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Coleman School Board Wrestles With Policies On Religion, Communications

A policy that caused problems a few years ago for Coleman School District has resurfaced. At a 6 p.m. Policies Committee meeting and then again at the board meeting that followed questions arose on how communications questions and complaints from the public are to be handled. In effect, it appears the proposed policy would prevent a school board member from listening to complaints from a staff member or constituent and then relaying their comments to the board.

In general, the policy requires a person with a complaint, question or suggestion to go through a chain of command. There are exceptions if the issue involves allegations of illegal activities or other serious accusations that may require investigation or inquiry before approaching the staff member.

On other types of issues, if a constituent or staff member comes to a board member with a complaint they are to be informed the board member has no authority to act in an individual capacity, give the complainant a copy of the policy guidelines and refer them to the District Administrator for further assistance. Only as a last resort would the board be allowed to address the matter, and then only within 30 days after receiving the District Administrator’s written response.

Board President Ryan Wendt objected to the proposed policy, which came from NEOLA, an organization that provides proposed policy wordings for numerous Wisconsin school districts with an eye to keeping them current with changes in federal and state law.

“I have a problem with staff communications, and I think that needs to be addressed,” declared Wendt. “If there’s a problem, people can’t just go to the board, they have to go through the administration.”

“It’s just chain of command,” responded District Administrator/Superintendent Brian Walters.

Wendt objected that there was no avenue of approach if a staff member had a problem with the administration. “This has to be reworded!” he declared.

Walters felt he would be remiss if he did not talk first with the principal involved if a teacher came to him with a problem, and only if the issue was unresolved would it go farther.

“I also have a problem,” declared board member Jeremy Hoida. “Does this mean if I see a teacher on the street corner and ask how things are going, they can’t even talk to me?” he asked.

“This means more official complaints,” Walters explained.

“That’s not what it says,” Wendt declared. “We were elected to be the voice of the people. How can we know what people are thinking if they can’t talk to us?”

The board had struggled against a similar policy a few years ago under a previous administrator. At the time the policy was sometimes referred to as a “gag order”. It eventually was changed. There were some at the time who attributed the difficulty in resolving issues to a policy that prevented open communications between staff members and the board.

“This just keeps coming back and coming back,” declared Wendt.

Walters suggested they approve the other proposed policies and set another meeting next month to discuss the “Public Requests, Suggestions or Complaints” policy.

Wendt in general was not pleased with the NEOLA efforts. “They are supposed to give us updates based on our policies,” Wendt said, adding there was more change than necessary in the policies NEOLA proposed. He asked Administrative Secretary Kari Petijean to advise NEOLA they need to provide better updates bringing existing Coleman policies into compliance with state and federal law changes without rewriting them, and without changing intent.

For example, he said the proposed policy pertaining to student records really only needed to identify a different form, not have entirely new wording.

Wendt also was concerned about revisions to a policy on “Religion in the Curriculum.”

“Does this policy give us the flexibility to go back to Christmas,?” he asked, referring to previous debates on whether the school can have a “Christmas” program or it must be a “Holiday” program.

“I think these are written more broadly,” Walters replied.

The proposed policy states instructional activities shall not be permitted to advance or inhibit any particular religion or religion generally, but it does state, “An understanding of religions and their effects on civilization is essential to the thorough education of young people and to their appreciation of a pluralistic society,” and therefore the curriculum “may include as appropriate to the various ages and attainments of the students,” instruction about the religions of the world.

The proposed policy states teachers are not prohibited from providing “reasonable periods of time for activities of a moral, philosophical or patriotic theme,” but no student is to be required to participate if the class is contrary to the religious convictions of the students or parents.

Administrative guidelines for instructional materials that include a religious theme are to be prepared by the District Administrator in accord with the policy.

Complaints by students, parents or the public regarding any such course of study are to be handled in accord with the previously discussed policy covering public requests, suggestions or complaints, in which the initial contact of the parent or student would have to be first to the teacher, then to the principal, then to the district administrator, and finally to the school board, if not resolved. That last step could be as much as 30 days after the administrator prepared a written response to the original complaint.

Wendt commented that school board policies are supposed to reflect the values of the community they serve. He said when he and Board Member Scott Herzog checked elementary student lists of things they are most grateful for, they found that “God” and “Jesus” were at the top of the list.

“This policy basically had two paragraphs, and now we have three pages,” Wendt declared. “I can’t see how that simplifies anything! People are scared in school now to talk about religion because of issues on the national level!”

The two policies were excluded from the list approved for second readings. The remainder, expected to be adopted at the December board meeting, cover a proposal from the activities committee for handling creation of a new school sport, homeless students, access for non district sponsored student clubs and activities, and staff use of communication devices.

There were first readings of anti-harrassment policy revisions as they apply to employees and students, handling of student records, regulation of animals on district properties, and revisions of policies on school visitors and public attendance at school events.

If adopted as written, any new sport or activity needs prior approval from the Athletic Director before coming to the board for consideration. There will be a three year probationary period, after which the sport or activity can come to the board to demonstrate participation and sustainability, and the board will determine if it is to be funded and if it is to be a school sponsored activity for the coming year. Students participating can earn their “letter” during the probationary period. The district will provide transportation and pay WIAA fees, but sponsors will cover other costs during the probationary period, which can be extended beyond the three years if the board sees fit.

WIAA itself caused some dismay for the board and the district by unilaterally assigning Oneida Nation School District to the M&O Conference, of which Coleman is a member and High School Principal Doug Polomis is president.

Polomis said the first knowledge he had of the conference realignment came in a recent letter from the WIAA. Nothing was said about realignment at a meeting they attended in Antigo on Sept. 17, and then the WIAA did the realignments with no M&O representatives present or informed. Polomis and M&O Conference Commissioner Dave Collins had written to the WIAA Board of Control informing them they will be sending conference officials to Stevens Point on Friday, Dec. 6 to appeal the proposal in person.

He said on Oct. 30 all of the current conference principals and athletic directors voted unanimously to appeal the proposal. He said objections are mainly due to the distance involved, over an hour’s drive from six of the nine schools in the conference. This mileage means each school in the conference would incur about $1,300 in additional travel expenses each year, and athletes would miss more hours of school time even though there are well-established opponents much closer. Also, the conference itself would need to spend more for changing conference medals, conference certificates and gymnasium banners, which added to the travel costs would mean spending $15,000. There would be little benefit, he said, because Oneida Nation only offers extra curricular activities in sports, and then in only three of those - boys and girls basketball, volleyball and softball. Bringing Oneida Nation into the M&O would eliminate wrestling as a conference sport, Polomis said.

He added he had called the Oneida Nation principal, who told him assignment to the M&O came as a surprise to him, and wasn’t something his school district had been pursuing. They currently are not members of a conference, but many of the M&O officials felt they would fit better into the Packerland Conference.

Ironically, Peshtigo School Board at its last meeting agreed to seek withdrawal from the M&O and admission to the Packerland Conference. One of the concerns was the possibility of some schools in the M&O going to 8-man football.

“If any of you know a WIAA Board of Control member, please let them know our position on this,” Polomis urged.

Wendt asked Polomis to contact Peshtigo to find out why they want to leave the M&O. “It would be sad to see our biggest rivalry disappear out of the conference,” he commented. Peshtigo was one of the original members when the M&O Conference was formed 83 years ago.

In other business:

*Walters said he will contact Peshtigo National Bank to see if they can get a better return on the investment of the $160,000 donated to the district for scholarships last year by George Hanson. Wendt said he had spoken with Keith Shallow and was told they will give a better interest rate because of what the money is to be used for.

*Jeremy Brady and several of his business marketing students reported enthusiastically on their participation in the Mini Business World competition sponsored by UW-Marinette and the Marinette Menominee Chamber of Commerce. Two Coleman students took first place for competition efforts. Coleman had 10 students participating, largest representation of any of the schools involved. Brady has been invited to join in planning for next year’s event.

*Polomis congratulated high school students Tori Bushmaker, Sadie Duckert, Rebecca Risner, Tess Rosner, Joey Styczynski and Alex Tisler for being inducted into the Coleman National Honor Society. The ceremony was organized by advisor Mrs. Sarah Thomas.

*Polomis reported the eighth grade students had a great trip to Washington, D.C. and thanked Jake Buschman, Jen Kopp and numerous parents who chaperoned the trip.

*He also reported that during the All School pep assembly for the Level II football game the district presented a $1,500 check to Bay Area Medical Center to assist in cancer research and another check for over $3,200 to Ginny O’Harrow of Oconto Falls, who is fighting Stage 2 breast cancer. He gave special thanks to Tricia Zeitler, Nikki Kaiser, and Robin Rohde, who helped organize the event.

*Students from Mr. Brady and Mr. Winters classes toured the state capital and the Wisconsin Veterans museum in Madison on Wednesday, Nov. 6. “Surprisingly,” Polomis said, “this was the first year they were able to access Governor Walker’s office on the tour.”

*On Thursday, Nov. 7, Mr. Jahnke, Mr. Tate and Mr. Walters and 30 students toured Marinette Marine and Silvan Industries in Marinette.

*Polomis reported the Veterans Day ceremony went well and students under the direction of Mr. Winters did an amazing job. Martina Kostreva read an emotional letter from a family member who lost their brother in the Vietnam War.

*On Tuesday, Nov. 12, students from Mr. Reisnsbach and Mr. Brady’s classes toured B&D Dairy. Polomis particularly thanked Brian Lepianka and his family for providing a personal tour of their facility.

*Walters reported the district was recently honored by the Wisconsin School Public Relations Association (WSPRA) with two Spectrum Awards of Merit for its work in school communications at its recent annual conference in Green Lake. The Coleman School District earned an Award of Merit for Walters’ “blog” on the internet, and won a second Award of Merit for the 100th Year Video the district put together for the district’s centennial.

*The board viewed proposed design for a sign that will identify the “Ken Casper Ball Complex - Community Built,” but postponed action until next month because some of the people involved were not present.

*The board rejected a proposal to apply to the DNR for assistance in managing the school forest. Board Member Jamie Graetz was particularly concerned that if they sign up for the program they will be obligated to have timber harvested when the DNR says, and will be subject to restrictions that might be imposed on future use. “There’s no tax benefit, and there’s no income benefit,” Graetz commented before he moved to drop the idea. “Why waste time on it?” His motion carried without dissent.

*Unless money can be found to repair them, it appears the school’s tennis courts, built in the 60s or 70s, will be closed. They are no longer being used for classes, but had been available for use by students and the general public. The surface is breaking up and they are deemed to be unsafe, so use has become a liability issue. The village was offered ownership, but refused, and the school district no longer uses them for classes. Former phy ed instructor Bonnie Beamer said they were used for tennis classes in the past, and there is grant money for repair. She said the U.S. Tennis Association donated all the nets and racquets. There was some board discussion on putting them to other uses. Building Committee Chair Roger Heisel said they will need to be torn up and done over. The grant application being prepared by Building and Grounds Director Wayne Gross requires information on how many people use them, which is difficult to gather because they can’t be played on safely.

*When reviewing vouchers at the start of the meeting, Herzog questioned the number of claims for mileage reimbursement. He noted the District owns four vehicles. Walters said the amount of reimbursement depends on use. The federal rate is 55.5 cents per mile, but the district only reimburses at 35 cents per mile. If the person driving chooses to use their own vehicle when a school car is available they get only 15 cents a mile.

*Elementary principal Kelly Casper reported 150 people participated in the PTO Fall Harvest Fest. She said the group is becoming increasingly active, but there will be no December meeting.

*The annual Elementary Holiday Program will be in the High School gym at 1:45 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 19. At 1 p.m. that day all senior citizens of the district are invited to lunch in the high school cafeteria, and then to attend the program afterward. Charge is $3.75 per meal.

*Casper said she spent “Book It” Day, Friday, Nov. 15, reading to elementary students, and loved every minute of it.

*After concluding regular business, the board went into closed executive session to discuss the Superintendent’s contract.

*At a special meeting starting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8, the board met in closed session to consider the resignation of a staff member and to discuss teacher compensation, payroll and personnel records. After returning to open session they accepted the resignation of Carol Cjhow-Mineau and adjourned at 8:10 p.m.

*At a special meeting starting at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, the board agreed to resolve a need for more help in the District Office by setting aside $13,000 to have the secretaries in the elementary, middle/high school offices help out in the district office. They then went into closed session for superintendent’s evaluation, but took no action after returning to open session at 8:26 p.m.

*At a special meeting on Thursday, Oct. 31 the board heard a Seclusion and Restraint Report. They also certified the tax levy and unanimously approved the 2013-2014 budget at the amounts set by the annual meeting. They then went into closed session to discuss exit interviews and personnel performance. The agenda noted the board might repeat the two agenda items “multiple times as necessary to complete the scheduled exit interviews of employees, thereby reconvening in open session after each closed session.” At 9:34 p.m. they returned to open session a final time and adjourned without taking further action.


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