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Lawyer addresses local school board on roles
from a legal perspective
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Attorney Eileen Brownlee spent well over an hour addressing the North Crawford School Board on their roles from a legal perspective.

At one point, Brownlee observed if everybody followed the ‘Golden Rule’ and applied some common sense she’d be out of a job. Then, she smiled and added, “I don’t foresee that happening anytime soon.”

The attorney, who serves as the district’s contracted lawyer, began by telling the board she would discuss their roles in terms of relationships with others. She outlined four different relationships for board members, first with each other as fellow  board members, second with the school administration, third with the school’s staff and finally with the public.

Being prepared for meetings, as a board member, was one of the first things she discussed.

“It’s disheartening to the district administrator to see board members opening their packets at the meeting and realizing they have not yet seen what has been prepared for them,” Brownlee said. “It’s just plain discourteous.”

The attorney also counseled the board members to be prepared to vote on the tough decisions including things like expulsions, staff reductions and non-renewal of staff contracts.

“If you can vote you vote,” Brownlee said. “It’s not fair to the people who elected you and to your fellow board members to skip the tough votes (by abstaining).”

However, the lawyer was quick to note that sometimes, board members simply cannot vote. She cited board members’ children receiving scholarships and spouses having salaries decided as two examples.

Brownlee told the board that the law defines a conflict of interest for a board member as anything from which they or their spouse would stand to gain. It also includes anything a family member or other person who depends on the board member for 50 percent or more of their support. This can include children, parents or anyone else. While that is a legal definition of a conflict of interest, the district or a municipality may spell out a more stringent conflict of interest policy in rules they adopt.

Brownlee told the board that as a general rule “if part of it is a conflict all of it is a conflict.” She informed the board members that the conflict starts with the discussion and those with a conflict of interest must refrain from urging their point of view in addition to abstaining from voting on the matter.

“What if you have a child working for the district?’ asked board member Judy Powell. At the last meeting her son, Jerred Powell, was approved as the new director of transportation for North Crawford School District.

Brownlee said there was no conflict of interest from a legal point of view, if the employee was not dependent on his or her parents for support.

The attorney also reviewed with the board the necessity of seeing their actions as setting precedents for future actions. She told the board what they did for one person, they would have to do for another unless there was a good reason not to do so. She cautioned that not following precedents is how discrimination suits are created.

Brownlee also cautioned the board about taking up complaints brought to them by the public. She told the board members to familiarize themselves with the district’s complaint policy and refer individuals to the appropriate person to hear their complaint.

“It doesn’t start with the board,” Brownlee said of employee investigations, parent complaints and other matters.

“You cannot wear 10 hats at the same time,” she told the board. “You cannot be the investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury. That’s not due process.”

Brownlee also cautioned individual board members not to make promises on behalf of the board. She told the board that when the meeting was adjourned they had no more rights that anyone else and no less.

Brownlee also had some advice for the board on closed sessions.

“Keep closed session matters closed,” she said. “Those things shouldn't be discussed with anyone. I don’t care to whom you’re talking that includes spouses and kids. It can lead to big problems.”

Brownlee noted that the law prohibits the disclosure of things like student records and disciplinary actions.

Brownlee said in small communities it is not uncommon for 98 percent of the community to know what student is involved in an expulsion hearing.

“Everybody knows anyway, but not from you,” Brownlee emphasized.

Brownlee said the school district handbook, which gained prominence in 2011 after the adoption of Act 10 largely eliminated union contracts, remains a work in progress. She noted it must be modified to fit changing laws. The most recent changes to truancy laws and election laws will now have to be written into the handbook. Teacher evaluations are another area of change that will need to be addressed with policy, according to the attorney.

Some areas are matters of state law like staff grievances and accusation of harassment or bullying, but many others are subject to district policy and the treatment of either can be different.

Brownlee also briefly discussed the difference between the criminal system and the school system. Individuals are afforded certain rights under the criminal system that they do not have as employees of the district, the attorney explained. The major difference is the employer can force the employee to answer questions as a condition of employment that the court system cannot. The district can also fire the individual based on those answers, but then may not be able to report those answers to the legal system.

In answer to a question about a board member being involved with contracts for service with the district, Brownlee told the board that $15,000 was the limit for any elected official to contract with the district or municipality. Brownlee said any elected official contracting for $15,000 or more with the governing body they serve was committing a felony, according to state law.

The attorney went on to make another interesting point about elected officials contracting with the government unit for which they serve. It doesn’t matter that the person may only personally be gaining a small amount of what the total contract costs, the law is based on whether the total amount of the contract in which they are participating is worth more than $15,000.

In answer to another question, Brownlee told the board that they should not accept any gifts including meals in excess of $25 or more.

Board president Mary Kuhn asked if a vendor used by the district could take board members out for dinner at the annual Wisconsin Association of School Boards convention. Brownlee advised Kuhn that board members should pay for their own dinners.

Brownlee told the board that when someone raises a complaint in the district they need to take it seriously and investigate. She cautioned that the district cannot become complacent toward complaints. She understood the board could become alarmed when legal fees (largely paid to outside counsel, not Brownlee) leap from $7,000 one year to $27,000 the next year.

“It’s just the cost of doing business,” Brownlee told the board.

The attorney noted that athletics were a popular target for litigation all over the country.

“You’re not the only school to have those problems,” Brownlee said. “There are a lots of districts facing lawsuits over athletics.”

Brownlee said it was her personal view that the athletic lawsuit proliferation springs from the “entitlement society” in which we live.

“Is there something we can do to avoid that?” Powell asked.

“No, unless they invent a rationality pill,” Brownlee responded.

Brownlee told the board that it was beneficial to have good insurance to cover the legal costs. She noted the expensive investigative work of attorney Lori Lubinsky was covered for the cost of the district’s insurance policy deductible.

Board member Jim Dworschack addressed the board asking that an approach to involve the staff and community in improving the school be developed. He sought a way that would allow for more input into improving policies and curriculum.

It was noted that teachers would be present for a breakfast on the first in-service day of school and perhaps the board could be invited.

Kuhn said she liked the idea of attending the breakfast if the invitation is extended to the board. Julie Kruizenga longtime elementary school teacher and now elementary school principal said others had been invited to the breakfast in the past, however, Kuhn said it had never been extended to the board.

Middle and high school principal Brandon Munson discussed the possibility of getting Viterbo’s Tom Thibodaux to speak at the breakfast.

The board instructed Munson to see if such a speech could be arranged and what the cost might be.

In other business, the North Crawford School Board:

• accepted the resignation of school guidance counselor Emily Dickman

• hired Stephanie Colsch as the new school guidance counselor

• approved hiring football and cross country coaches, but did not approve any volleyball coaches-Brandon Munson will be the head football coach, assistants are Mark Bender, Kyle Oldenburg, Ryan Pedretti; junior high coaches are Nate McKittrick and Chris Wettstein—head cross country coach will be  Mike Allbaugh and Liz Bransky is the assistant

• discussed the cost of continuing the popular ‘After the Bell’ program at a cost of $65,000 without the grant money that had previously been used and also discussed the possibility of reducing transportation costs by going to one bus and using drop points  rather than door-to-door service

 • tabled adopting revised school policies

• decided against going into closed session to discuss employment matters.