By Shereen Siewert
Several parents in the Wausau School District are accusing Board President Tricia Zunker of ethics violations by not recusing herself from votes on whether schools should remain virtual or move to the next phase in the reopening plan.
Jon Creisher, a Wausau parent, is one of several parents who say Zunker, who is running for U.S. Congress, should have recused herself from the vote because she accepted about $4,000 in donations since her campaign launched in October 2019 from members of the public who sent in public comment urging schools to remain virtual. Creisher, along with Charles Burger, of Wausau, made the allegations after comparing public campaign finance data with the names of people who commented publicly on the school issue.
In late July, Wausau School Board members voted 6-3 to start the school year virtually, a decision that left parents and students sharply divided. The issue was raised again on Sept. 14, but after more than three hours of discussion and multiple motions, the board remained deadlocked 4-4 on moving toward the next phase of reopening. In each motion Zunker, along with Ka Lo, Jane Rusch and Beth Martin voted to keep schools fully virtual and revisit the issue Sept. 28 with new information from health officials.
The board is in a unique position due to the resignation of Theresa Miles, who stepped down last month citing health issues. Until a replacement is chosen the board has an even number of voting members, which contributed to the deadlock.
Creisher has not submitted a campaign ethics complaint, but said he is considering doing so.
“It’s clear Tricia Zunker can’t remain impartial and she should have abstained from voting,” Creisher said.
Zunker, commenting as a private individual and not as a representative of the school board, denied any conflict of interest.
“I have conducted myself with the highest integrity and ethics and will continue to participate in my elected position by voting on all matters as I do not possess a conflict,” Zunker said. “I look forward to the recommendation of the administration regarding modality of instruction at the next board meeting and making a decision based on the facts, data and expert advice presented to the board.”
Zunker noted that in May and in June, the board received public comment on another matter, which included comments from past financial contributors.
“However, I did not vote the way in which that public comment from those supporters urged in May or June,” Zunker said. “I’ll repeat: nothing influences my decision-making other than my own ability to make an unbiased decision. I have been running for this seat since October 2019. I have voted on innumerable matters and we have received ample public comment through the year.”
From a legal standpoint, the U.S. Supreme Court has routinely upheld that political contributions from individuals are protected political speech under the First Amendment. Contributors have a First Amendment right under the Constitution to support a congressional campaign.
“It’s absurd to think their constitutional right should be infringed upon or that their exercise of their First Amendment rights could be equated to influencing my decision in another elected capacity,” Zunker said.
But some parents say the contributions result in a perceived conflict of interest that could violate School Board policy. The bylaws of the board include clear direction that prohibits members from “accepting anything of value that could reasonably be expected to influence the Board member’s vote, official action(s), or judgment.” And a conflict of interest policy adopted in December and last revised in June states that “no board member shall engage in or have a financial interest directly or indirectly, in any activity that conflicts or raises a reasonable question of conflict with his/her duties and responsibilities in the school system and as a public officer.”
Further, the policy requires board members to disclose any interest and abstain from participating in both the discussion of the matter and vote.
Burger, in an email to several Wausau School Board members, said Zunker should have known of the rules to abstain and recuse herself.
“Every vote she cast since the (Aug. 10) meeting was knowingly in violation of the rules,” Burger said. “A single vote or motion could have been overlooked, but at this point, the constant voting against opening when other school districts in the county are back and WSD is not cannot.”
Zunker said she has been subject to a variety of tactics by a parent group pushing to reopen schools, behavior she describes as bullying.
“Their members planned to show up at my house risking the safety of my young son and my neighbors; left messages for me personally written in sidewalk chalk around town demanding school buildings open; the group founder showed up at a board member’s house demanding that schools open; they have flooded the board with e-mails; they have threatened a recall election of board members who voted to commence the year virtually based on false allegations; they have organized protests with few participants while claiming to speak on behalf of 8,000 students in press releases; they have circulated a petition to the school board with demands that had no basis in law; and this ethics complaint is their latest effort,” Zunker said. “Seeking to eliminate my vote on this matter with a frivolous and defamatory complaint is now a direct and personal attack against me, my character and my reputation. Enough is enough. Public officials do not have to endure harassment and intimidation.”
Some members of the Facebook group Parents for Wausau Schools Reopening have been vocal in their disregard for Zunker and other female members of the board who voted to keep schools virtual.
“All the women on this board need to go,” wrote Dawn Dietsche.
Another poster, Jamie Hoover, wrote, “her mask just needs to be tighter, maybe she’ll stop breathing.”
Zunker said the bullying and harassment she has endured since the July 27 vote has become out of control.
“The personal attacks through Facebook messenger and e-mail, in public comment, on social media, and the many screenshots I have seen with attacks and “jokes” they make about me personally in their group– it is “mean girl” bullying behavior,” Zunker said. “We don’t tolerate bullying from our children or in our schools; it’s time for adults to set the right example. Even as a public official, I retain legal rights to combat this continued harassment and defamation.”
Creisher said families are hurting and desperate for their children to return to school and begin learning in a traditional way.
“There’s no reason for kids not to go back, just because they are worried that someone might get sick?” Creisher said. “Other schools have figured it out and Wausau needs to.”
Diana White, communications director for the Wausau School District, said as of Tuesday 48 students and staff members are quarantined district-wide, with numbers that are changing daily. Marathon County has seen a recent surge in COVID-19 infections, prompting health officials to issue a statement indicating they have exceeded their capacity to respond to cases. As of Tuesday, health officials are reporting 1,112 total cases in Marathon County, up 134 from Friday. Hospitals are also reporting a significant uptick in the number of admissions related to COVID-19.
School officials sent a survey to parents and teachers after the Sept. 14 meeting to gauge their willingness to return to the classroom and will consider those responses, along with additional input from health officials, at their Sept. 28 meeting.
Zunker said she will continue to show up at every meeting and does not have a conflict of interest.
“I’ll do the job I was elected to do,” Zunker said.