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Wausau School Board to begin review process of Superintendent Kathleen Williams

Move made in wake of holiday music controversy

Oct. 14, 2013
 
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School Board President Michelle Schaefer, left, and Wausau School District Superintendent Kathleen Williams, listen to Michael Fischer addresses some concerns during Monday's School Board meeting at the John Muir Middle School auditorium in Wausau. / T'xer Zhon Kha/Daily Herald Media
Michael Fischer addresses some concerns during Monday's School Board meeting at the John Muir Middle School auditorium in Wausau. / T'xer Zhon Kha/Daily Herald Media

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WAUSAU — The Wausau School Board voted to begin a performance review of Superintendent Kathleen Williams starting Oct. 21, and it likely will contain many questions about the uproar over students’ performance of religious music during concerts.

The unanimous vote occurred in front of a crowd of about 100 people at the School Board’s regular meeting held tonight at John Muir Middle School.

During the meeting, School Board member Pat McKee said he wants Williams to write a letter of apology to Wausau West’s choral director, students, staff members and the community for the upheaval. McKee also wants the School Board to vote to waive a clause in Williams’ contract that would require her to pay $6,000 if she were to resign without giving the board 90 days notice. He also proposed paying $2,000 per year so meetings can aired on public access TV and wants all meetings between Williams and School Board President Michelle Schaefer to be recorded. Those recordings would be distributed among other board members.

McKee said those actions could help the school district repair a fractured relationship with the community and bring forth greater transparency for district actions for the future.

“I want to have a better understanding of what happened,” McKee said. He said he didn’t necessarily want Williams to resign, but if she did, he believed the district would receive more in donations than the $6,000 the district would lose if the board waived the clause.

The School Board plans to vote on those items at its next meeting to be held next month.

The controversy boiled over earlier this month when Wausau West High School choral director Phil Buch announced he was putting the practices of the school’s Master Singers group on hiatus. Buch said he was told he needed to reduce the number of religious and Christmas-related songs the group performs during holiday concerts after a meeting with a committee of music teachers, administrators and legal counsel.

The group performs for nursing homes, businesses, service clubs and other gatherings, and Buch said it didn’t make sense to do those performances under the limitations. Buch and Williams met last week and began to form a compromise. The Master Singers were set to begin rehearsals today.

School Board members and administrators were besieged by emails, phone calls and other complaints from people angry about the limits on holiday music. At a special meeting Thursday, hundreds of people filled the Wausau East auditorium, with many opposing what they said was an attack on Christianity and people of faith. Many criticized Williams’ handling of the situation and accused her of overstretching the power of an administrator.

Mike Fischer of Rib Mountain called for the immediate performance review of Williams at tonight’s meeting, citing her slow response as the controversy broke. Daily Herald Media first broke the story Oct. 4. The district’s first official response was Oct. 7.

Because the committee was formed and the decisions were made at the administrative level, School Board members themselves didn’t know exactly what occurred.

McKee said he still has questions as to why the original decision to limit the Master Singers’ repertoire had been made.

Williams said before tonight’s meeting the review of songs of a religious nature was being done under administrative rule because there is no overarching board policy guiding the process.

“I’ve been telling the School Board since I started here that that was very unusual, and they should develop a policy,” Williams said.

Buch’s original performance list was flagged as a potential legal problem under separation of church and state, and Williams said she didn’t want to overrule an attorney’s advice.

As far as the time it took for her to respond to the controversy, Williams said at the time she was making arrangements to help cover for a principal whose son had died and she also was preparing to leave town. The district’s attorney also had advised her not to comment until all the facts were known.

For more stories, letters to the editor and editorials on the topic of religious music in Wausau schools click here.

Keith Uhlig can be reached at 715-845-0651. Find him on Twitter as @UhligK.

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