Last school year, a big piece of the town and village of Darien’s history went on hiatus. A tour Monday celebrated its return.
The classrooms at Darien Elementary School were empty during the 2018-19 school year. A failed referendum in April 2018 led to the closure, turning the century-old building into storage space.
But the school at 125 S. Walworth St. will be back in service with some new features after the Delavan-Darien School Board voted in February to realign the district’s elementary schools.
“We’re the Delavan-Darien School District, and as I heard from community members and as I felt myself, we were taking Darien out of the district, and it just felt wrong,” said Darien Elementary Principal Kelly Pickel.
During the closure, Pickel worked at Delavan-Darien High School as the career and technical education coordinator. She said Monday that she is ready to be back at Darien Elementary.
“It feels good to be back with the elementary kids and working with them again and a teaching staff that is also very excited about coming back,” Pickel said.
Shirley Sisk graduated from Darien High School in 1949. She said she was saddened when Darien Elementary closed last year, but she smiled Monday as she walked around her former school.
“I love that we’re going to have students back here,” she said.
Sisk’s four children went to grade school in the building, and her father was on the school board when the Delavan-Darien School District was created. As she walked up the school stairs Monday, the memories flooded back.
“Things aren’t quite the same, but the classrooms upstairs? Yeah, they’re the same. My locker is still there,” she said with a smile.
Renovations included new furniture in some classrooms, exterior work to the rear of the building where kids walk every morning, a new library layout and a new lunchroom.
The district began implementing the changes in March after the decision to reopen.
District superintendent Jill Sorbie said the arrival of students Sept. 3 is highly anticipated.
“I appreciate the partnership with the community of Darien, and I want them to know that we value them,” Sorbie said. “Just having the kids coming back into this building that has been a school for over 100 years, it’s just going to be great.”
The building, which will house 220-250 kids this year, is an important part of the district’s future, she said.
“It’s here, and it’s not going anywhere,” she said. “It’s part of our plan.”
Whitewater High School’s former athletics director claims he was forced out of his job in May in retaliation for a dispute over funding repairs for the gymnastics team’s floor.
Jim Pease resigned May 28, and in his letter to the school district said, “I have done nothing wrong, but I am not interested in continuing in the capacity.”
In documents, the district asserts that allegations against Pease say he “fostered a toxic environment,” failed to keep up on administrative duties and “overlooked and/or forgave athletic code violations …”
Both sides have disputed the allegations against them, saying the other side provided outright falsehoods or mischaracterized statements.
The Gazette reviewed documents from Pease’s lawyer and some from the district that were obtained through an open records request.
District Administrator Mark Elworthy declined to answer further questions Monday, saying, “The district does not comment on personnel issues or records.”
Justin Crandall took over July 15 as the high school’s new athletic director.
Pease became athletic director in July 2018. Before that, he coached baseball and football.
In an interview Monday, Pease said he always believed he was doing what was right and doesn’t know what he could have done differently.
“It’s the most miserable experience I’ve ever been through in my life,” he said.
Pease said his trouble with the district began when he told Elworthy about the $23,000 needed to fix the gymnastics floor, which posed a safety risk for the girls’ gymnastics team.
In a July 14 letter to the Whitewater School Board, Ben Hitchcock Cross, Pease’s lawyer, wrote that a disagreement over presenting the matter to the school board led Elworthy to retaliate against Pease.
Pease, as Hitchcock Cross writes, told Elworthy it would be “impossible” to find that money in the athletic department’s $100,000 budget, which earmarks $70,000 for transportation.
Elworthy, however, said he never said the money had to come from that budget, was not in favor of getting rid of the gymnastics team (which was one idea mentioned during discussions) and thought Pease was “unwilling to explore more creative solutions,” according to a July 23 response letter written by a lawyer for the district.
In proposing to parents a solution that involved sharing a space in Jefferson, Pease said Elworthy did not allow him to explain that it was because of the dangerous floor and the potential cost to fix it.
Elworthy denied that in the response letter.
Pease also believes Elworthy did not want him to take the matter to the school board. After he did, “Elworthy used the powers entrusted to him by the School Board to wreak havoc” on Pease and the teams he was responsible for, the letter states.
As with other claims, the lawyer for the district said this was not the case.
Hitchcock Cross’ letter was titled “confidential settlement communication,” but he included it and the district’s response with other documents shared with the news media last week.
The letter—wanting to avoid “litigating this issue in a public forum”—asked for, among other things, $35,000 plus attorney fees, a “mutually acceptable” news release and letter of reference, and written confirmation Pease would be eligible to work with the district.
The district declined to negotiate a settlement with Pease, calling the claims in Hitchcock Cross’ letter “substantially inaccurate and in most cases alarmingly untruthful.”
“In reality, the impetus for the investigation that ultimately led to Mr. Pease’s resignation had nothing to do with Dr. Elworthy,” the district’s lawyer wrote.
Pease argues the gymnastics floor situation led Elworthy to “fabricate” an investigation into his conduct as athletic director.
But the district says on May 20, an employee “who had worked closely with Mr. Pease” voiced concerns about his conduct and work performance.
The employee claimed Pease “encouraged the use of fraud on student athlete eligibility documents,” according to the response letter. Pease also altered athletic code violations to make certain students eligible, the letter claimed.
Pease told The Gazette on Monday that as athletic director, he wanted to change the overall code system to cut out violations for “such little things.” In doing so this last school year, he said he had to go back and see which previous code violations would and would not stay in his new system.
He said he worked with other administrators on the changes, not alone.
The employee also said Pease had 1,500 unread emails from the athletics scheduling software rSchool, which had about 50 “unacknowledged game contracts.”
Pease’s annual review for the last school year included keeping up to date on email communications as one of the “areas for growth.”
In response to those claims, Pease said he fought to make that employee’s position full time and was stretched too thin in his own work, too.
He apologized for missed emails and said he wished he had more training on using rSchool.
“I’m not saying I’m perfect,” he said.
Elworthy said the district will return to the way it used to run athletics a few years ago, with separate directors for the middle and high school.
The district’s letter to Pease’s lawyer mentions an investigation in April when “several” students and families said Pease showed favoritism to certain students; turned “a blind eye” to misconduct, such as bullying and poor sportsmanship; and created an environment where people feared retaliation from him. Elworthy, who is the district’s records custodian, said he thought those documents were not included in The Gazette’s records request because they are student records.
Pease and his lawyer questioned the legitimacy of the district’s investigations, in part, because of the interviews the district didn’t conduct and how the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association “resolved” the problems Elworthy brought up.
Pease submitted letters of praise from residents, performance reviews showing positive scores throughout his years in Whitewater and a text message from a coach thanking him for “all of the help this year.”
In written remarks shared with the documents his lawyer sent Aug. 6, Pease said the complaints against him are explainable because he was “set up for failure.” No one could handle two schools, teaching two classes “and survive,” he wrote.
He said many work days started at 7:20 a.m. and ended after 9 p.m.
“The hours I worked for this job were excruciating,” he wrote.
Hitchcock Cross said Pease is considering legal action against the district.
Pease said in an email with his resignation letter that the preceding week was “unbearable.” He said he had “given heart and soul to this district” and wished his time had ended differently.
“I just want the truth out,” he said Monday.
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