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Wausau schools hire law firm to study music blowup

School Board asks Ruder Ware to investigate uproar over religious songs at holiday concerts

Oct. 28, 2013
 
WDH 1011 School Board 02
Wausau West High School choral students, center, express support for their accompanist, Nolan Rusch, right, as he speaks Oct. 10 at a special School Board meeting at Wausau East High School to address controversial new school-music rules. / Dan Young/Daily Herald Media

WAUSAU — The Wausau School Board has agreed to hire a local law firm to investigate the events that led to a controversy over religious music at holiday concerts.

The School Board, except for absent members Pat McKee and Kathi Whalen Geiger, voted unanimously Monday to hire Wausau’s Ruder Ware to complete the study for not more than $4,000. The board wants the firm to look into the circumstances related to the political and emotional volcano that erupted earlier this month, not to help guide the School Board in its future music policies.

Board member Robb Shepherd said Ruder Ware was a good choice over attorneys from out of town because “they’re located here and they have a better grasp on the culture and climate of the Wausau area.”

The investigation will center on why events unfolded as they did, who made decisions along the way and who knew about those decisions. The probe also will study the school district administration’s response after the issue blew up in public, following a Daily Herald Media report on new school-music rules.

Superintendent Kathleen Williams has been criticized throughout the process. At Monday’s meeting, she asked that School Board members also be included in the investigation and be asked when they knew about the proposals, and whether they posted comments about the issue on social networks media and or other websites.

The controversy blew up in the first week of October after the Daily Herald reported that Wausau West High School choir director Phil Buch was putting the school’s popular Master Singers on hiatus because of new limits on religious music the group could perform in its public concerts. Those limits, Buch said, were determined in a meeting with a committee of music teachers, administrators and legal counsel. That committee was formed in part to prevent school-related music performances from violating the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government-sponsored religion.

Concurrently, district leaders moved elementary school concerts that had been performed during the holiday season to the spring. That decision, leaders said, was made because holiday concerts didn’t adequately showcase students’ musical growth and crimped prep time for mandated standardized tests.

The outcry against those moves from many in the community was swift and clear. Hundreds of people attended a special board meeting held on the matter Oct. 10 at Wausau East High School, with most speaking against the limits, a few supporting them.

The School Board moved to allow individual principals to make judgments on the appropriateness of sacred music in student performances. The Master Singers are practicing again after a compromise was reached between Buch and Williams.

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

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