The Milton School Board voted unanimously Monday to investigate whether the board president mishandled district funds.
The board voted to hire an outside firm to investigate allegations that $30,500 in stipends were given to district employees without school board approval.
Board Treasurer Mike Pierce will assist district legal counsel and the firm in identifying the scope of the investigation, per the recommendation of Shana Lewis, legal counsel for the school district.
Lewis recommended the board hire an independent firm to investigate the veracity of the allegations, whether policy or laws were violated, and whether employment decisions can be based on the allegations.
Board member Brian Kvapil spoke to The Gazette and other media outlets this weekend about stipends given in November to Superintendent Tim Schigur, Director of Administrative Operations Jerry Schuetz and a district information technology employee. Kvapil says they were not approved by the board or allocated in the 2018-19 budget.
Board policy says all payments made outside the budget must be approved by the school board.
Documents provided to The Gazette show Board President Tom Westrick signed a recommendation for Schigur to receive $10,500 as a “temporary” pay increase “due to a doctorate earned” by Schigur in May 2018.
Westrick took responsibility for the approval of Schigur’s stipend Monday night in an open executive session.
The board president said he was made aware by district legal counsel about three weeks ago that approving Schigur’s stipend violated board policy and that he did not have the authority to approve the payment.
Monday’s meeting was the first since Westrick was made aware of his policy violation. Westrick intended to address his actions in a closed executive session Jan. 29, he said, but that meeting was canceled.
“I personally own this oversight and take full responsibility for not getting the official approval from the full board prior to my request for this payment,” Westrick said. “I apologize to the board and I apologize to the community for this mistake.”
Westrick did not address payments made to Schuetz or the district IT employee.
Kvapil asked whether there would be consequences for Westrick’s actions. Westrick said he was taking responsibility for the mistake but did not recommend punitive action against himself.
Kvapil asked Westrick how it was possible after being on the board for eight years that he did not know he was not allowed to authorize stipends without board approval. He also asked whether any other unapproved stipends were handed out.
Westrick reiterated that he took responsibility and said he was not aware of any other unauthorized stipends given to the superintendent.
As discussion between Kvapil and Westrick intensified, Lewis advised board members not to make allegations during the meeting.
Board members showing they could not remain impartial on matters regarding district staff employment would not be allowed to participate in any future employment hearings because it would put the district at risk of violating individuals’ due process rights, Lewis said.
“I am begging you as your legal counsel: I am encouraging you to not make statements tonight that you cannot get away from so as to then interfere with your ability to serve in your capacity as a member of that impartial tribunal if and when that was to happen,” Lewis said.
Kvapil thanked Lewis for “walking him off the ledge.”
Westrick offered to bring approval of the stipend to the full board for approval as soon as possible. If the board did not approve the stipend, Schigur would have to pay back the $10,500.
The board decided it would not take any further action until the investigation was completed.
Beloit police said Monday they are looking for a man they believe was at a business on the city’s east side Saturday with a Janesville man who later was found shot to death.
Police said the man has lighter skin, a thin build and is between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches tall.
He was wearing a red hooded sweatshirt with white lettering on the front, blue jeans and red tennis shoes Saturday, Beloit City Police Capt. Thomas Stigler said at a news conference Monday afternoon.
The body of James Tomten, 28, of Janesville was found in a Cadillac Escalade SUV in the 800 block of Vine Street on Beloit’s west side after authorities were dispatched at 2:41 p.m. Saturday.
In a video police shared with media, the man in the red sweatshirt is seen approaching a Cadillac Escalade that is believed to be the same vehicle Tomten was found dead in Saturday afternoon.
The man in the red sweatshirt peers into the passenger side window of the Escalade and then walks away.
Police would not identify the business where the video was recorded. Stigler said Tomten later was shot in the vehicle and is believed to have been driving it when the incident occurred.
Stigler said police are investigating all possibilities that lead to the killing. He would not say if narcotics were found in the vehicle. Tomten and the man who killed him had “some type of relationship,” Stigler said.
Police are asking anyone with information on the homicide or the man in the red sweatshirt or who saw the vehicle prior to the incident to call 608-364-6803.
A forensic autopsy completed at the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office on Sunday revealed Tomten’s death was the result of homicidal firearm trauma, according to a release from the Rock County Medical Examiner’s Department.
Additional testing is underway.
Authorities were notified at about 2:41 p.m. Saturday of a running SUV parked on a snowbank along Vine Street. A Beloit police spokeswoman said the homicide happened at about 12:20 p.m.
Stigler said the incident likely wasn’t reported for more than two hours because the weather was frigid and most people in the neighborhood were indoors. He said the vehicle did not crash or make a loud noise when it jumped the curb into the snowbank.
Stigler said “cooperation from the neighborhood” puts the vehicle on Vine Street at 12:20 p.m.
A person who lives on Vine Street told a Gazette reporter that Tomten’s body lay covered in a white sheet for about three hours while police combed the street and spoke with neighbors.
Online court records list Tomten’s address in October as 242 W. Burbank Ave., Janesville.
At Monday’s press conference, Stigler said the public is no danger and that Saturday’s incident was “not a random act.”
“We have a very safe city. The amount of violent crime in the city has been reduced from what it was years ago,” Stigler said. “There was a relationship between these two people, and the activities that they were involved in probably led to this crime that occurred.”
School board to discuss potential for elimination today
The future of the Janesville School District’s fifth-grade band and orchestra programs will be up for discussion when the school board meets 5:30 p.m. today at the Janesville Educational Services Center, 527 S. Franklin St.
District staff has recommended eliminating those programs and offering general music classes in kindergarten through fifth grade after an “in-depth evaluation” of the district’s K-12 music programs, according to a memo from Tina Johnson, assistant director of administrative and human services.
In an interview, Johnson said her recommendation calls for moving the fifth-grade band and orchestra programs to sixth grade.
She stressed that she made the recommendation with input and support from principals and music teachers.
Johnson’s memo, which is included in the school board’s meeting packet, was released Monday. The rest of the agenda and accompanying memos were released Friday.
The full board must approve the recommendation for it to take effect.
About 64 percent of fifth-graders are enrolled in band or orchestra, according to the memo. Band and orchestra are “pull-out” programs, which means students leave their regularly scheduled classes to attend those programs.
“This creates scheduling conflicts for buildings and students and loss of instruction time in core curriculum, reading and math,” Johnson wrote in her memo to the board.
Other issues include travel time for instrumental and classroom music teachers, inefficient use of staff resources and “declining student retention rates in instrumental classes,” according to the memo.
By the time students reach high school, only 11 percent of them participate in band or orchestra, according to the memo.
Under the proposed changes, beginning band and orchestra would be offered to sixth-graders.
In fifth grade, music instruction would increase from 60 minutes per week to 90 minutes per week and would include 30 minutes dedicated to choral music, 30 minutes of instrumental appreciation and 30 minutes of general music.
Instead of picking out an instrument in 15 minutes at the beginning of the school year, students would have 30 minutes each week to explore instrumental music and decide what they might like to play in middle school, Johnson told The Gazette.
“We want to build a more robust music program,” Johnson said.
In addition, the state is changing the licensing requirements for music education. Under those changes, all music majors are licensed as K-12 music teachers “regardless of their specialized area,” the memo states.
“Janesville has operated under this model for a few years and has noticed a considerable difference in our fifth-grade beginning band experience from school to school,” Johnson wrote in the memo.
The district’s evaluation of the K-12 music program also resulted in other changes, Johnson said, including a new percussion class at the high school and more music electives in the middle schools.
Janet I. Bladow
Henry “Butch” A. Helbing Jr.
Roger J. O’Leary
Vicki L. Rautio
Melvin L. Zarnstorff
Congressional negotiators reached agreement Monday night to prevent a government shutdown and finance construction of new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, overcoming a late-stage hang-up over immigration enforcement issues that had threatened to scuttle the talks.
Republicans were desperate to avoid another bruising shutdown. They tentatively agreed to far less money for President Donald Trump’s border wall than the White House’s $5.7 billion wish list, settling for a figure of nearly $1.4 billion, according to congressional aides. The funding measure is through the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The agreement means 55 miles of new fencing—constructed through existing designs such as metal slats instead of a concrete wall—but far less than the 215 miles the White House demanded in December. The fencing would be built in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.
“With the government being shut down, the specter of another shutdown this close, what brought us back together I thought tonight was we didn’t want that to happen” again, said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
Details won’t be officially released until today, but the pact came in time to alleviate any threat of a second partial government shutdown this weekend. Aides revealed the details under condition of anonymity because the agreement is tentative.
“Our staffs are just working out the details,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.
The pact also includes increases for new technologies such as advanced screening at border entry point, humanitarian aid sought by Democrats, and additional customs officers.
This weekend, Shelby pulled the plug on the talks over Democratic demands to limit immigrant detentions by federal authorities, frustrating some of his fellow negotiators, but Democrats yielded ground on that issue in a fresh round of talks Monday.
Asked if Trump would back the deal, Shelby said: “We believe from our dealings with them and the latitude they’ve given us, they will support it. We certainly hope so.”
Trump traveled to El Paso, Texas, for a campaign-style rally Monday night focused on immigration and border issues. He has been adamant that Congress approve money for a wall along the Mexican border, though he no longer repeats his 2016 mantra that Mexico will pay for it, and he took to the stage as lawmakers back in Washington were announcing their breakthrough.
“They said that progress is being made with this committee,” Trump told his audience, referring to the congressional bargainers. “Just so you know, we’re building the wall anyway.”
Democrats carried more leverage into the talks after besting Trump on the 35-day shutdown but showed flexibility in hopes of winning Trump’s signature. After yielding on border barriers, Democrats focused on reducing funding for detention beds to curb what they see as unnecessarily harsh enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
The agreement yielded curbed funding, overall, for ICE detention beds, which Democrats promised would mean the agency would hold fewer detainees than the roughly 49,000 detainees held on Feb. 10, the most recent date for which figures were available. Democrats claimed the number of beds would be ratcheted down to 40,520.
But a proposal to cap at 16,500 the number of detainees caught in areas away from the border—a limit Democrats say was aimed at preventing overreach by the agency—ran into its own Republican wall.
Democrats dropped the demand in the Monday round of talks, and the mood in the Capitol improved markedly.
Trump met Monday afternoon with top advisers in the Oval Office to discuss the negotiations. He softened his rhetoric on the wall but ratcheted it up when alluding to the detention beds issue.
“We can call it anything. We’ll call it barriers, we’ll call it whatever they want,” Trump said. “But now it turns out not only don’t they want to give us money for a wall, they don’t want to give us the space to detain murderers, criminals, drug dealers, human smugglers.”
The recent shutdown left more than 800,000 government workers without paychecks, forced postponement of the State of the Union address and sent Trump’s poll numbers tumbling. As support in his own party began to splinter, Trump surrendered after the shutdown hit 35 days, agreeing to the current temporary reopening without getting money for the wall.
The president’s supporters have suggested that Trump could use executive powers to divert money from the federal budget for wall construction, though he could face challenges in Congress or the courts.
The negotiations hit a rough patch Sunday amid a dispute over curbing ICE, the federal agency that Republicans see as an emblem of tough immigration policies and Democrats accuse of often going too far.
According to ICE figures, 66 percent of the nearly 159,000 immigrants it reported detaining last year were previously convicted of crimes. Reflecting the two administration’s differing priorities, in 2016 under President Barack Obama, around 110,000 immigrants were detained and 86 percent had criminal records.
Few convictions that immigrants detained last year had on their records were for violent crimes. The most common were for driving while intoxicated, drugs, previous immigration convictions and traffic offenses.
The border debate got most of the attention, but it’s just part of a major spending measure to fund a bevy of Cabinet departments. A collapse of the negotiations would have imperiled another upcoming round of budget talks that are required to prevent steep spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic agencies.