Complaint Charges Five Milwaukee School Board Members With Violation of Open Meetings Law

Letter Apparently Authored by Voucher Advocate Sent by Board Members Without Public Discussion, Input

MILWAUKEE – People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF) has filed a verified complaint with the Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel on behalf of two city residents, charging that five of the nine members of the Board of School Directors of the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) have violated the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law. PFAWF has more than 7,000 Wisconsin members.

The complaint was filed after the five school board members jointly sent a May 6 letter to members of the Wisconsin Senate, urging them to oppose legislation that would reduce state payments to private and religious schools under the state’s voucher law. The following board members signed the letter, printed on official MPS School Board letterhead and using the members’ official Board titles: Jeff Spence (president), Joe Dannecker (vice president), Ken Johnson, John Gardner and Barbara Horton.

Under the Open Meetings Law, governmental bodies, including school boards, are required to give advance public notice of their meetings and to conduct their business in open session. The complaint charges that the five board members violated the law by meeting in private within the meaning of the Open Meetings Law and deciding to take the joint action of sending the letter.

PFAWF President Ralph G. Neas said that this violation of state law should be troubling to all Wisconsin citizens, no matter where they stand on the issue of school vouchers.

"While people differ over the wisdom and legality of using public tax funds to pay for private and religious schooling, there is no dispute that the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law prohibits public school board members from secretly deciding to take action as they did here," said Neas.

Documents obtained from MPS indicate that the letter in question was written by voucher advocate George Mitchell and obtained through private communications with the five Board members. In an April 30 e-mail to an MPS lobbyist, with a draft of the letter attached, Mitchell wrote, "I’m hoping a version of this letter will go out in a day or two." The letter was subsequently placed without change on official MPS stationery and signed by the five board members.

The complaint was filed by PFAWF on behalf of Judy Thorsheim, a Milwaukee school parent, and Daniel Pryzbyla, a retired Milwaukee schoolteacher. In accordance with the procedures set out in the Open Meetings Law, the complaint asks the Corporation Counsel to initiate legal action against the five Board members for their violation of that law.

Said Thorsheim, "As a parent, I think it is deplorable that these public officials have set such a bad example for our children. These are the people who we have entrusted to oversee the education of our children. They are supposed to respect the law and conduct their business in the open, not behind closed doors."

"We have this law to ensure that parents and other citizens have a full opportunity to hear and offer input on the deliberations of the school board," said Pryzbyla. "In the case of this letter, we were never given that chance. Not only was this illegal, but the board members’ action also wrongly suggested that the community is behind the position outlined in the letter."

Copies of the complaint and related documents are available from PFAWF at: http://www.pfaw.org/issues/education/vouchers.html under the heading "Milwaukee Vouchers."

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