The board of education for the Arbor Vitae-Woodruff School District voted Monday for the non-renewal of two district teachers, Lori Blank and Mike Belis.
One of the teachers, Blank, has been with the district since the school was where One Penny Place in Woodruff is now.
She was hired initially as a kindergarten teacher and over the years, has also taught first and third grades along with pre-kindergarten.
Blank has also, over the years, worked with students in those age brackets in the area of special education.
It's that longevity, along with what many people said she has done for their kids over the course of her time at AV-W during the public forum of Monday's meeting, that helped create an audience of just over 100 people, there to offer her their support.
'Remember that next election'
The meeting was called to order, for legal reasons, by school board president Jack Jurries in the normal school board meeting room.
However, because of the number of people, it was moved to the library.
The first item in the public forum portion of the meeting was a presentation from members of the eighth grade art class about their trip to Minneapolis in March.
Next, Jurries asked how many people wanted to speak on the Blank matter.
"I'd like to make sure everyone has enough time," he said. "I want to set some sort of a time frame on this. I figure maybe two minutes a person, to be fair, because we want to hear what everyone has to say."
Ty Peterson, a Vilas County sheriff's deputy at the meeting with his wife Kathleen and their three children, said he had more than two minutes worth of material.
After he said that, several people in the audience spoke up, saying Peterson could have their two minutes.
"Two minutes a person, please," Jurries said. "Thank you. That is quite a bit of time."
Peterson asked if he could go first and Mark Coron, an AV-W parent there with his son Ajay and wife Denise, spoke up.
"If other people are willing to give up their time for him, let him speak," he said to the board. "I mean ... c'mon. They're willing to give up their time, let him talk."
"Because if I was the only one to speak, it would be two minutes?" Peterson asked Jurries. "And you'd say that was too much time? So, let's just say no one else wants to speak. I want to speak. So, I only get two minutes."
"I'd like to set it for two minutes a person," Jurries said. "I'm sorry. From then on out ... if we have 30 people that want to talk, everyone should get their time."
People spoke out in favor of Peterson being able to use other peoples' two minutes.
"I can set this time here," Jurries said. "I'm sorry but the fact of the matter is, we'd like to set this for a reasonable time."
"Remember that next election," someone said from the audience.
"Two minutes a person, please," Jurries said.
Despite his effort, though, not all of those who spoke over the course of the next hour kept their comments to two minutes, starting with Peterson.
Peterson: convincing needed
"My name is Ty Peterson and I have a lot more than two minutes to say because I feel the community deserves more than two minutes," Peterson said, an opening comment that received the first round of applause during that part of the public forum.
He said there are three sides to every story.
"His side, her side and the truth lies somewhere in the middle," Peterson said. "I've heard Lori Blank's story and now, I just need to have the school board try to convince me of theirs."
He said he'd had an opportunity to go through Blank's personnel file earlier that day.
"If I had enough time, I would show you, the public, that there is nothing in here, in my opinion, that's grounds for dismissal," Peterson said. "She has been late with paperwork several times. She has been instructed of the problem at which time, she corrected it immediately."
When talking personnel files, he said, he wanted to make sure the school district understood it could only keep one personnel file.
"You have a hard copy and an electronic file," Peterson said. "If the school made a decision totally on what was in here, then it is absolutely ridiculous. I have a feeling that was brought up in their decision that wasn't brought up in here (the file)."
He then asked the school board if each of them had gone through Blank's file.
"Because that's what I did," Peterson said. "I went through every piece of paper going back to 1996. From '96 to 2014, zero disciplinary entries. From 2014 to 2016, there were several emails about instruction."
The 2014 time frame was when AV-W and several other districts around the state entered into a pilot program through the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction geared toward reviews of teacher performance.
The year 2015 is when the program was fully implemented at AV-W.
"Lori Blank said 'My personnel file is open,'" he said. "'I have done nothing wrong. Everything they have asked of me, I have completed.' She has never wronged a single child. The only thing she's done is she hasn't been able to comply with a couple of paperwork requests they made."
Jurries called time on Peterson but Heidi Fink said Peterson could have her two minutes and moved to the front of the room and stood next to him.
"Jack, you gonna go with this, please?" he asked.
"Go ahead," Jurries said, officially ending the two minute per person limit.
"I appreciate that," Peterson said.
"Well, Heidi's up there so ..." Jurries said.
Peterson continued, saying he went through all the things he would call negative in Blank's file between 1996 and 2014, the first item being she misplaced a student for about 15 minutes.
"Now, when I say 'lost a kid,' a kid had snuck out of her room, was gone 15 minutes, she found him and brought him back," he said. "There are plenty of teachers in the same school that have lost a kid. I lose my kids three, four times a day. It was entered in her file as it should be. No problems there whatsoever."
Other than that, Peterson said, there were no negative entries between 1996 and 2014.
"The next thing they talked about is that she was not meeting expectations," he said. "That was in ... Feb. 22. It says, 'Required expectations.' They go to list the four expectations."
Those expectations were keeping her website updated, her professional goal setting mid-year reviews completed, a survey completed and crew planning templates.
By March 28, Peterson said those had been completed.
"She is coming to me and saying, 'Everything they've asked, I have done,'" he said. "Again, I go through here and make a list of 21 years and I have ... one entry, deservedly, one entry. The rest of these? Paperwork."
Peterson acknowledged that in July 2016, Blank was put on a plan to make progress.
"That is not in her personnel file," he said. "What I fear, is when I look in this personnel file, in my opinion, which is simply what it is, there's nothing in here that is grounds for dismissal. Everything that you have documented, everything the school has documented in here, there's no grounds for dismissal. You can say 'Act 10 and we have more power and we can do what we want to do.' I fear the information you were given when you made your decision, might have been outside of this (the file)."
Peterson said he wanted the board's side of the story but said he understood the meeting was not the time or place.
"But I need you to convince me, as a taxpayer, as a father, as a parent ..." he began.
"And the rest of us," Mark Coron interrupted.
"... on what grounds she's being terminated for," Peterson said. "We can look on here and say 'She was on this plan and these are things made up.' The documentation I have here, whether wrong or not, it's in her personnel file, states that she has done the things that have been requested of her."
He said if the board based its non-renewal decision on misinformation, any information outside the file, "the school could open themselves up to a lawsuit."
"The board and the administration has made a huge mistake in non-renewing Lori Blank," Peterson said. "The good news is, you have an opportunity to reinstate her. You have an opportunity to say, 'We need to revisit this. We need to look at it a little closer.' If there's any part of you that's thinking, 'Man, you know what? Maybe we need to take a better look at this.' That is what I want to get out of this. When you look at the things listed that she did wrong, none of those are a direct impact on our kids. I won't say they aren't important. Administrative paperwork is important. I understand that."
He said he told Blank if he was going to stick his neck out for her, he had to see the personnel record.
"'Did you hit a kid?'" Peterson said. "'Did you swear at a kid? Did you curse at a kid? Is there a stack this big? Do they have a history of case file against you?' Because I'm not gonna stick my neck out. She said 'Ty, it's wide open. Dig as deep as you want.' And that's what I did. None of the things she did wrong impacted our children. All she has done, every day for 21 years, is go into that classroom and shut (out) everything else. We all have personal problems. Crazy personal problems. She isn't exempt from that but when she walks through the threshold of those doors, the rest of that goes away and she has eight hours dedicated to those little people, dedicated to them 100 percent. If you can show me all the things where she's wronged our children and she's such a poor teacher, then I will stand in front of you and say, 'Absolutely. She deserves to go.' No problems. So, convince me."
He said he had one last thing to say.
"It's just like a business," Peterson said. "Everybody wants to run the school like a business. We get paid for performance, we've got evaluations."
He then spoke to Jurries directly.
"Jack, you know if you have a good employee, you're gonna do everything that you can to keep that employee on," Peterson said. "If he makes mistakes ... I make mistakes every three and a half minutes. My wife will tell me that for sure. I screw up all the time. You have a good employee. You're gonna do everything in your power to keep that person on. Even if it means sticking your neck out for them and that's what we have to do for Lori."
He reiterated to that point, the school board had failed to show him anything in her personnel file to support its non-renewal of Blank.
The board was then asked from a member of the audience if it had read letters of support for Blank.
Jurries said the board had but its members weren't supposed to take away from the time for people to speak.
"I would welcome the opportunity to talk to all of you, any of you," Peterson said. "It's like Lori said, she's wide open. If she's done something wrong, bring it to us, show us and show that it is documented well enough that this is a teacher you're going to be getting rid of. You might get rid of Lori Blank and you might not have a problem. You might find someone else that can hand in the paperwork on time. But you are never going to replace that teacher in the classroom."
His final comment was met with another rousing round of applause and standing ovation.
As a whole, Peterson's comments set the tone for the rest of those who spoke, including current AV-W student Ajay Coron, among those upset at the prospect of one of the teachers he'd had a few years before being removed from the school district teaching staff.
Others were parents who had been students at the old school and now have college-age children who had been students of Blank's, a couple of those children actually at the meeting.
Still others spoke of Blank's work with children with special needs and how positive the experience was for their children.
Ultimately, the effort to save Blank's job wasn't enough as those in the audience got an answer as to what it was, at least publicly, that led to Blank's non-renewal.
A few minutes after the public forum was concluded, the board took up the agenda item for notice of non-renewals.
District administrator Jocelyn Smith said there were two non-renewals, Blank's being one.
"As you know, you have charged me with the task of implementing the educator correctiveness model, which has been instituted through the state of Wisconsin," she said. "I'm also in charge of making sure our teacher performance model was in place. That being said, each certified staff member is required to meet certain expectations on both those performance models."
Smith said the state outlines six different strands that each of AV-W's teachers needs to be in line with.
"That being said, everyone in our building is in the process through the Wisconsin State Educator Effectiveness Model," she said. "That means they're all required to do the same things - the surveys, the student observations, they have a student learning objective they need to meet ... they have artifacts for each of the strands."
As an evaluator, Smith said, she's required to look at that information for each teacher "in order to determine whether that teacher is being effective or not.
"If a teacher is not being effective, they are then placed, based on these six strands, based on the criteria laid out by the state of Wisconsin and if a teacher is not meeting that criteria, they are put on an improvement plan," she said. "An improvement plan specifically highlights which areas of those six strands are not being met."
Smith said for those individual strands not being met, she meets with the teacher at length and at multiple times during the year to go over support structures put in place and the responsibilities of the teacher.
"This happens for anyone who is not meeting expectations," she said. "We have a September check, we have an October check, we have a January check and we have a May check. There's four checkpoints throughout the year where all the teachers and I meet, we go over the expectations."
Those teachers not meeting the expectations, Smith said, are essentially put on a different cycle that includes more observation.
"Anyone not meeting those expectations by the mid-year check in January, is then talked about with the board and that point, the board has that information on how that teacher is not meeting expectations," she said. "They also have information on what steps have been taken by the teacher and what steps have been taken by the administration to ensure the teachers are being supported."
Smith said in-house support structures for teachers include three professional development days each year that feature elements of the required teacher effectiveness model and the days are designed to basically give teachers extra time to get any required work done.
The non-renewals were handled by the school board with separate motions and voted on unanimously using a voice vote.
When it came time to vote on the motion for Blank's non-renewal from school board member Brad Walbruck, board member Pat Cirese was the only one of the five to hesitate before casting a yes vote.
Following the vote, the audience filed out of the room as the school board meeting continued, several hugging Blank before they went out the door.
Peterson, in the back of the room, was among those heard to say he hoped the district had a good attorney.
'I'm at a loss for words'
After the meeting, Jurries was asked what he was thinking, as a school board member, as he listened to all the support for Blank.
"Well, I was thinking people have a lot of attachments having children in school," he said. "Being on the board, we're trying to create a setting to continue to move on. I have to look to my administrative team to build that. They've put many things in place to help people move things through and expectations that are needed to be met."
As for any litigation that might be brought against the school board and the district, Jurries said he wasn't too concerned, maintaining his position of support for district administration.
"I think that Jocelyn has done what she needs to do to take care of any kind of issues with this," he said. "I just know as an administrative team, they do a lot of things to help people out and especially when they (teachers) are put on an improvement plan because they're not taking care of certain things. It's not like they're put on an improvement plan and we're just trying to move people out. The administration is trying to help. I'm sure there's documentation on all of it."
As far as the people saying they would remember what happened when election time rolls around again, Jurries said he wasn't worried about that, either.
"They talk about this being a very thankless job," he said. "This is one of those circumstances."
Blank said she couldn't give much information because of the possibility of any possible litigation on her part against the district.
"I've been advised not to say a lot because I haven't been given anything by the board in writing," she said. "Everything I have heard has been like this - verbal and I'm not OK with that. It needs to be done in writing. That's what the policy is."
Blank said with regard to any teacher effectiveness type reports, everything she's received has been "glowing stars."
"Did I miss templates and stuff?" she said. "Absolutely. I'm not going to lie to the community."
Blank said what she's really feeling is hurt.
"More than anything," she said. "I don't know what to say because the kids of those board members have been students of mine. I've had ... I don't know. I just don't know what to say. I'm at a loss for words, to be honest. Twenty-one years of dedication to one building and it comes down to that. There's got to be something more."
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.