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Paper chase

Alleged misuse of So. Door school funds cleared in review, but leads to more questions, open records requests

Oct. 26, 2013
 
Southern Door School Board member Del Schmelzer, facing camera, at a recent school board meeting in which a workshop was held on financing.
Southern Door School Board member Del Schmelzer, facing camera, at a recent school board meeting in which a workshop was held on financing. / Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate
Southern Door School Board member Del Schmelzer is shown at a recent board meeting. / Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate

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Southern Door School Board member Del Schmelzer walked into the Door County Sheriff Department May 27 with documents he thought might show the misappropriation of $50,000 in school funds in 2007.

After the Door County Advocate asked the school district for those financial records, along with personnel records and emails from Schmelzer’s final weeks as a district employee, the district and its attorney took more than two months to produce the public documents — requiring two separate meetings with an attorney hired by the district — only to show the money apparently was accounted for and Schmelzer’s personnel record was clean.

Schmelzer was responsible for Southern Door’s information technology services for 14 years before resigning in May 2012. He was elected to the school board in April.

Schmelzer and Southern Door School District Superintendent Patti Vickman both said Schmelzer never approached the district or the board with his concerns. The Advocate became aware of the complaint during a routine review of sheriff’s reports in June. The nature of the complaint is listed as “Misappropriation of Public School Funds.”

According to the incident report, “(Schmelzer) states that during the course of his aforementioned employment with the district as their I.T. person, he became aware of some financial peculiarities.”

Read the Door County Sheriff's Department report.

Along with his concerns, Schmelzer brought a printout of the district’s Baylake Bank check register from July 9, 2007, to April 30, 2012. According to the report, his main worry involved a July 9, 2007, funds transfer of $50,000. The account is simply labeled “Money Market.”

Schmelzer, who came into possession of the register while working for the district, said he was not sure if he could legally possess the documents, which is why he did not take his concerns to the school board, the district’s Finance Committee or Vickman.

He has declined to say on the record how he came to possess the records.

“You know, I just wanted to make sure that there would not be any legal repercussions with what I was doing,” he said.

School district financial records are public documents. The money market account in question has since been identified as the district’s High School Activities Fund.

The Advocate filed an open records request July 29, and about six weeks later the district provided transfer and deposits receipts for the account, check registers, and audit reports from both 2007 and 2008, all which showed the movement of the $50,000 from the district’s checking account to the money market account was properly documented. The final portion of the newspaper’s request, pertaining to emails, was completed on Oct. 8.

Not pursued

Before going to the Sheriff Department, Schmelzer had contacted the Door County District Attorney’s office about his concerns and was referred to the sheriff because the DA does not conduct investigations.

The sheriff’s report indicates Schmelzer was given a number of suggestions about how to pursue his concerns, including reporting his suspicions to the school board president, reviewing past board minutes or asking administrators for answers. The final suggestion was to seek an audit if the first three options failed to yield answers.

To date he has not turned over the digital or paper copy of the documents to Vickman, the district’s finance committee or the school board.

“You know, right now I don’t know if it’s worth pursuing or not,” he said.

Schmelzer admitted he does not have a good understanding of what the financial documents he took to the sheriff’s department showed.

Departure leads to issues

The strained relationship between Schmelzer and district administrators was apparent when Schmelzer ran for the board and answered a candidate survey.

In response to the question “What prompted you to run?” he wrote for the March 20 Advocate, “I resigned in May 2012 from the technology coordinator position at Southern Door for a reason: Superintendent Patti Vickman had me under a 30-day gag order and restrained me from attending my daughter’s eighth-grade graduation with threats of legal action if I did not follow her guidelines.”

He also alluded to how he had seen issues with staff and parents not being handled properly — “Some of these issues need to be looked into by a third party to see if a disciplinary action is required.”

Because of the references to a messy departure, the Advocate’s open records request included Schmelzer’s disciplinary record, letters pertaining to his resignation and additional emails between him and various Southern Door staff members.

Schmelzer had two weeks to object to the Advocate’s request for his personnel records. No objection was made.

On Sept. 17, after two meetings involving the Advocate and the school district’s attorney, the district released the records pertaining to his resignation. He had no disciplinary file.

Vickman said she and Schmelzer had a verbal conversation May 25, 2012, where he declared his intention to resign. Prior to his verbal resignation he put in for vacation during the month of June.

A letter dated the same day from Vickman to Schmelzer states that while he is on paid administrative leave, he is not to be present on school grounds or attend school events. He was also asked not to contact students or staff. He could, however, attend pre-approved or pre-arranged meetings.

The letter ends with, “Failure to abide by these directives will lead to disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Vickman said his high-profile position and access to school records on campus and at home were the reasons for the precautions.

“It’s a standard procedure that we would do to anyone who had that kind of security access to the system,” she said.

In a May 26, 2012, email titled “resignation” to Vickman and members of the school board, Schmelzer formally gave his 30-day notice.

The morning of May 29, 2012, Vickman emailed Schmelzer a letter acknowledging his resignation and informing him he would be placed on paid administrative leave until June 6. From June 6 to 29 he used his remaining vacation time.

The third paragraph of the four-paragraph letter stated, “For your information, once the board has accepted your resignation, you are permitted to attend any events that are otherwise open to the public or events that you would need to attend as a parent on behalf of your child; however, be aware that if you believe there is some need to come to the school during the workday, as pertaining to your former position, you are to advise me and I will make appropriate arrangements.” Vickman said this paragraph indicates that Schmelzer could have attended the graduation ceremony without asking permission or notifying the district.

In the same letter, Vickman requested a signed copy of his resignation to be sent to her. Schmelzer complied later that same day. The board accepted his resignation at its meeting that night.

His daughter’s graduation took place June 7. Schmelzer told the Advocate he didn’t feel that he should have had to ask Vickman to attend the event, although he admitted he may not have read all the emails and letters he received from the district in a timely fashion after he first resigned.

He said he had planned to leave the district the previous year to pursue other opportunities but stayed because outgoing superintendent Joe Innis asked him to continue while the district settled in with its new superintendent. Innis left the district at the end of December 2011.

“He was contracted through the year and I believed that he would be staying beyond that ... That is all I recall about it,” Innis said.

This does not mean the conversation never happened.

“I’m not saying there wasn’t such a conversation. Right offhand I don’t recall it,” Innis said.

Despite all this, Schmelzer seems to have positive feelings about his time at Southern Door.

“I have no bad feelings against the district whatsoever,” he said. “They were good to me.”

Records chase

Aug. 1, Southern Door acknowledged the Advocate’s July 29 open records requests. Reporter Samantha Hernandez and news editor Warren Bluhm met Aug. 12 with Vickman and Mary Gerbig, the school district’s attorney, to discuss the search parameters of the newspaper’s request, cost for those records, and the reason behind the request.

According to Vickman, it was at that meeting she first learned Schmelzer had gone to authorities.

During a second in-person meeting Sept. 5, Vickman and Gerbig turned over district audits from 2007 and 2008; 2007 elementary, middle and high school money market accounts’ checkbook registers, bank statements and activity funds transactions; and other financial documents. They also said the email search could cost hundreds of dollars at a contracted rate of $85 per hour, and they suggested ways to narrow the search.

Sept. 16, the Advocate narrowed its original record request to emails between Vickman and Schmelzer from the start of her tenure at Southern Door to when Schmelzer resigned and during the months following when he first came on the board. Emails between Schmelzer and staff members were also requested. The released emails, turned over on Oct. 3 and Oct. 8, yielded virtually nothing pertaining to the $50,000, money market accounts or any issues within the district.

According to a letter from Gerbig, the final search yielded over 1,000 emails, of which the newspaper originally received 28 pages that she determined dealt specifically with the Advocate’s request, minus email attachments. Several days later the district provided the attached files.

The Advocate was charged $21 and $63.75 for the email searches.

Questions on obtaining documents

Vickman said she plans to look into how the “internal documents” ended up at the Sheriff Department and became the “subject of a search” without having been requested.

“My concern is it looked a lot like an internal document that we have stored on our district’s servers,” Vickman said. “... I don’t know how that ended up in Mr. Schmelzer’s hands.”

She commended the district on how well it has maintained its financial records over the years.

“This district has done an awesome job of maintaining its financial records, so that when this concern came up, we could produce this documentation that there was no concern,” Vickman said.

She encourages those with concerns to go through the proper channels first.

“We have worked a lot on governance with the board and focusing on the vision for the district ... We’ve developed some guiding principles and have established processes for all information regarding district matters,” Vickman said. “And if there are concerns, we would like people to bring that forth. It’s always best to utilize the processes that are in place.”

News editor Warren Bluhm contributed to this report.
Contact Samantha Hernandez at svhernande@doorcountyadvocate.com or (920) 743-3321, Ext. 112.

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