With the early-June student walk-out, prayer gathering, and protest that drew hundreds of people wanting to stem the exodus of staff from Spooner Area School District, one might figure that the regular school board meeting on Monday, June 15, might be well-attended and perhaps get a little contentious.
A variety of causes for uhheaval in the school district have been named – from new teacher evaluations to Act 10 that caused the demise of unions across the state to deficit spending in the district and the resultant budget cuts – but an often-cited factor is alleged disrespect and intimidation of staff by administration. Some staff and community members at the meeting called for Superintendent Michelle Schwab to be placed on administrative leave while the allegations are investigated.
Tension came to a head during the public comment portion of meeting when an aide, Collyn Huffer, alleged that “bullying, intimidation and disrespect” is “running rampant in our school,” and she alleged she personally had been “verbally and emotionally abused” by Schwab.
Board president John Hedlund had said earlier in the meeting that the public comments should be directed to the board and not against individuals. When he tired to “redirect” Huffer to “appropriate” comments, she continued speaking so he called a recess of the board and ordered power to the microphone be cut. Board member Robert Hoellen stayed at the board’s table on the stage, but the rest of the board members, Schwab, and Business Manager Shannon Grindell left the stage. Hoffer spoke without the mic, starting to describe an incident where she was called to the superintendent’s office.
A Spooner Police Department officer was brought in to escort her out of the building, and she went peacefully amid a strong verbal response from the audience in the three-quarter-filled auditorium. The Pledge of Allegiance to the flag erupted, and the crowd almost yelled the final line, “and justice for all,” as the board and administration retook their seats and the meeting continued, the public comment finished at close to the preset 30-minute limit.
Also during the public comment, Laurie Rubesch, who ended her 37th year of teaching in the Spooner school district on June 5, said, "In my hand I'm holding nine bullying harassment complaint reports that have been completed. We'd like to submit them confidentially, and in light of the current circumstances of retaliation allegations confidentiality concerns we're requesting that all administrative staff be excluded from the reporting process and that an independent investigator agreed to by both sides be assigned as the designated investigator."
She asked staff or community members who were bullied or disrespected or who witnessed bullying, threats or harassment in the school district during the past school year to stand. More than two dozen people stood up.
Michelle Jepson said the board and administration have been made aware of bullying and harassment allegations against Schwab, and she said numerous staff have been subject to "manipulation" and felt pressured to resign and either have had their positions cut or retired earlier than planned. And, she asked, who would submit a report about bullying to the bully?
She said the board has violated its policies by not investigating the allegations. She asked that Schwab be placed on administrative leave during an investigation and that the investigation be put on the July board meeting agenda. Many people in the audience stood when she asked how many supported Schwab being put on administrative leave.
Earlier in the meeting, during the president’s message portion under board reports, Hedlund read from a prepared statement that he said had been shared with the board members and he was attempting to represent all of the board members. However, member Randy McQuade excused himself and stood off to the side of the auditorium during the reading.
Hedlund said that everyone has a common interest: the educational opportunities for students.
“Over the last few weeks I’ve seen a lot of passion for the future of Spooner Schools,” he said, and he hoped the passion would turn from negativity and personal attacks to collaboration.
He said the staff and students have gone through “a great deal” of changes over the past year, including higher health insurance premiums, Educator Effectiveness Evaluation implementation, new state testing, “uncertainties” from the handbook not matching current practices, incomplete teacher contracts and written work assignments for non-contracted staff, and post-employment benefit uncertainties.
When interviewing the potential “leaders,” he said, the board told them their task – saving the district money while increasing student achievement – would not be easy, and “and I believe they have demonstrated a great deal of courage and care as they carried out the daily work of their assignment.”
He said he is thankful for each administrator, especially considering the criticism they have endured.
“It saddens me that our community would treat newcomers in such a manner,” he said. (At which he had to call for order as some in the audience spoke their opposition.) “There is no doubt that their jobs are controversial, but that does not excuse the personal attacks on their credibility, professionalism, and relationships.”
He added, “Let’s not forget they serve the board’s intentions and have worked tirelessly to keep our district getting back on track.”
He said the board expected push-back with its decisions but felt “the consequences were greater if we delayed those tough decisions any longer. Great strides have been made. The board and our administrators still have more to do.”
He said Schwab and Grindell have been “transparent” about their concerns over student achievement and the district’s deficit spending over the past few years. The district also did not have long-term curriculum, facility or budgeting plans.
“As a school board, we make the decisions about staffing, benefits, policy, the handbook, etc.,” the board president said. “I hope that as a community you will support our administration and understand that they see your frustrations just like we do. Even though emotions run high, we need to find a way to move forward, and I ask you to offer your patience and compassion. We’re faced with tough decisions, and we’re careful to consider the effects.”
He said the board would “investigate the validity” of any staff concerns, conduct exit interviews with departing staff to “gain further understanding” of why staff are leaving the district, and pursue getting the handbook updated before school starts in August.
He said no formal complaints have been levied in the district, and a process is in place for filing complaints.
“Please reflect on what you can do to bring a positive perspective to our challenges. It’s important that we work together to move forward. It’s an honor to serve the Spooner Area School District, and I look forward to the future as we work to provide the best opportunities for our kids. Thank you,” he concluded.
Applause followed his statement, as it did repeatedly throughout the meeting as various people spoke.
Also under board reports, board member Paul Goellner noted that next year elementary students will have 40 minutes of either social studies or science each day, the subjects taught on alternating days. Upcoming training includes responsive classroom (20 teachers will learn about consistency in classroom expectations and cohesive learning environment); conflicts in the classroom (60 staff members); assessments and grading practices (staff from all three schools). One of the district’s goals is to change the report cards so they more clearly describe how the students are progressing.
Communications Specialist Diana Maas reported that the school board and Public Relations Committee had a recognition event on June 4 to recognize staff with 25 or more years of service and to honor and thank the retirees. Area businesses donated food and beverages, and Maas delivered corsages and boutonnieres to the 20 staff with 25-plus years of service. Plaques with a thank you message were given to the retirees.
SASD also gave an award to Aaron Arf, executive director of the Spooner Area Chamber of Commerce, and to Monique Clark, SASD PTO, “in appreciation for all of their efforts to support Spooner Schools in the last year.”
More public comment
Before listening to the public comment, Hedlund reminded the audience that the board cannot respond because the topics are not on the agenda, and he outlined several other restrictions, including continuing the two-minute limit per person who signed up to speak, but sounding a notice with the gavel and allowing wrap-up for another 15 seconds, and limiting overall public comment to 30 minutes, as stated on each agenda. The number of people who wanted to speak exceeded that limit, so several people did not get a chance to speak to the board.
Clapping, shoutouts, and jeering would not be tolerated, he said, adding that the board would recess until that kind of activity stops or the group doing it leaves. Hedlund said the board does want to hear the comments but must have a “healthy” and “respectful” meeting.
The first speaker was Janet Medley, a choir, band, and music teacher at St. Francis de Sales School for 12 years. She read a tribute to choir director Destiny Schultz, whose resignation was approved later in the meeting. She enumerated the “typical” work that Schultz did, from working before and after and during school to prepare students to achieve acclaim at state music events to working with them to audition for awards from the local Intermezzo Club.
“But there is nothing typical about her and her dedication to our children and to music excellence. It is unmatched to anything we see in the Red Cedar District,” Medley said.
Her two-minute limit was up before she finished, and sustained applause and a standing ovation for Schultz ended the presentation.
Kevin King noted several concerns he had, including the budget, declining enrollment, “possible lawsuits,” and the salary of the district’s communication specialist compared to what the “Internet manager” is paid at the Rice Lake school district. He also said he wants the board to put employee recruitment on next month’s agenda, and he wants to hear why he should keep his daughter in the SASD instead of sending her to another school.
Dan Conroy said the Hippocratic Oath says, in part, to do no harm. “What you do, the decisions you make, and how you carry them out has a huge impact on our school, our educators, our community, and most importantly, our kids,” he said. “I hope you do great things, but if you cannot, please, do not do harm.”
He also praised teacher Jon Griffith, who will not be back at SASD next year, saying, in part, that Griffith’s talent, caring, and commitment gave Conroy’s children “excellent underpinnings for their future.”
“Your kind and soft -spoken style has served us all well ... Most importantly, thank you for your authentic belief in the potentials of every student,” Conroy said.
He also thanked all the teachers who taught his children and thanked the new teachers for their sacrifice and love of teaching.
Christy Davis said Act 10 and the Affordable Care Act are not the reason staff are leaving the district. She said the board falsely believes the staff does not cooperate and has portrayed the staff as “overpaid whiners.” But, she said, many staff who have left stayed in education, even taking cuts in pay. Davis alleged that the board has allowed the superintendent to over-step her duties and set the district goals rather than the board setting the goals, “tearing” the community apart as the culture at the school has changed. She also alleged evaluations have been “misused” to “harass” staff.
Bill Skidmore countered Hedlund’s contention that the board has not received any formal complaints from the staff and started to outline a complaint teacher and coach Andrew Melton reportedly made, but Skidmore was not able to finish within the two minutes. Some people called for him to be allowed to finish, and during the comments from the audience, Hedlund said the board would recess if order was not maintained.
Vicki Anderson, backed by two more people who stood with her, read the bullying and harassment policies in the staff handbook, which is online at the district’s website.
It was at this point that Rubesch and Jepson spoke about filing the complaints and requesting that Schwab be placed on administrative leave.
Former teacher Jody Peck read a statement representing the “Spooner Area School District staff,” and while she read, more than two dozen people stood, apparently staff members.
She the staff does want to work with the school board to move the district forward. “We do not feel that this has been a viable option for us this year,” she read, “however many of us are still here and strive to be a part of the solution. We want to work together. We’re concerned with the number of staff leaving. We’re concerned with students and their families leaving our district. We are concerned with the effect it has on our community. This has also begun to affect our students. Not having enough volunteers and substitute teachers affects our students. Hiring specialty positions at the expense of educators in front of students affects our students. Seeing many qualified teachers leave our district affects our students.
“This is not about change. We’re not concerned with dress code, and we realize budget cuts need to be made. We deal with change daily in our classrooms and are able to adapt to it.
“This is about intimidation, inconsistency, and withholding information, and it is having negative impact on the morale and well being of all in our school district. We have a budget crisis, but more student loss will not help solve the budget crisis. Let’s come together and make this situation better. We urge you to listen and to hear our voice. We ask you to set up a time to listen to all of us instead of sequestering us into smaller groups or by building. We ask that you have answers to our questions when they are asked rather than not responding. We ask that when you come before us for our opinions that you not already have your mind made up.
“We ask that you see and treat us as the professionals we are. We also urge you to review and release the results of the staff survey in its entirety. Respect is earned, and you have a ways to go to earn ours. Your course of action moving forward will have a lasting impact on our district. Please return Spooner Area School District to a place that our community can be proud of again,” she read.
Karen Sorenson read the names of all the staff who have left over the past year and said they represented more than 1,000 years of service.
Kate McKinney, administrator of the S.A.V.E. Academy, said the academy will not be continued next year because enrollment will be too low to make the school viable and to cover the costs. She said in her opinion, some students would not be returning because of changes that would be in place next year with the Academy and also because of the tensions in the district.
Chad Gibson, a teacher at SASD, asked the board to open up the 30-minute time limit so everyone would have a chance to speak to the board.
The comment section of the agenda was closed after Huffer spoke, and the board took up the remaining agenda items.
The board approved the resignation of Destiny Schultz, Patricia Reijo, Rich Meaux, Barbara Richie-Vergin, Janet Weiberg, Hope Walker, and Jody Anderson, plus the hiring of 12 teachers and one dean of students, Brett DeJager, who will replace Matt Lucius.
Hoellen voted against accepting them, in what he called a "symbolic vote."
• Hedlund instituted two new procedures at the board meetings: saying the Pledge of Allegiance at the start and having Schwab as the superintendent sit toward the end of the row of board members, next to Grindell, instead of in the middle next to the board president as had been the past practice in the district. Hedlund said that arrangement reflects the focus of the board as the policy setters and decision makers at the meeting.
• The board accepted a $250 donation from the Shrine Show Fund in Hayward for Spooner High School and $820 in donations for donors contributing to the pipe organ fund, a fundraiser set up to bring to the high school and install a pipe organ donated by teacher Tim Kern.
• The board approved the schedule for the board and committee meetings for the 2015-16 school year, beginning in July. Personnel, budget, and buildings and grounds will meet at 4:30, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., respectively, on the first Monday of the month (and September 14 instead of the 7th due to the Labor Day Weekend). The curriculum committee will meet at 5 p.m. and the public relations committee at 6 p.m. before to the school board meeting at 7 p.m. on the third Monday of the month.
The annual budget hearing will be at 7 p.m. on September 28, followed at 7:30 p.m. by the annual meeting.
Additional meetings may be scheduled also, and the schedule may be adjusted due to conflicts or other recommendations.