outside parties. One of those meetings included a January workshop led by Steven C. Zach from the Madison- based Boardman & Clark LLP, the board’s legal firm.
Erler said there was free legal training available from UW-Extension, and that training was already being used by members of the Portage Co. Board.