Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau School District violated the state’s open meetings law during a session in which a controversial and consequential restructuring plan was under discussion, Wausau Pilot & Review confirmed this week.

The violation happened Oct. 6, when the district held an unposted meeting for two subcommittees formed to discuss the restructuring plan. Six of nine Wausau School Board members serve on the subcommittees, which means the meetings require public notice due to the potential for a possible quorum of elected officials. Wausau Pilot & Review reached out to the Wausau School District early last week after a review of postings did not show the meeting listed.

This week after repeated requests for a response, district officials acknowledged the omission, attributing the lack of notice to a clerical error.

WSD’s Coordinator of Communications and Marketing Diana White told Wausau Pilot & Review the October meeting reflects the “only instance where we’ve failed to post a meeting.” District officials in April said “school board subcommittee meetings are subject to the same open meetings laws as other school board meetings,” and seven of the eight meetings with their agendas are posted on the WSD BoardBook page.

In a subsequent email, White told Wausau Pilot & Review that the district “failed to post the meeting notice anywhere.”

No formal action was taken at the meeting, White said. But substantial issues including proposed elementary school closures and a high school merger, each of which has potentially enormous impact on students, parents, teachers and the community, were discussed. Unclear is how many board members attended.

On the elementary subcommittee side, the names of five elementary schools – Franklin, Grant, Hewitt-Texas, Lincoln and Rib Mountain – appear to make the first appearance as choices for closure. The meeting description says the suggestion was made by two parents. It does not name them.

“The Secondary Subcommittee decided a junior/senior high (school) model would be worth further exploration,” the secondary subcommittee meeting description notes.

Some district officials and a minority of school board members are pushing these options for elementary and secondary schools. And, at least in case of the high school, Superintendent Keith Hilts and board member Jon Creisher discussed merging high schools behind closed doors before the community weighed in, emails show.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and an expert on open meetings law, told this newspaper that if the meeting notice was not posted at its usual place then it would constitute a violation. He specifically pointed to page 13 of the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide: “…that the notice is published and/or posted in each place where meeting notices are generally published or posted for each governmental body involved.”

“I would read this to mean that if notices are typically posted on the school district’s BoardBook page, then the district is required to do so as part of its obligations under the law,” Lueders said. “So yes, I do think the failure to post is a violation of the open meetings law. It is a different question entirely whether it was a knowing or inadvertent omission not to post.”

In light of district’s admission of the “error,” Lueders said: “The district has admitted that it didn’t follow the law in this case; I think that’s a commendable admission that should put this issue to rest.”

Subcommittees recommend more community input

Some parents and educators are openly questioning how the subcommittees were formed and how members were chosen. Some who served received their invitation near the end, rather than at the beginning, of the process. At least one member told this newspaper that she was invited to join the restructuring conversation in the late fall and attended one meeting, on Nov. 29. That was the last meeting.

But the subcommittees recommended that broader feedback from the community on the restructuring proposal be gathered, according to the presentation documents and subsequent remarks from district officials. This recommendation was followed by two in-person community discussions, at Wausau West on Nov. 16 and a similar one at Wausau East on Dec. 7.

The district also sent out a survey last month seeking community input. But, as on past occasions, questions emerged about the way the district administration framed questions for the brief survey and its lack of straightforward questions. Several community members complained about the nature of the questions, such as “On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being very excited, how excited are you about a restructure of the Wausau School District?”

“The WSD surveys and their interpretations have been a problem under Hilts,” said Associate Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, Ingrid Clark Zavadoski, while joining a discussion on social media on the district restructuring plan.

Moreover, not everyone seems to have gotten the survey.

School board not on board with restructuring proposal – yet

The restructuring proposal unveiled last month lacked several crucial details, not the least of which is how the district proposes to staff and fund busing for students. Because the school district is mandated to provide busing to students who live beyond a fixed distance from their assigned school, shifting to one junior high on the east side of the river and a single senior high to the west would mean that every single student in the district would be eligible for mandated busing for four years.

A majority of school board members, while saying the district needs to address the multitude of challenges facing the district – like financial struggles, inconsistent class sizes, uneven workloads on staff and for teachers – called for adequate community input on the restructuring proposal put forward by the district. With the majority of the school board not in favor of endorsing the proposal, the board postponed taking any decision on the district’s recommendation to endorse its proposal. Instead, it directed the school administration to address the questions and concerns of the community.

The district officials are aware that there are many in the community who are not convinced that the restructuring, as proposed, is the solution.

Before the Nov. 14 Wausau School Board meeting, the district sent a note acknowledging as much.

“It’s also important to note, while there have been some conversations about what a restructure in the Wausau School District could look like, at this point in time, there is no plan,” the district said in the statement hours before the November meeting when the board directed it to prepare plans for the merger of schools.