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School board’s use of secret ballots was clearly incorrect


Bad things happen in the dark.

It is unclear what issues some members of the Cadott School Board seemed to have with superintendent Jenny Starck.

It is unclear what discussion led to a “secret ballot” vote that took place in the closed session portion of the Jan. 13 school board meeting. The posting for that closed session states its purpose was to evaluate Starck.

State law allows for closed sessions when discussing evaluations and other personnel matters, for the sole purpose of protecting the reputations of those being talked about and not to shield elected officials from facing public scrutiny for their actions.

In the absence of public debate and public accountability, rumors fly and speculation runs rampant, growing wilder with each retelling. This is evident in the community members who came out at the Feb. 10 board meeting, in support of Starck, over fears she was being forced to resign.

This public pressure ended up having the opposite effect, with board members renewing Starck’s contract through at least June 30, 2022, with an open-ended renewal after that date.

About the only thing that is clear about the entire situation, is that school board president Rod Tegels is speaking the truth, when he says he is not a legal expert.

While there are portions of state statutes that are dense and difficult for non-lawyers to understand, the provisions of chapter 19.88 governing how boards vote, is crystal clear when it comes to so-called “secret ballots.”

The statute reads: “19.88 Ballots, votes and records.

(1) Unless otherwise specifically provided by statute, no secret ballot may be utilized to determine any election or other decision of a governmental body, except the election of the officers of such body in any meeting.”

This is a far cry from the advice that Tegels says he received from the school board’s attorney Steve Weld. The attorney’s advice, according to Tegels’ statements as reported in the Feb. 13 issue of the Courier Sentinel, was “You can use secret ballots anytime you want,” and “There are no statutes, according to [attorney Weld].”

This is clearly incorrect, based on any possible reading of the governing state statutes. State law inherently assumes that all government actions should be open, and accountable, to voters and taxpayers. A secret ballot for any but the narrowest of legally-allowed reasons, is an affront to Wisconsin’s tradition of openness.

While it is likely the school district’s policies do not specifically address the use of secret ballots, this does not magically allow the school district to violate state law.

This leads to questions of if Tegels did not understand the attorney’s advice, did not actually consult the attorney or if the district should look for better sources of legal counsel.

Bad things happen in the dark. With the darkness covering their cowardice, people feel free to spread rumors, gossip and innuendo, destroying reputations and careers in the process.

Worse yet, is when people make decisions in the dark, then attempt to use that darkness to avoid accountability.

Members of the Courier Sentinel editorial board include publisher Carol O’Leary, general manager Kris O’Leary and Star News editor Brian Wilson.