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Several Factors Led to Monday's School Board Meeting Ruckus

A letter to teachers, need for safety, open meeting law all contributed to tension.

The cause of Monday's could easily be categorized as another episode in the never-ending collective bargaining drama that has besieged the state over the last eight months.

But the roots of what transpired are much more nuanced, involving the underpinnings of a changing relationship between teachers and the district, and quick decisions made by the school officials during the proceedings.    

What occurred Monday began to percolate in late July, when school board president Bruce Bailey wrote a letter to teachers stating it is unlawful for the district or any of its representatives to "negotiate" with teachers as a result of the collective bargaining reform passed in Madison earlier this year.

The letter, which was sent to district teachers and school board members, was in response to teacher union president Doug Perry when employment issues are being decided upon. 

Specifically, Perry requested teachers have a say in the the employee handbook and district calendar, . He also asked whether teachers will be compensated for more days worked. 

"On behalf of the board, we request the GEA (Greenfield Education Association) leadership refrain from attempting to circumvent district process, illegally negotiate, or otherwise unduly influence the administration or members of the board to favor the interest of the GEA over those of our other employees, as well as students and taxpayers," Bailey wrote. 

Bailey wrote earlier in the letter that employment issues should be directed to district Superintendent Conrad Farner. 

The letter was construed by teachers as a threat, Perry said. If they go and speak at board meetings, they feel they will face retribution, according to Perry.

"I have had many colleagues come up to me and tell me that they are not going to the meetings because they feel they will have a target on their back," Perry said. "It's a very precarious thing to go to a meeting and speak in front of the school board … those are your employers. It's a tough thing to do." 

Addressing the school board and administration without the protections once provided by the union contract is a new dynamic that teachers now face, Perry added. 

"People are afraid. That is their jobs, their livelihood. Everyone has to put bread on their table," said Perry, adding that there were 30 Greenfield teachers in attendance during Monday's meeting, far more than the dozen that an administration official claimed.  

Bailey rebuked the notion that Greenfield teachers cannot speak during school board meetings or that they should feel intimidated if they do so. 

"We let anyone speak during the citizens oral remarks portion of the meeting. Anybody can talk during the meeting and we don't limit who can talk," he said. "We welcome people voicing their opinions on matters concerning the school district." 

Bailey said the letter is being misunderstood by teachers. Rather than attempting to restrict their voice, the letter was meant to halt bargaining without going through the proper channels, he said. 

"It's important to keep an open dialog for everyone involved," Bailey said. "I know teachers are concerned because of the bill that was passed in Madison. They are concerned because they don't know what is going to happen, but we all have to work together to get through this. These are the cards that have been dealt and if they have some anger towards the school board, it's misdirected. The school board is just trying to maintain a quality education for our kids."

From bad to worse

The letter and a general feeling among the teacher community Greenfield educators are being wronged provoked a wave of dozens of .

And then things got real interesting.

Bailey, by law, . He made the decision for the meeting to continue to be held in the even after seeing a massive amount of protesters arrive.  

Bailey told protesters he was unable to allow more than 95 people in the room due to its capacity limit. According to interim fire chief Jon Cohn, safety should be the first priority when facing issues regarding capacity.

"There really is no fallback on public safety … the correct decision was made not to add capacity to that room," Cohn said. "I don't think we can have a floating occupancy limit depending on the topic."   

Bailey and district officials also told the crowd that because the agenda indicated the meeting was to scheduled to be held in the administration board room, it could not be moved to the school's auditorium, due to the state's open meetings law. 

According to attorney Bob Drepps, one of the foremost experts on Wisconsin's open meetings law, Bailey would not have been breaking the law if he had moved the meeting. 

"I do not think that it would have been a violation if they had a larger room available in the same building such that they could have posted a note on the door … that says (the meeting) was moved down the hall," he said. "If anybody that came to the original location could easily access the larger room, I can't imagine a court would find that a violation of the open meetings law, the whole purpose of which is to accommodate public access to the meeting." 

Drepps added case law pertaining to a meeting being moved to another location in the same building due to the number of attendees does not exist.

"To suggest that a law forbids accommodating the public when more show up than expected is backwards," Drepps said. "That is the whole point of giving notice and holding it in a public place accessible to the public."

School officials and board members also told the crowd the meeting could not be moved because the meeting room allows for the proceedings to be broadcasted on public access television. The crowd , provoking the district spokesperson Stuart Wilke to call the police, according to police records. 

"Stuart Wilke reports they are having a Greenfield School District board meeting and there are about 30 people in the foyer refusing to leave," police records indicate.

karen k August 26, 2011 at 10:16 PM
Thanks for the great follow up! I knew there was more to the story.
robert heule August 27, 2011 at 01:12 PM
Go to Wisconsin Dept. of Justice see Open Meetings Law Compliance Guide pages 14 and 15
Mary Pat August 27, 2011 at 01:57 PM
Not having seen the letter from Bailey to the teachers, I can only comment on what is reported here. Other districts have included teachers, administration and school board when they meet to revise the handbook. That just supports the "working together for the students" attitude which I think is needed.
obtw August 27, 2011 at 04:10 PM
"Several factors..........?" I'm not so sure. - There have been many, many school board meetings in the past where there was no "ruckus".. Council meetings, well that's a another story. But what factor was different at this school board meeting?
robert heule August 28, 2011 at 03:04 AM
Heads up folks!!! THE HANDBOOK WILL BE ON LINE NEXT WEEK! According to Superintendent Farner, the much publicized Employee Hand Book will be published on line "about the middle of next week".

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