PRESS EDITORIAL: School district leaders flunk class on public’s right to know

The superintendent of the Port Washington-Saukville School District did not want the public to know what an Ozaukee Press news story reported last week about an expenditure of a significant amount of taxpayer money and the departure of the principal of Port Washington High School.
    School Supt. Dave Watkins refused to release information that is the right of district residents to have under Wisconsin’s Open Records law. Ozaukee Press obtained the information under the law through a public records request.
    The records relate to the December arrest of Port High Principal Thad Gabrielse for driving while drunk. Details of the arrest were reported at the time by Ozaukee Press based on police and court records.
    It was important news, and the subject of much comment around the community and on social media, as would be expected of an incident involving alleged law breaking by the educator in charge of a high school and its hundreds of teenage students.
    The OWI charge against Gabrielse was troubling enough, but efforts by the school district’s top administrator and the School Board to keep the public in the dark made matters worse.
    The principal was put on leave and resigned soon after, but information about his pay and other details was withheld. The superintendant refused to discuss the principal’s resignation letter or release it to the public. The Press obtained the letter from Gabielse and reported its content.
    Gabrielse resigned on Jan. 24 after negotiating an agreement with the school district. Watkins refused to reveal the terms of the resignation agreement or release the document itself, in spite of the fact that it is a public record.
    The taxpayers’ stake in the agreement became clear when Ozaukee Press obtained the document and published its details. The agreement requires the district to pay Gabrielse’s $128,562 annual salary through June 30, and to provide full health, dental and life insurance benefits.
    Under the agreement, the resignation will be reclassified as a retirement, making Gabrielse eligible for an additional 10 years of health insurance benefits, even though he has not reached the minimum retirement age for Wisconsin public school employees.
    The agreement also requires Watkins to write a recommendation letter for the former principal.
    The issue here is not whether this was an appropriate way to cut ties with a school administrator who got in trouble. The issue is secrecy.
    The Gabrielse affair revealed a misunderstanding or ignorance of the obligation of public school officials to be open and forthright with the citizens they serve. The School Board bears responsibility along with the superintendent.
    The board and its president, Brenda Fritsch—the elected representatives who hired the superintendent and are his bosses—stood by mute as the situation unfolded.
    At one point, dozens of teachers, frustrated by the lack of authoritative information, attended a School Board meeting en masse to call for  the reinstatement of their colleague while the case was sorted out.
    The term “transparency” is used so often these days that it is achieving cliché status, but there is a good reason for that: Citizens increasingly are demanding public accountability from their representatives, whether in civic or school government.
    The School Board should be particularly sensitive to this imperative. It has already been criticized at boisterous meetings by parents citing a lack of transparency. The brisk competition for board seats in the spring election in part reflects that concern.
    The principal’s OWI arrest and its aftermath were unfortunate, but perhaps also educational. The lesson is that the people who live in the Port Washington-Saukville School District and and pay the taxes that support its schools will not abide anything less than adherence to well established standards of openness on the part of their elected and appointed representatives.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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