Public Input at Green Bay School Board Meetings Debated

The Green Bay School Board is expected to decide in December whether to continue allowing public input while a motion on a recommended hire is before the board. The school board holds a public input session at the beginning of its regular meetings. In February it began allowing input on items as they were being considered for action by the board, although it has not formally adopted the practice as policy. At least one board member says the proposed change unnecessarily limits the public’s freedom of speech at school board meetings.

The board in September twice discussed ending the practice of taking public input when the item before the board involves an administration recommendation to hire a district employee. The board is looking at formally adopting as policy the practice of accepting input at the time items are acted upon, while excluding hires. Board President Brenda Warren brought the change up for discussion.

While there had been concerns raised about the school district facing liability for comments the public may make about applicants that had been offered a position, Warren says she believes a legal opinion by school district attorney Melissa Thiel Collar has put those concerns to rest. Warren told Media Trackers she feels the larger issue is courtesy to new hires.

It’s less about liability and more about common decency about how we treat our brand new employees. I think the report, the legal opinion we got made it pretty clear that the liability risk is probably pretty low. For me and other board members it’s how you introduce our new employees to the board members and to the district. Is it fair to potentially have people comment on them that weren’t part of the interview process?

Members of the public and board member Rhonda Sitnikau raised concerns about the hiring of Cindy Olson, former principal at Merrill Middle School in Oshkosh,  as principal of embattled Washington Middle School in May. Warren said the way Olson was treated was a factor in Warren bringing the issue forward: “at that meeting, how Cindy was treated, a number of board members weren’t comfortable with that.”

Sitnikau raised several concerns before the vote, including the  demographic differences between Merrill and Washington, such as the number of English learners and students living in poverty

Sitnikau believes the public should be allowed to speak when the board is considering hires:

It’s important to use facts when discussing this important issue. When we talk about agenda items regarding administrative hires, we’re not talking about “brand new employees“.  At that point, the hiring process is not complete; the board is asked to approve or not of this recommendation. I believe it is irresponsible governance to rubber stamp anything. We are representatives first and foremost. Why would the public be concerned and critical of these decisions in the first place?

Problems at WMS drew national attention in 2017 after former teacher Kerstin Westcott addressed the school board in June, 2017 and announced her resignation over what she said were severe disciplinary problems at the school:

  • “I would not survive another year in the toxic setting at Washington. I must resign, even though I have a broken heart. Because, I cannot survive in this unhealthy and unsafe environment any longer. I am here now to speak for the people who will remain there and try to survive in this dangerous work and school setting every day.”
  • “I fear for my safety every day. I am equally afraid for the safety of my colleagues and, most importantly, my students. We are in danger every day when we show up to our school.”
  • “Students and staff are physically, verbally, emotionally, mentally and sexually abused, every single day in the building.”
  • “We are sworn at and called vile, crude and sexual names every day.” (Westcott brought with her a page full of examples from the previous two days but couldn’t bring herself to read them aloud, which she called devastating).

After Media Trackers reported on Westcott’s statement, other media outlets extensively reported on problems at WMS and district officials vowed to address the problems. Olson was hired in May to lead the district’s effort to turn around the struggling school. Sitnikau told Media Trackers that getting the hire at Washington right trump’s concerns about offending applicants:

Let’s take a look at the past 10 years of hiring at Washington Middle School…basically a new principal every single school year. The public’s concern didn’t come out of nowhere, it is a reaction to a history of poor decision making using their tax dollars. As public school districts continue to cite funding as the equalizer for success, we need to remember that operating in a vacuum will not help our cause. One also wonders about the fragile nature of any potential hires who would turn away the position of leadership at an urban school because they aren’t able to handle questions during the hiring process.

Warren counters that the public can still weigh in on hires at the regular public forum at the start of the meeting where a hire is to be considered. She says eliminating public comment when a motion for the hire is before the board also eliminates the perception that the board is inviting the public to come in and speak directly to the proposed hire.

The public input issues will be taken up along with a discussion on concerns about district hiring policy raised by school board Vice President Ed Dorff. Dorff says he’s raised concerns about the policy, adopted in 2010, for years. Dorff says a rewrite of the policy back then says that the board shall approve recommendation for hires that are brought forth by the superintendent. Dorff says shall means “must.” Dorff says if the board were not to approve any hire following administrative recommendation it would be violating its own policy. Dorff says that has the effect of the board delegating the hiring process to administration, something not allowed by law. The board decided in September to revisit both the public input policy and hiring policies in December.