Janesville school endorsements policy considered this week

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Frank Schultz
Saturday, October 12, 2013

JANESVILLE—Advertisements in which the superintendent of Janesville public schools gave an implied endorsement of Mercy Health System has led to a proposed change in policy to govern endorsements by school officials.

The proposed policy is likely to come up at a Janesville School Board committee meeting Wednesday.

School board member Kevin Murray reminded his colleagues of the arrangement at last week's school board meeting.

As the board discussed related changes to the district's gifts policy, Murray recalled Superintendent Karen Schulte's appearance in Mercy ads earlier this year, in which she told the story of her eye surgery at Mercy

Schulte told The Gazette at the time that she agreed to share her story if Mercy would donate to the district.

Schulte suggested to Mercy officials at the time that new laptops are needed at the Janesville Academy for International Studies.

Schulte told The Gazette on Wednesday that Mercy has made no donation, and she has not discussed it with Mercy officials.

“If they were to make a donation sometime in the future, it would not be connected with the ad, at all,” Schulte said.

At Tuesday's school board meeting, Murray said the advertisements raised the question of whether anything was received in return for Schulte's appearance in the advertising.

No evidence of such a deal has ever surfaced, and other school board members continue to profess confidence in the integrity of Schulte and her administrative staff.

Later at Tuesday's meeting, Schulte responded to Murray, acknowledging she had endorsed Mercy, but: “I never understood that the board had any concern about that, and in closed session, the board was pretty clear that it was not concerned about that.”

 The board's policy committee meets Wednesday, when the proposed new policy on endorsements is likely to come up. The policy allows “testimonials” in the form or words or photographs from the superintendent or another employee the superintendent designates.

However, no testimonials would be given if compensation was involved.

Testimonials would be “accurate, consistent with the district's experience with the vendor and in no way reflect the district in an unfavorable light,” the proposed policy states.

In addition, district employees are allowed to give testimonials of products or service as private citizens, provided there is no connection between the endorsement and the person's employment with the district.

The board on Tuesday approved a related change to the district's gifts policy, which requires a quarterly report to the board on donations to the district.

Board member Bill Sodemann had proposed a stronger policy that would have forbidden any administrator from soliciting gifts from district vendors, or potential vendors. He said anything less would open the district up to accusations of play-for-pay and could discourage competitive bids if vendors came to believe that some of their competitors had an advantage based on donations.

Sodemann didn't get what he wanted, but he said the required reporting would make donations open to public scrutiny, which he said should help.

“Disclosure is key,” Sodemann said.

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