DARLINGTON – The basketball coach in Nathan Russell didn’t like it when the Six Rivers Conference voted last March to break up his team, but there was little he could do to stop it from happening.
The lawyer in Nathan Russell didn’t like the way the whole process went down, and in that regard he felt there was something he could do about that.
On Tuesday, Dec. 29, Russell got his day in court against the Six Rivers Conference, and Lafayette County Judge Duane Jorgenson ruled in favor of Russell deciding that the secret ballot vote by the superintendents of the 14 Six Rivers schools to deny the continuation of the Benton/Shullsburg girls’ basketball co-op last March had violated Wisconsin Open Meetings Law.
Russell’s complaint was he felt the superintendents’ meeting constituted a government meeting because of the schools who were involved and resources they collectively hold, and as such, was subject to open meetings laws.
His complaint included four parts: 1– no public notice was given for the meeting, 2– a secret ballot was held for the vote, which is not allowed for such a vote, 3– they had walking quorums before the meeting with schools discussing the vote prior to the meeting, and 4– it was not held in a public place.
Judge Jorgenson ruled that the Six Rivers Conference is indeed a governmental body and, because it is a governmental body, it serves governmental function and thus has to abide by opening meetings law, at least at the superintendents’ level.
The Benton/Shullsburg co-op’s renewal was voted on by the Six Rivers’ athletic directors and the Six Rivers’ principals as well as the Six Rivers’ superintendents, but since the superintendents’ vote is the only one that really mattered that meeting was subject to opening meetings law.
The court ruled the March meeting should have been posted and open to the public, and that any vote taken that day should not have been done by secret ballot.
Parts three and four of Russell’s complaint weren’t ruled on since the court had already decided on the first two parts.
With the April 1 deadline for filing a winter sports co-op with the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) long passed and the prep basketball season already in full swing, the ruling has little effect on any co-op arrangement between Benton and Shullsburg for the 2015-16 season.
However, the ruling could effect how the Six Rivers Conference and all conferences around the state conduct their business in the future since any time school superintendents get together to make decisions which impact member school districts, those meetings will have to be posted and held in public.
The Six Rivers Conference will have a chance to appeal the ruling once all the motions have been filed with the court.
While Russell admits he felt the co-op was broken up for the wrong reasons, he added his decision to bring suit against the Six Rivers stemmed from his belief that it was done the wrong way according to the state of Wisconsin’s open and fair government action laws.
“I specifically didn’t like school districts outside of Benton and Shullsburg tell them what to do without any public notice,” said Russell.
Russell, who coached the co-op to a 67-31 overall record and two Six Rivers West titles during its four-season run, currently has his Shullsburg team in first-place in the Six Rivers West and ranked #7 in Division 5 with a 12-1 record, while Benton, which coached by former co-op assistant coach Lisa Lawrence, has posted an 8-6 record so far this season.
Whether the two schools join back together in the future will be up to both school boards and another Six Rivers Conference vote.