Members criticize media for revealing exchange of emails

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The School District of Beloit Board of Education decided during a heated Tuesday meeting to discuss a potential policy on the protocol for inviting legislators to district functions at a future workshop.

Board member Nora Gard had brought up the item as a policy discussion, but Tuesday’s dialogue mainly focused on some members’ frustration with local media and criticism of whoever may be providing information to reporters.

Gard said she asked the topic to be brought to the board for discussion Tuesday because she felt administration was creating a new policy setting criteria for inviting legislators to district activities with an email that was sent out indicating Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, shouldn’t be invited to district events.

Gard said district policy creation is the responsibility of the board, not staff.

“All I’m asking us to consider is we show no partiality to any district legislators for special events or speaking opportunities,” Gard said.

The issue was sparked when an email came to light, sent by school district spokesperson Melissa Badger at the request of Superintendent Steve McNeal, which stated Loudenbeck shouldn’t be invited to district events because of her stance on state-financed private school vouchers. The email went on to say it was McNeal’s view that Loudenbeck does not represent the best interests of students.

Although the “legislative representation” item on Tuesday’s agenda was meant to be policy discussion, as requested by Gard, most of Tuesday’s discussion featured board members Michael Ramsdail, Mark Rand, John Winkelmann, Superintendent McNeal and Assistant Superintendent Lynee Tourdot venting frustrations about the consequences of the email’s publication by the Beloit Daily News. Rand and Ramsdail speculated who may have released the email and how they believed their actions broke down trust and gave a poor image for Beloit.

“What gets put in the paper is harassment,” Tourdot said. “ How do we let these things leak to the paper? I read these nasty things in the paper every week and I think it’s horrible.”

McNeal said he’s an easy target for the Daily News, saying he’s “public enemy number one” for editors and writers and said how the newspaper loves to “punch Steve in the face.”

McNeal, who was joined in the audience by several principals and other supporters from the district, said he considered the leaking of the emails a personal attack on him. He went on to say past boards have chased out administrators and asked if he would be next.

“Do you want to chase me out of here?,” he said. “Who wants to sit in this seat? It’s just a place to get arrows fired at you? And it’s not very fun. For me it’s getting a little personal.”

McNeal went on to say he has been responsive to inquiries, and open and honest about all issues in the district. Although he said he believed the emails were taken out of context he went on to say Loudenbeck hasn’t represented Beloit the way he wished she would have.

McNeal told Gard that one phone call would have prevented the issue from getting overblown.

“We’ve never changed policy administratively. We’ve never banned Amy from any events,” he said.

Gard told McNeal she was concerned that she didn’t get a response quick enough when she inquired about the email about Loudenbeck three times, although she later apologized in the meeting for all that had transpired.

Board Vice President John Acomb said the email was a misstep and blown out of proportion, although he stressed the need to build and maintain bridges with all legislators.

Despite the heated and passionate discussion, all board members agreed that they are still in strong support of McNeal.

Acomb called McNeal the best superintendent the district has ever had. He then told McNeal not to read bloggers’ comments about him.

“I never ever read that crap,” he said.

Board President Shannon Scharmer said the heated discussion was a true opportunity to grow and be stronger as a full unit. She said she was proud of the district, board and McNeal. She said it was healthy to have everyone have an open conversation and air out their feelings and concerns, so the board can move on.

“We are doing great things. We need to continue to excel and exceed our own expectations,” she said.

Board member Missy Henderson said with a little trust and common sense everything would be OK.

Rand said he didn’t understand why the media was in the room at Tuesday’s meeting, and said he was embarrassed to be part of the school board after the publication of the emails. He said he still considered McNeal a friend.

Under Wisconsin state law the emails in question and nearly all government documents are open records required to be accessible to the people, Beloit Daily News Editor Bill Barth said. Likewise, state law requires that nearly all meetings be held in open session so citizens and media can attend. Only a handful of very narrow exceptions are permissible under the law.

“State laws in Wisconsin and, for that matter, all across the country recognize that government at every level operates in the name of the people, and the people have a clear legal right to know what is said and done by all those representing them, elected or appointed,” Barth said. “It is curious, to say the least, that the focus here is on the fact the newspaper told the people what was happening, rather than on what actually was taking place, as if the only consideration is failure to keep a secret from the people. It is our firm belief that government belongs to the people, not to board members or administration or staff. Keeping secrets is not part of that deal.”

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