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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org