Superintendent featured in advertising; questions raised

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Frank Schultz
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

JANESVILLE—An appearance by Janesville's school superintendent in advertising for Mercy Health System has raised eyebrows, but the superintendent is confident she has done nothing wrong.
 Karen Schulte was featured in the cover story for "Great People. Great Stories," a Mercy marketing publication. The story told of her eye surgery in February. Some of the information was repeated in a subsequent newspaper ad.
“I only agreed if they would give a donation to the district. I would take money from just about anyone who is willing to support our fine district and teachers!” Schulte wrote in an email to The Gazette.
She would turn down offers from businesses such as bars, however, because that would not reflect well on the district, she said.
Schulte said she does not know how much of a donation Mercy will make, but she suggested to Mercy officials that new laptops are needed at the Janesville Academy for International Studies, a charter school.
Schulte noted that Rich Gruber, Mercy vice president of community advocacy, serves on the academy's board.
Schulte said she sees nothing wrong in her participation in what appears to be an endorsement of a local business. Schulte said she did it as a private person, not as the superintendent.
Still, the school board will likely discuss the matter at an upcoming meeting, said Greg Ardrey, board president.
Ardrey said he doesn't necessarily see anything wrong, but he would like to make sure the board discusses the facts and makes sure board policy was followed.
One possibly relevant policy states that the district should not accept gifts that “imply endorsement of any business or product.”
“In my job, I definitely need my eyes, and I need them to work quickly. This surgery has made my life so much easier,” Schulte was quoted as saying in the article and in advertisement.

The article included Schulte's title and showed her at work at the district's central office.
“I would do anything for Mercy. They are wonderful to us,” Schulte said in an interview with The Gazette.

She said Mercy pays for the fourth- and fifth-grade track meet and that its employees donate their time to the district.
“It so happens that I had surgery through Mercy and had an excellent experience, so I was happy to do that,” she said.
Schulte said she consulted with the district's legal counsel and with a few school board members before agreeing to share her story with Mercy marketers, and no one dissuaded her from doing so.
Schulte said she could find nothing in school policies or the law that would prevent her from acting as a private person in this matter. It's the same as if someone had asked her what her experience was at Mercy, and she responded with her opinion, she said.
“It wasn't the School District of Janesville that endorsed this. It was Karen Schulte,” Schulte said.
Schulte noted that Robert Smiley, the district's chief information officer, who is well known in educational technology circles, recently was featured in a publication by computer-maker Hewlett-Packard.
Schulte said she did not know the ads would appear at the same time district employees were choosing between two health-insurance options, one a Mercy product and another that includes a variety of local providers. The timing was up to Mercy, she said.
The timing might have been poor, but her surgery was done under the district's former health insurance, not the new products, she said, so comparing the old insurance arrangement with the new one is apples versus oranges.

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