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Resolution for school referendum on Jan. 20 agenda

The Phillips School Board will vote whether or not to go to referendum this spring at their 6 p.m. meeting on Monday, Jan. 20.

A special meeting was held Jan. 13 in order to craft language for a potential resolution to go to referendum on the April 7 ballot, should a majority of board members choose to pursue a referendum next Monday.

Discussions regarding a potential referendum began years ago when the district first began considering how to address the structural, plumbing, and heating issues identified in the 1958 and 1972 portions of the elementary school.

Since a failed attempt at passing a referendum two years ago, the district has sought the community's feedback in order to create the best plan for addressing the facility's needs.

The results of a survey conducted last fall showed that, of the 878 community members that responded, 67% indicated they would support moving to a single K-12 campus at the site of the current middle/high school. The survey also showed that 51% of those respondents supported an option that would improve the district's tech ed space and existing classrooms, at the same time as building a new wing to house elementary students.

The verbiage unanimously approved by the six school board members present on Jan. 13 — Jon Pesko, Tracy Burkart, Joe Fox, Hailey Halmstad, Kevin Rose, and Paula Houdek — asks voters whether they will authorize $9,860,000 general obligation bonds to pay for the cost of a school building improvement program in order to create a single K-12 campus at the site of the current middle/high school.

If passed, the referendum would allow the district to use the $9.8 million to make upgrades and site improvements, and to acquire furnishings, fixtures, and equipment required. Any classroom equipment that can be salvaged from the existing elementary would be repurposed at the single campus, should the referendum be approved.

If any portion of the $9.8 million were able to be saved during the building project, it would go toward demolition of the 1958 and 1972 portions of the existing elementary building.

Should the referendum be passed, taxpayers in the Phillips School District will see a 20-year-increase of $97.50 per $75,000 of fair market property value.


Controversy shakes up Ogema Library Board

Tensions ran high at the Jan. 9 meeting of the Ogema Public Library board, with accusations being exchanged by library board president Al Schnepf and library director Mary Hebda.

In a meeting that ran two and a half hours long, with extensive public comment and ongoing interjections from many of the approximately 25 community members in attendance, new board members Jill Price, Jessica Wear, and Sharon Carlson — along with existing board member Peggy Machnikowski — heard statements from both Schnepf and Hebda regarding a series of disagreements between the two.

After lengthy presentations by both Hebda and Schnepf — interspersed by near-constant interjections from the audience — it appeared the conflict was based chiefly on two issues.

The first occurred in October 2019, when a minor concrete repair project was scheduled to take place at the front and back entrances of the library. According to Schnepf, the library board had reached an agreement with a contractor to complete the work for an amount not to exceed $2,500.

Hebda questioned whether the project had been properly bid to contractors, and — according to Schnepf — interfered with the contractor's work. When Schnepf approached her at the library on the issue, he reportedly raised his voice and came in close physical proximity, according to Hebda and a witness. The incident caused Hebda to file a report of harassment with the Price County Sheriff's Office. According to an incident report created by a Price County deputy, Schnepf was verbally warned for raising his voice and making a scene in the library.

The second incident last week — which resulted in Hedba being placed on administrative leave by Schnepf — started with a reportedly congenial exchange between the two on Jan. 7 as they worked to create the agenda for the Jan. 9 library board meeting. Schnepf requested a closed session be added to the agenda to address "issues and concerns," but according to Hebda, did not provide any further detail.

Wisconsin Open Meetings Law states that if a planned meeting includes a closed session, the agenda must contain the specific subject matter of the closed session, as well as the statutory exemption under which it is authorized.

On Jan. 8, Schnepf visited the library three separate times, exchanging words with Hebda regarding the agenda and the closed session — which she initially did not include on the agenda, then included as "closed session per A. Schnepf," and finally as "closed session per A. Schnepf — a. Deliberating concerning a case which was the subject of any judicial or quasi-judicial trial or hearing before that governmental body."

On Schnepf's second visit to the library, Hebda allegedly became distraught and either stated she was leaving for the day or resigning — Schnepf and Hedba disagreed at the library board meeting which was the case.

Schnepf says he returned to the library at 3 p.m. with the Ogema town chairman Lars Holm as a neutral party, intending to collect Hebda's keys

At this point, Schnepf reported Hebda stated she was not resigning.

Schnepf told the library board that, looking at Hebda's demeanor and fearing she would cause some harm to the library or staff, he suspended her, collected her keys, and told her to take her personal items.

During public comment at the library board meeting, Hebda reiterated she was not resigning from her role as director.

Schnepf said the reason for the closed session had been a different board member's request to discuss concerns with and about the library director.

"It was for the consideration of the director and it was also for the board so that we could speak freely and discuss what was going to come about," Schnepf said.

He stated he wished there had been a closed session — an agenda item he had removed after her alleged verbal resignation, believing it to be a moot point — alluding there may be additional issues involving Hebda

Following an extended discussion on both sides of the issue, Schnepf recommended the board request Hedba's resignation in writing or dismiss her outright.

Schnepf reported to the board that he had already spoken with MORE Library System director John Thompson and had a plan for how the library could continue to function until a new director could be found.

New board member Price commented that she did not believe the issue could be settled in one meeting, and there should be further consideration of the issues discussed.

"I'm trying to make a good decision here. It's not just dismissal, it's not just resignation, it's not just business as normal — because obviously there's something else going on and it needs to be resolved," she said.

New board member Wear agreed, saying she didn't believe she had enough information to fire Hebda.

After some discussion, Price made a motion to reinstate Hebda to her role of library director, with a disciplinary warning added to her employment file and review every three months for the first year.

The motion was seconded by Sharon Carlson.

At this point, Schnepf asked the board if they would like to make a closed vote or an open vote because of "emotions in the room." Everyone agreed to vote publicly.

In a roll call vote, Wear also voted in favor of reinstating, Machnikowski voted against, and Schnepf abstained. With three votes for, one against, and one abstention, the motion passed and Hebda was reinstated as library director.

It was discussed that a closed session would be held at the next meeting of the library board at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 30, to discuss the matter further.

Number of library board members discussed

The library board currently has five members — Schnepf, Machnikowski, Price, Wear, and Carlson — and that number will increase to six members when Prentice School District administrator Randy Bergman is appointed to the board by Ogema town chairman Lars Holm on Jan. 20.

Wisconsin statutes al low towns the size of Ogema to have either five or seven members. In recent years, the Ogema library board has been a five-member board.

Schnepf asked the board to consider whether or not they want the library board to return to five members, or look for another volunteer to bring the board to seven members.

Wear and Price noted that the more representatives on the board, the more voices to contribute to the discussion.

Machnikowski, Carlson, and Schnepf all said they believed it should be reduced to five members. Schnepf noted that in order to reach that number, one member of the board would need to resign.

Schnepf pointed out that Machnikowski represents the Town of Ogema and Bergman will represent the Prentice School District. He said that Wear was a valuable board member as she has experience working as a librarian, and Price was valuable coming from an accounting background. He said that if someone was to step down, it should be either Carlson or himself.

Schnepf then said that, due to the previously raised issues, he would like to take a noconfidence vote from the board.

"If the majority of the board have no confidence in me being on the board, then I would be the candidate that would certainly resign," he said.

Machnikowski and Carlson both stated they had confidence in Schnepf.

Price recommended going to a seven-member board instead of Schnepf resigning.

"To me, a vote of no confidence is about your ability to do it. Your behavior is something different," said Price. "We have a behavior [issue] — from what we've been told — versus the vote that you can't do the job. I think those are two completely different things. This is my first board meeting so to say that I have no confidence in you doing the job of being on the board is really not a fair question to ask. Behavior is another thing. That could be something we talk about as a training session ... to deal with that issue."

Wear agreed, saying, "It is your behavior that is disturbing to me. I think you are able to do the job. If what Mary [Hebda] is saying is true, anytime we have conflict, I don't want you in my face — I don't want you intimidating me."

Wear noted that if Schnepf were to resign, the new board members would lose continuity, as well as knowledge of the history of the library and staff.

Price again said that, taking into account the current situation, going to seven members is the correct decision.

Schnepf said they would go to a sevenmember board then and he would talk with the town chairman. A new member will be appointed to the library board.

Officers elected on the library board

Although the newly formed board was without two of the new members — Bergman and the yet-to-be appointed seventh member — Schnepf said it was urgently necessary to elect a treasurer in order to meet the deadline of filing a yearly report with the MORE Library System on Feb. 15.

He said it was possible to wait to appoint the other two offices of president and secretary.

Carlson said that she thought that the election should be held, rather than delaying it.

Machnikowski made a motion to elect Price as treasurer, Wear as secretary, and Schnepf as president. The motion was seconded by Carlson, and passed unanimously by roll call vote.

It was also noted that Wear will take over the creation of future agendas in collaboration with Hebda and the other board members.

Rash of burglaries hit Price County, Butternut

Police are on the lookout for a man who forced his way into an apartment below Harbor View Pub and Eatery in Phillips early Monday morning.

According to Phillips police, the lone suspect approached the business on foot with a crowbar in one hand and a cell phone in the other. The suspect was wearing rubber boots, blue jeans, and a camo jacket, with a face mask covering half of his face. He also appeared to be wearing eyeglasses.

A tenant of the apartment confronted the man inside the building, at which point the man apologized and ran away to a pickup truck parked several blocks away, according to police.

What appears to be an attempted burglary was the second such incident on the same day, as police were called to Schienebeck's Shanty in Butternut Monday morning for another reported break-in when store owners found their counter was torn apart and over $300 missing from the cash drawer.

"Whoever did it came in through our side door, which we have to replace, and went through the kitchen and unplugged our camera, so we didn't get any footage at all," said owner Lisa Schienebeck.

Police are investigating whether the two incidents are related.

On Sunday, Jan. 12, a detached building at a residence on Old Highway 13 Road was also burglarized. Items reported missing included an air compressor, a 110 wire feed welder, a Milwaukee grinder, a Craftsman tool socket set, a Master Force 20 volt cordless drill, and a Master Force cordless band saw.

Other recent burglaries include items stolen from Randy's Mini Storage south of Phillips on Dec. 19 and again Jan. 5, and another storage unit north of Phillips, occurring Dec. 12 and again Jan. 6.

Park Falls Police Chief Jerry Ernst said Park Falls is fortunate to have, so far, avoided any

burglary incidents in recent weeks.

Police are asking anyone with information about these incidents to contact the Phillips Police Department at 715-339-3847, or the Price County Sheriff's Department at 715-339-3011. Anonymous tips can also be made at the NIXLE tip line at 855847-7247, or text TIP PRICE followed by your message to 888777 from your mobile phone.

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