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June 17, 2019

5/17/2019 4:54:00 PM
River News seeks clarification from school district regarding closed session
School board continues to refine strategic plan
Heather Schaefer and Jamie Taylor
Of the River News

The School District of Rhinelander Board of Education held a special meeting Monday evening to continue fine-tuning the district's five-year strategic plan and to address a personnel matter. While the discussion of the strategic plan was straightforward, the River News has a number of unanswered questions regarding the closed session.

Adhering to its posted agenda, at approximately 7 p.m. the panel voted to go into closed session to hold a hearing at the request of a professional employee who was contesting a notice of non-renewal of employment for the 2019-20 school year.

By law, the news media is not allowed to sit in on closed session discussions.

The River News reporter assigned to cover the school board meeting left the building when the closed session began to cover another assignment. The next morning, as is custom, the River News reached out to school district administration for information as to what, if any, action took place following the closed session.

"From closed, an employee contract was renewed," Jacobi told a River News reporter Tuesday.

When the reporter inquired as to whether the employee in question was an individual who was found earlier this spring under the influence of drugs at a location off school property, Jacobi said she would not confirm or deny.

Later, she reiterated that the closed session was held in response to a preliminary notice of non-renewal.

"The vote was taken in closed to renew an employee contract," she said in a follow-up conversation..

When asked to explain why she was not releasing the employee's name, Jacobi cited privacy and confidentiality.

On Wednesday, the River News contacted Jacobi again after a local broadcast outlet reported that she had confirmed the identity of the employee to them.

"I did not give anybody a name," she said. "They had a name and I did not confirm or deny." (Later she said she could not remember the specific words she used in talking with the other outlet).

When asked to confirm whether the broadcast report was accurate, Jacobi again stated she would not confirm or deny.

In the same conversation, Jacobi also said a review had taken place and it had been determined that the vote had taken place in open session not closed session.

Later the same day, the River News reached out to Jacobi in writing to express concern over the sequence of events and request a clarification. Specifically, the newspaper explained that members of public, including the parents of children who will be assigned to this professional employee, have no way of knowing whether the school administration and board members handled this appeal appropriately or whether they can feel comfortable leaving their children in this individual's care.

Jacobi responded with a statement indicating the district does not consider this matter a safety issue.

"There are various reasons for non-renewals," she wrote. "This non-renewal was based on performance not safety issues or any ongoing legal action. The Board did not include a name in the motion, and that person has asked that I not release their name. I am reaching out to our legal counselor for his direction."

She also addressed the newspaper's questions regarding whether the vote took place in open or closed session.

"Following presentations by administration and employee, we were all excused from the meeting so the Board could deliberate," she wrote. "I didn't note the time we left. When they were finished we were asked to return (approximately 9:00 but I didn't make a point of looking at the time). I assumed they had gone to open session and later learned they had not, they invited both parties back in for the vote. I didn't hear a motion to return to open which is why I had (an administrative assistant) confirm with Board members."

Jacobi's email response to the River News also included this note from the administrative assistant.

"Kelli asked that I let you know that it has been confirmed that the motion made at the May 13th special meeting for the renewal of a professional employee's 2019-20 contract was done in closed session, not open session. There was some confusion but after verifying with other Board members the meeting notes were correct originally."

The River News is continuing to look into the matter of when the vote was taken and is also researching whether it's legally permissible for the school board to make and approve a motion that does not contain a name and whether the district has a valid legal basis for withholding the name of the individual involved.

To that end, the newspaper has also filed open records requests related to the closed session.

Strategic plan for technology

The school board has been working for several months on a new strategic plan that will replace of the plan due to expire this summer.

For that plan, approved in 2014, the district hired an outside consultant to assist the board in gathering its ideas. For this one, the board is doing the work with assistance from district administrators.

Like the 2014 plan, the current draft the board is refining includes five goals the district will strive toward in the next five years: Student success, high quality learning environments, recruit/retrain high quality employees, financial stability of the district and communicate and connect.

Each goal is then subdivided into a list of priorities that the district will focus on.

Monday's meeting focused on cleaning up the priorities in goal two, which the board previous discussed on April 8.

"After that meeting, two board members shared some additional thoughts," Jacobi said, adding that input was included in the draft document for discussion.

Over the course of almost an hour, the group went over the eight priorities in goal two, including those suggested by board members Judy Conlin and David Holperin after the April 8 meeting. By the end of the meeting, three of the eight priorities had been reworded and moved to other goals.

When the discussion turned to the subject of remaining a leader in the use of technology for advanced learning - which Jacobi said would be critical for the district going forward - both Conlin and Holperin offered tweaks.

"I have said it before, if we are going to have a virtual school which uses technology, we should strive to be the best virtual school anywhere within 100 miles of here to attract students here versus than other places," Holperin said. "And then the second part of mine, I mean technology has taken over, and it is the thing that our country is the greatest at, and I want to make sure that Rhinelander is educating our students to the best of our ability in a rapidly changing world because technology changes so rapidly that we're very much at the forefront of what can be learned at the high school level."

Conlin suggested a more concise description for the technology priority.

"The whole thing with technology is how do we integrate it into our instruction and then make sure it is tied to student learning," Conlin said.

Holperin pointed out that the goal of his suggested change is to set the stage for the district establishing its own virtual school. Jacobi told Holperin that a presentation on Wisconsin Rural Virtual School was already scheduled for the May 20 regular board meeting.

In the end, the board opted to go with Conlin's suggestion to "expand virtual learning and integration of technology to advance learning."

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at jamie@rivernews

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