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Oconomowoc schools investigating marketing director who did consulting work during business hours

By   /   December 22, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

OCONOMOWOC, Wis. – Oconomowoc Area School District Superintendent Roger Rindo tells Wisconsin Watchdog there will be an investigation into work done by Kate Winckler, the district’s director of Communications & Marketing, for the Cambridge school district in advance of its Nov. 8 spending referendum. 

Records obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog appear to show Winkler doing consulting work for Cambridge while on the clock for Oconomowoc.

“We’ll continue to investigate in our fact-finding until we can reach some logical conclusions, and then we’ll take whatever actions we deem necessary,” Rindo said Thursday.

On March 15, Winckler signed an agreement under the company name School Creatives with the Cambridge school district to provide public relations expertise, including creating and editing promotional materials. She was paid $1,572.50 by Cambridge for the work.

In Wisconsin, school districts can ask voters to exceed state-imposed revenue caps designed to keep property taxes down.The Cambridge referendum for an additional $1.6 million annually was approved with 65 percent of the vote.

Photo by WSPRA.org

‘ONE-TIME PROJECT’: Kate Winckler, marketing director for Oconomowoc schools, says she did her best to confine her consulting work to after school hours.

During the time Winckler was consulting for the Cambridge school district, the Oconomowoc school district also was going to referendum to ask voters to approve $54.9 million in borrowing for new construction and school renovations. That referendum was approved 55 percent to 45 percent.

An open records request of the Cambridge school district asking for all email communications between Winckler and the Cambridge school district prior to Nov. 14 show Winckler sending more than 40 emails and doing work for the Cambridge during the Oconomowoc district’s normal business hours.

For example, on Oct. 7 at 8:25 a.m., Winckler responded to a request from Mary Kay Raether, a Cambridge schools employee, to check over the design of “business cards” to be handed out at Homecoming events, saying she liked the design. Raether, responded nearly an hour later asking if the cards were “too busy.” At 1:07 p.m., Winckler agreed and offered to make changes. At 3:28 p.m., Winckler sent the revised cards back to Raether for approval.

The Oconomowoc district does not have a policy against employees doing work for other school districts.

“There isn’t anything specific in the contract,” Rindo said. “I need to do a thorough policy review as part of the investigation here.”

Oconomowoc School Board president Donald Wiemer said he supported an investigation.

“I believe it’s something that needs to be followed up on,” Wiemer said. “But it would be under the jurisdiction of the superintendent because we don’t get boggered down in what the employees can do or can’t do; that’s why we have the superintendent. I believe he will probably look into this.”

“You did your homework,” Wiemer said of Watchdog’s reporting.

Cambridge school district administrator Bernard Nikolay said he was aware of Winckler working for the Oconomowoc Area School District, but Winckler “said she would still be able to run some assistance so we did work with her again,” Nikolay said. He also noted that the district contracted with her for public relations services because she had done work for the school system in 2012.

Nikolay said that the emails back and forth with Winckler during work hours didn’t trigger any concern on his part.

“I don’t really recollect when she responded,” Nikolay said. “I know we met with her early and late so I don’t really know about when she responded, if that was after hours or not. I didn’t really pay too close attention.”

The meetings and calls were not always after business hours.

Photo from Oconomowoc Area School District

FACT-FINDING: Oconomowoc Superintendent Roger Rindo said he will investigate work district marketing director Kate Winckler did for another school district, apparently in part on the Oconomowoc clock.

On Feb. 24, Winckler told Nikolay that she was free the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 26, and they agreed to meet at 3:15 p.m. It was the first meeting to discuss her consulting. At 11:48 a.m. on June 14, Nikolay sent an email asking Winckler if she was available for a teleconference. Winckler sent an email at 1:35 p.m. on Wednesday, June 15 to Nikolay to set the call for 8 a.m. the following day.  

Nikolay also said that the timing of the emails and calls was not his issue.

“That’s more her concern than my concern,” Nikolay said. “And her employer’s concern.”

“We were glad to get responses from her when we got them,” he said. “We certainly didn’t put demands on her to do it during the school day, but I assume she’s a professional person and I know she works for a good school district and I assume they had those conversations about that.” Nikolay added he had no way of knowing if Winckler spoke to the Oconomowoc school district about her consulting work.

Rindo denied being told anything about Winckler’s outside consulting work.

“I have no knowledge of any additional work,” he said.

SEE RELATED: ‘Just a guy’ attempts to stop Oconomowoc referendum

In response to repeated requests for an interview, Winckler said in email, “I’ll return the call after I’m done working for the day.” She later declined to be interviewed and only offered the following statement:

“I have had a professional relationship with Bernie Nickolay at Cambridge for a few years and worked with him on a prior referendum when I was self-employed. Last year, Bernie approached me and asked for help with their 2016 referendum.

“I agreed, under the condition that the work would be temporary and have to take place outside the scope of my full-time job at Oconomowoc. I did my best to keep the work confined to evenings, weekends, and the occasional lunch break during the day when I could answer an email or take a phone call. I love my job at Oconomowoc and have no reason to, nor frankly any extra time to, infringe on that primary work. I have no other clients, and do not actively pursue any additional consulting work. This was a one-time project. The LLC you see is for tax and record-keeping purposes only.”

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James Wigderson is a Wisconsin-based reporter for Watchdog. He is also an online contributor to MacIver Institute and RightWisconsin, blogs at the Wigderson Library and Pub, and was formerly an award-winning local columnist for the Waukesha Freeman. James is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. He lives in Waukesha, WI, with his wife Doreen and their children.