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Milton School Board meeting cut short by lawyer recommendation

MILTON

A member of the Milton School Board believes other board members have been discussing an ongoing investigation against advice from the board’s attorney.

Board Clerk Karen Hall said Thursday night during a special board meeting that other board members have been communicating with each other and with parties involved in an investigation of the district’s handling of stipends.

The school district’s legal counsel has advised the board and district administrators not to discuss the investigation with anyone until it is completed.

Thursday night’s agenda called for the board to convene in closed session for “discussion on administrator employment and administrator/employee compensation.”

It is unclear what specifically the closed session was intended to address, but board members indicated it was related to the ongoing investigation.

Shana Lewis, attorney for the school district, advised the board not to discuss the content of the investigation Thursday night because it could open the district to liability.

Board member Diamond McKenna made a motion immediately after the meeting was called to order to adjourn the meeting based on a recommendation from Lewis. The motion was seconded by Joe Martin, but before a vote Hall announced she has firsthand knowledge that board members have been discussing the investigation despite having been told not to.

District Administrative Assistant Kim Krause said Hall requested the meeting.

Board member Brian Kvapil said he was surprised to hear what Hall said and found the content of the claim “disturbing.”

Kvapil disagreed with Lewis and believed the public has the right to know about concerns from the board on the investigation.

Board President Tom Westrick said he did not want to go against the advice of legal counsel.

“If we are not going to heed legal counsel, why even have them?” Westrick said.

“That is a good question, Tom,” Hall said.

Board member Joe Martin agreed with Kvapil that the public had the right to information on the investigation but did not feel he was prepared to discuss the investigation with the board because he knows very little.

Westrick, McKenna, Martin and Don Vruwink voted to adjourn the meeting. Kvapil, Hall and Mike Pierce voted against.

The investigation into the handling of administrative stipends and board policy compliance began Tuesday with Attorney Lori Lubinsky at the helm.

Lewis said Thursday night she believes the investigation will likely be finished in about a week.

EMC Insurance, the district’s liability insurance carrier, will cover costs for the investigation according to district policy, Lewis said.

The board voted Feb. 11 to hire an outside firm to investigate allegations that $30,500 in stipends were given to district employees without school board approval.

Kvapil informed The Gazette and other media outlets Feb. 8 about the stipends given in November to District Administrator Tim Schigur, Director of Administrative Operations Jerry Schuetz and IT specialist Michael Gouvion. Kvapil said 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 approving Schigur’s stipend at the Feb. 11 board meeting.


Anthony Wahl 

Snow covers the east facade at the former General Motors assembly plant in Janesville on Feb. 21. The facade, where the plant’s offices once stood, is among the few bits of the 4.8 million-square-foot former auto plant still standing after 10 months of demolition. Parts of the site could be cleared and readied to market for industrial redevelopment by mid-2019, the owner, Commercial Development Company, has said.


Anthony Wahl 

The east-facing facade of the former General Motors plant in Janesville, shown on Feb. 21, is among the few structures standing after 10 months of demolition.


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Milton Courier to move out of its home of 100 years

MILTON

Wanted: Home for a cat. May be inclined to lie on your newspaper.

As Managing Editor Rebecca Kanable goes through more than a century’s worth of history at the Milton Courier, many profound thoughts go through her head. Not the least of these is, “Seriously, what am I going to do with this cat?”

Last week, the Milton Courier announced it was leaving its home of more than 100 years at 513 Vernal Ave. The newspaper is not going away. Instead, the office will be combined with the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson.

The Milton building is for sale.

The Courier staff will cover community events while working on laptops at the Milton Public Library, The Gathering Place and other public spaces, according to a news release. On Tuesdays, which is layout and production day, staffers will work in Fort Atkinson.

The move was prompted by Adams Publishing Group’s purchase of Hometown News in December. The former Hometown News Group operated nine weeklies and one daily. Those 10 offices will be combined into four hub offices, said Robb Grindstaff, general manager of Adams Publishing Group of Southern Wisconsin.

“Some of the offices were about 10 miles from each other,” Grindstaff said.

The Courier will move at the end of the month, which doesn’t give Kanable much time to clean up and find homes for the “copy cats.”

Yes, there are two. But one has been interviewed for another post and probably will be accepted.

The other still needs a home.

Kanable has slowly been sorting the contents of the building, paper by paper, notebook by notebook, and deciding what to keep. There’s plenty of history there.

The Courier had to be tough to survive, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

“Newspaper publishing in Milton and other small towns in Wisconsin was a volatile commercial enterprise, with papers coming and going with regularity,” according to a Wisconsin Historical Society online history of the Vernal Avenue building. “In Milton and Milton Junction, several newspapers operated for a time.”

By 1900, however, two papers had emerged triumphant: the Weekly Telephone, published in Milton Junction, and the Milton Journal, published in Milton. The Weekly Telephone moved into the Vernal Avenue building in 1907.

In 1912, the Telephone bought the Journal and created the Journal-Telephone. In 1946, the paper changed its name to the Milton Courier, according to the historical society.

The historical society describes the building’s style as “late 19th/early 20th century American movements.” It is on the state and national historic registers.

While reporters might be sentimental about their work spaces, Grindstaff said the Courier staffers are not in the building most days. The ad rep is out meeting customers, and the journalists are covering stories.

“Paying rent on a building that sits with a ‘closed’ or ‘back at 4 p.m.’ sign in the window doesn’t make sense,” he said.

As soon as the move is finished, Courier staffers will post “office hours” for their working spaces in the community.

Meanwhile, there’s still a cat that needs a home.


Anthony Wahl 

Janesville Craig's Keeanu Benton looks back at the referee during while competing with Mukwonago's Tyler Pitcel in their 285-pound Division 1 opening matchup at the WIAA state wrestling tournament in Madison on Thursday, Feb. 21.


Obituaries and death notices for Feb. 22, 2019

Dale M. Jensen

Marjorie “Margie” Krause

Mary Ellen Welch


Local
Listen and mediate: Forum discusses school resource officers

JANESVILLE

Janesville School Board member Greg Ardrey grew up in St. Louis at the height of the crack epidemic. At his high school, they had to go through metal detectors, and police officers were always present.

The relationship between students and the police there was “more of an adversarial relationship,” he said.

In schools across Rock County that have school resource officers, the relationship is less confrontational and more collaborative, a group of resource officers from Beloit, Janesville and Milton; school administrators; and Janesville School Board members said during a Thursday panel discussion.

More than 50 people attended the program, called “Discipline Methods in Schools: How Policing Works,” hosted by the Diversity Action Team of Rock County.

At the beginning of the program, Lonnie Brigham, chairman of the Janesville Police Department’s African American Liaison Advisory Committee and a Diversity Action Team member, said the forum was not a debate on the value of officers in schools but more of an educational session.

Nationally, several high-profile incidents have cast such officers in a negative light. People needed to know about the work they do, Brigham said.

One thing was clear: The role and perception of police officers in the schools has changed over the years—but not in all quarters.

“People think that school resource officers go around arresting people,” said Jaymee Thompson, assistant principal of Beloit Memorial High School. “That’s not what they do.”

Beloit, Milton and Janesville school resource officers agreed that was not their primary role.

Milton police officer Ryan Schneider, who works as a school resource officer in the Milton School District, said his role is to educate, mentor and enforce. Creating relationships with students is a big part of what all officers try to do.

Janesville police officer Todd Bailey said he had about 780 meetings with students last year. He tries to advise and guide rather than enforce and arrest.

Still, school board members and school administrators said they would like to see additional bias training to make sure teachers and officers aren’t targeting minority students, even if it is inadvertent.

To that end, Beloit Police Department Sgt. Jamie Linder, who oversees the school resource officers in that city, said the department is developing quarterly report systems to track demographic information of students they interact with in the course of their duties.


Wisconsin municipalities rely on property taxes far more than most other states, a report finds

MADISON

Wisconsin’s municipalities rely on property taxes at nearly twice the rate as their counterparts in other states on average, according to a new report.

Municipalities in the Badger State got about 42 percent of their revenue from property taxes—well above the national average of about 23 percent, according to the study released Thursday by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum.

At a stop in Milwaukee, Gov. Tony Evers said he hoped to address the issue by providing local governments with more state aid known as shared revenue.

“We have to create a more flexible opportunity for all of our municipalities to access resources so they can thrive. If it’s property-tax related, it really constrains our cities,” the Democratic governor said. “So we’ll be looking to increase shared revenue, but we’re also looking to provide some flexibility to our municipalities, including Milwaukee.”

Wisconsin ranks seventh in the nation for its reliance on property taxes for funding municipalities, the report said.

All the states that outrank Wisconsin on that measure are in the Northeast. No other state in the Midwest uses property taxes as heavily as Wisconsin, the report found.

Local governments in Wisconsin have seen their revenue constrained for more than a decade by property tax caps. Wisconsin’s caps—championed by Republicans who control the Legislature—appear to be tighter than other states that rely as heavily on property taxes for local governments, according to the report.

“It’s a classic good news-bad news story,” said Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

“I don’t think there’s any question that the property tax caps have been a contributor to the successful effort to reduce the property tax burden in the state of Wisconsin. I think what we’re pointing out here is we are starting to see issues arise in terms of some unintended consequences potentially that have to do with the caps.”

Among those possible unintended consequences: rising debt and increased use of wheel taxes.

Funds used to pay off debt aren’t subject to the property tax caps, so borrowing provides one of the few relief valves for local officials.

Local governments have few ways to raise funds if they want more money. Increasingly they have imposed wheel taxes—a development that has drawn opposition from some lawmakers.

Over the years, property taxes have become more important in funding municipalities in Wisconsin, the report showed. For two decades, state aid made up a bigger share of local budgets than property tax revenue, but that changed in 1997.

Now, property taxes account for twice as much revenue for local governments as state aid.

In November, nine municipalities voted to exceed their property tax caps, according to the report. Typically, past votes to exceed those limits have been to help fund schools, not municipalities.

Municipalities in most other states use sales taxes more routinely to fund their operations. Wisconsin’s sales tax—5.5 percent in most parts of the state—is the lowest in the Midwest, the report found.

Local officials in Milwaukee and elsewhere have sought ways to raise more money, with some calling for the ability to increase sales taxes.

The report looked at revenue but not spending by local governments. Henken said local spending has been studied in past reports and will be again in the future.

“There’s an expenditure question here, too, and both have to be looked at,” Henken said.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum conducted its review in collaboration with the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, Wisconsin Realtors Association and the Greater Milwaukee Committee.

The report follows up on one from 2017 that suggested the funding structure for Milwaukee was outdated and ineffective.