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Lawsuit seeks to open the book on closed-door meeting

By   /   August 16, 2013  /   4 Comments

By Alyssa Hertig | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — An Appleton Area School District committee charged with reviewing and recommending a reading list for the public school system’s ninth-graders proved anything but an open book, according to the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

In a lawsuit against the school district, Milwaukee-based WILL, a libertarian-leaning public interest firm, asserts the Communication Arts I Materials Review Committee met in secret before handing down its fiction recommendations to a subcommittee of the Appleton School Board.

“They didn’t follow the open meetings law” said Tom Kamenick, associate counsel and open government specialist at WILL. “These meetings were completely closed off to the public; they didn’t know anything about it until John started asking questions.”

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THIS BOOK IS OK: One of the books recommended by an Appleton curriculum committee that met in secret, according to a lawsuit by a conservative public interest group.

The “John” in question, is Appleton resident John Krueger, who has a child in the district and brought the meetings to WILL’s attention. He exchanged emails with the principal. The principal wrote back saying the informal meetings with the 17-member committee, made up of district administrators, teachers and staff, did not fall under state open meeting laws.

Au contraire, argues WILL in the lawsuit.

“An order or rule creating a committee need not be formal,” the lawsuit states. “The open meetings law cannot be evaded by resort to informal directives.”

“When school boards create these committees to change school curriculum, they have to be open to the public.” Kamenick said.

Wisconsin’s open meetings law requires “all meetings of all state and local governmental bodies shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public and shall be open to all citizens at all times unless otherwise expressly provided by law.”

The curriculum committee met “a number of times” between October 2011 and April 2012, according to the lawsuit.

Members were tasked with making a list of approximately 93 fiction books, reading them, accessing their suitability to meet various curricular needs and forwarding a recommended final list to the School Board’s programs and services subcommittee. The review was “In light of New Common Core State Standards-English Language Arts,” according to subsequent School Board meeting minutes included in the court documents.

The committee whittled down the list to 24 books, literature that would “contain no profanities or obscenities, and contain no sexualized content,” according to the School Board meeting minutes.  None of the meetings were preceded by a meeting notice, the lawsuit charges.

Perhaps more galling to Appleton taxpayers is the cost of the 12 books — $17,300, according to the minutes.

WILL and Krueger earlier filed a complaint against the district with Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen and the Outagamie County District Attorney. The prosecutors failed to respond within the 20 day deadline, so WILL and Krueger followed up with the lawsuit.

District administrators could not be reached for comment Friday morning.

Kamenick insists WILL is not seeking to hold curriculum committee members personally responsible. The lawsuit is more about sending a message.

“We just want a judge to say this was a violation of the open law and pass this information to other districts in Wisconsin” Kamenick told Wisconsin Reporter. “We’re really hoping to get a message out statewide.”

And the message appears to be spreading. Kamenick said soon after Krueger’s complaint, a Pulaski woman contacted her local school board about budget meetings allegedly conducted outside the public eye. In this case, the superintendent agreed to conform with the law, Kamenick said.

“This is the kind of thing we want to see more of,” he said.

Contact Alyssa Hertig at ahertig@wisconsinreporter.com

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Kittle is a 25-year veteran of radio, newspaper and online journalism. In July 2011, Kittle joined Watchdog.org as bureau chief for Wisconsin Reporter. He has spent much of the past three years covering the seismic political changes taking place in the Badger State. Last year, Kittle joined Watchdog’s national reporting team, covering everything from energy policy to governmental assaults on civil rights. Beyond being published in Wisconsin’s daily newspapers and in multimedia news outlets, Kittle’s work has appeared on Fox News, and in Human Events, Reason Magazine, Newsmax and Town Hall. His special investigation into a politically charged John Doe probe, “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. Kittle has made several appearances on Fox News, including “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. He serves as weekly politics commentator for Lake 96.1 FM in Lake Geneva, and WRJN-AM 1400 in Racine. His resume includes multiple awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, Wisconsin Broadcast Association and other journalism associations. Contact Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org.

  • DAVID HOFFMAN

    Congratulations on the oversight…you must constantly be vigulent as most School Dist and Sities do not clearly understand the Law and it’s intent. They believe that it’s inconvienent to have so many in the public know what’s going on until they have already agreed to it…It’s kind of like not “knowing what’s in the soup” but being handed it and told that it’s good for you and it is the right thing for you…but never knowing what’s actually in it so you can ask a question…

  • oatka

    I’d file a lawsuit over the $1,400 each price tag. It would be interesting to see if the seller is related to, or is a lodge brother of, etc. any of the committe members.

  • Len Mullen

    School systems act without conscience or fear confident taxpayers will not sue themselves. Thus, suits are only from the outside. In Plaistow, New Hampshire a school board including current chair Rob Collins sealed the minutes of a meeting in which Richard LaSalle informed the school board that Immigrations and Customs was going to charge a middle school phys ed instructor and girl’s soccer coach with downloading child pornography. The school board voted to let the predator continue to prowl the locker rooms for fourteen months then sealed the meeting minutes for 99 years. The instructor has since been convicted and is serving time. The enablers continue to prowl our school systems and the minutes continue to be sealed.

  • Guardians of Education

    If your school district is a Unified District they are operating as a corporate body which the WI Constitution states must be a Common District. There are 43 Unified districts in WI They have no annual meetings and do not have to allow input on budget matters They can not be petitioned as a common district can. If your district is unified then go to referendum and take back control of the purse strings.