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"I'd be very uncomfortable, quite frankly, putting this language together ... and then just have it roll through the full board without knowing how this works. I guess I'm not ready for this, myself."

David Holperin, School Board member

7/28/2012 7:30:00 AM
District ponders drug testing
Proposal to be discussed Tuesday

Marcus Nesemann

A proposed new drug-testing policy will be discussed Tuesday by the School District of Rhinelander's Employee Relations Committee.

The proposed policy calls for mandatory testing if there is reasonable suspicion that an employee is under the influence of a legal or illegal substance.

The issue was discussed at an Operations and Strategic Planning Committee meeting two weeks ago, but board members raised issues about how best to implement such a policy. Those issues will be addressed by the Employee Relations Committee.

"Other districts, as you might imagine, due to local news stories and so on, are moving in this direction," Superintendent Dr. Roger Erdahl said.

Erdahl declined to say whether he was referring to recent developments in Antigo, where several teachers and coaches are facing drug-related charges.

Among those arrested was John Lund, a former football coach and principal who pleaded guilty to 13 charges, including manufacturing THC. He was sentenced to six months in jail and four years of probation.

"One of the things that we've been asked by board members is, 'What are we going to do?'" Erdahl said. "One of the things we said was we are going to monitor what local school districts do and proceed cautiously, and now here we are."

Board member David Holperin asked whether a drug-testing policy is legal.

"I have not received a legal opinion but I do not see any legal difficulties with this if it's in board policy," Assistant Superintendent Dave Wall said.

Erdahl agreed, but noted legal challenges always are possible.

"... there could legal challenges, but, I mean, there seem to be endless legal challenges in policy-making," he said.

Board President Ron Counter pointed out that many private-sector employers have drug-testing policies.

"I won't say whether I support this or not, but I know in a lot of private workplaces ... if they suspect there are either alcohol or drugs involved, they can order you to be mandatorily tested and if you refuse, you are gone, or if you fail the drug test, then you either enter rehab or are terminated at that point," Counter said.

Wall emphasized that testing would not be random under the proposed policy.

"This is when we have reasonable suspicion," he said. "We want to help the employee, (and) we need to have evidence of (drug use)."

Board members also are interested in how best to define reasonable suspicion.

"Like most of the policies in the manual, they are open to an administrative interpretation," Erdahl said. "So we decide on a regular basis what constitutes a violation of policy. These powers are given to us by the school board. So, yes, there has to be a human judgment made.

"Is there sufficient evidence, in this case, to constitute forcing someone to go to the clinic?"

Counter said it will be important for the board to establish clear guidelines for administrators.

"If we were to initiate this policy, then I think (the board) would be responsible for making sure the administration got training so that they could identify situations where they may suspect (drug or alcohol use)," he said.

Employees should be assured, Erdahl added, that the policy will not be misused.

"This authority could be abused," he said. "People's reputations can be affected by miscalculations, so we would have to write our guidelines very carefully."

In previous years, such a policy would have been subject to negotiation with the unions representing district employees. But last year's implementation of Act 10, which all but eliminates collective bargaining for most of Wisconsin's public employees, cleared the way for unilateral policy changes by school boards statewide.

A local union official said the lack of bargaining over issues like drug testing could lead to abuse.

"When we used to negotiate over those issues, the union would take the position that if they had reasonable cause or just cause, that they would be able to do that," said Fred Andrist, the director of Northern Tier UniServ, which represents Rhinelander teachers. "The only question would be how do they interpret reasonable suspicion?

"Our concern would be that some administrator would abuse it. We've seen it in the past."

The Employee Relations Committee will fine-tune the proposal before possibly sending it to the full board for approval.

"I'd be very uncomfortable, quite frankly, putting this language together ... and then just have it roll through the full board without knowing how this works," Holperin said. "I guess I'm not ready for this, myself."

The committee meets at 4 p.m. Tuesday in the district's Administration Center, which is located in the high school.

Marcus Nesemann may be reached at

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