Amid a series of missteps and public embarrassments – as well as an almost failing grade from the state on the school’s performance – the administration of Lakeland Union High School won support on a variety of issues last week from its school board.
The disputations have played out in the local media and in well-attended public meetings. Nonetheless, the school board issued a statement Friday afternoon defending the administration on a range of matters, from its conduct in hiring a basketball coach to attending a suspect educational conference in Florida to withholding controversial records related to the hiring of the new coach.
In the statement, which the board said was issued by the unanimous consent of the school-board members, the board said district administrator Todd Kleinhans acted as the district’s public spokesman but that the board was responding directly to issues raised in The Lakeland Times.
“The Board of Education only talks when it takes action during meetings,” the release stated. “Be assured that the Board is regularly informed about the newspaper’s requests and we continue to be open to conversation with the paper. Today, we respond directly to the questions that have been raised by the newspaper.”
The statement addressed the state’s recent report card, a trip to China, the Florida Model Schools conference, the basketball coach hiring debacle, and reference checks and public records.
The report card
Earlier this fall, the state Department of Public Instruction issued its new report cards for public schools, ranking each according to its performance in multiple areas.
While most of Wisconsin’s public schools met or exceeded expectations, LUHS was not among them, ranking in the bottom 14.1 percent of the state’s rated schools. With an overall accountability score of 59.8, Lakeland was one of just 190 schools, out of 1,877 rated, to be ranked in the state’s second worst category, ‘Meets Few Expectations.’
Seventy-six other schools lagged behind in the worst category, ‘Failed to Meet Expectations.’
In the statement, the board acknowledged its own responsibility and disappointment in the low grade and pledged to do better. It offered no criticism of the administration and highlighted the school’s few bright spots.
“The fiscal stability of the school district and the performance of students are the main responsibilities of the Board,” the release stated. “The State of Wisconsin has released a new report card to draw attention to the success and shortcomings of schools. LUHS has had several areas of success in recent years. Student performance on national ACT and Advanced Placement scores are up. In 2010, LUHS outscored nearly all schools north of Stevens Point. Also, teachers and administration have helped students improve their academic grades and there is a significant rise in the graduation rate.”
Still, the board underscored the low grade: “We are not satisfied with that result and we intend to do better.”
The release pointed to faults in several areas that resulted in the abysmal rating: reading and math, and truancy.
“Our scores in reading and math need work,” the release stated. “We need to be sure that we close the gap between our average students and those who have challenges. LUHS is currently in the third year of expanded use of study sections and a special academy for entering students who need to catch up to their fellow students. LUHS also needs to improve on students showing up for class. We are working with all interested parties to tackle truancy.”
In its article, The Times outlined those deficiencies, as well as lower than adequate test participation rates, and cited the progress areas mentioned by the school board. After the story appeared, LUHS principal Jim Bouché said in an email that the newspaper “did a great job explaining a very difficult report.”
The school board then addressed a recent trip to China by Kleinhans and two students, which it called “part of a multi-year effort to explore educational opportunities for our students in Asia.”
The Times has written no article about the China trip, though the newspaper has made an open records request for records related to it, and Times publisher Gregg Walker wondered about the reason for it in a passing reference in his column.
“Two years ago, the North Lakeland Elementary School District asked LUHS to join them in an exchange with a school district located in Northern China,” the release stated. “Last year, one of our social studies teacher (sic), Mr. Rortvedt and two high school students participated in the exchange program and this fall the Board supported the trip by Dr. Kleinhans and our students.”
Over the past two decades, the release continued, the board has supported other school experiences that take 20 or more students to Europe and South America during the spring break or summer months.
“Additionally, the school district supports the Rotary and other student exchange programs as a way to expose our students to different cultures outside of northern Wisconsin,” the release stated. “These costs have been covered by fundraising and donations.”
According to the release, the board has directed the district’s curriculum committee to work with Bouché to determine the next steps in “opening an opportunity for our students to experience the most populated country in the World.”
The release did not address why an administrator rather than a classroom teacher made the trip with the students.
The Florida junket
The release moved on to the Model Schools conference, for which LUHS paid almost $20,000 this year for 11 school administrators to head to the Orlando, Florida, area – a half mile from Walt Disney World.
The 20th annual Model Schools Conference, sponsored by the International Center for Leadership in Education, drew more than 6,000 participants to listen to education leaders describe their models, best practices, and next practices.
Dr. Willard Daggett is the founder and chairman of the ICLE. The conference is closely aligned with his so-called Daggett System for Effective Instruction, which has drawn a flock of educators through the years, but the entire system and ICLE have also been criticized as a marketing and promotional scheme for Daggett himself.
As long ago as 1999, the nonprofit John William Pope Center for Education Policy cited reports describing Daggett as a consultant who lied about his resume, gave false information, and charged an exorbitant amount for speeches. That information, the fact that a decade of attending conferences had not produced a better result on the state’s report card, the fact that conference participants dined on steak and lobster and snow crab during the taxpayer-funded trip – none of that dampened the board’s enthusiasm for the conference.
“For nearly ten years, teachers, administrators and a few Board members from area schools have attended the annual Model Schools Conference headed by Dr. Daggett,” the release stated. “The annual conference is usually held in Washington, DC, Nashville or Orlando. Grant money from the federal government to promote staff development and learning best practices has covered the cost of the conference for all district employees. All travel by district employees is reviewed and has been within limits set by Board policy.”
The board said a number of best practices have been brought back to LUHS from the conferences.
“This year, we felt it would be best if the administrative leaders of the four elementary school districts that feed into LUHS go as a group in order that they would have a common experience to use as they work to further improve the transition for our incoming ninth grade students,” the release stated. “The Board will continue to support attendance at these conferences.”
Without question, the most contentious and public spectacle has been that of hiring a new head boys basketball coach. The board twice rejected the administration’s recommendation and hired Rich Fortier instead, who enjoyed majority public support at school board meetings.
In its release, the board said both the administration and board members supported the new coach, and the board defended the administration’s conduct during the hiring process.
“Board policy and past practice were followed as the district completed the search and interview process,” the board stated. “...Dozens of coaches help with more than 30 sports and other after-school activities at LUHS. Some are teachers, some are employees of other districts and many are volunteers from the community. Given the concerns over how Board policy was applied, the district policy committee will review the specific procedures to determine if improvements are needed. We stress that policy was followed this summer during the hiring process.”
The Times has raised multiple questions about that process. Among other things, the newspaper has alleged open-meeting laws violations, and has asked questions about two pages of negative comments about the winning candidate, Rich Fortier, supposedly from former employers, that were circulated to a citizens advisory committee with no formal role in the selection.
In addition, The Times contacted Fortier’s listed references and four other past supervisors, only one of which was called by LUHS. None said they had any made any negative comments about Fortier. The Times subsequently asked for the comments sheets.
LUHS denied that request. The newspaper has sued for the records, and the board in its release said it would support the administration’s efforts to keep them sealed.
“Other legal notices and a recent lawsuit filed by the newspaper have focused specifically on the process used to check out the candidates,” the board stated. “All professional staff submit credentials and references when making application to the school district. In many cases, the district will conduct additional calls and site visits to previous places where a candidate has worked in order to become more knowledgeable about a prospective employee. References are pivotal to getting good employees and the people who offer information to the district need to speak freely. This sense of confidentiality is balanced by the public’s right to a transparent government; all to be sure that we have the best possible candidate for the district.”
State law recognizes that some personnel records and references are confidential, the board stated.
“Each district names a specific person to determine what records should be released to the public and what details should remain confidential,” the release stated. “The Board reviewed webinars from the state attorney general’s office, met with an attorney from our state school Board association and routinely seeks legal counsel from the
District’s own attorneys regarding public records matters.”
The release said the board reviewed the specific details about the Times’ lawsuit at its last meeting and passed a motion to direct the district administrator to work with the district’s legal counsel to defend the claim.
“Our goal is to maintain a process that collects honest comments about a future employee,” the release stated. “To be clear, in this case, all of the Board members support the coach and hope for the success of the team moving forward.”
The board said it understood the complexity of the issue and would post all of the district’s legal filings on the district website.
In closing, the board said its task was to use tax dollars in a responsible manner.
“The Board, administration, teachers and staff are all focused on improving upon that success,” the release stated. “Our district mission and vision are also located on the website for your review. We remain open to questions from the Lakeland Times. Similary, we encourage anyone to contact us with questions, concerns or ideas.”
Richard Moore may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.