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School Board President: Political Ad Crossed School's Non-Partisanship Line

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THREE LAKES -- Some 60 people showed up Thursday night for a special Three Lakes School Board meeting, demanding answers as to why a political ad appeared to show the district supporting Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election bid.

What they got was a public apology from District Administrator George Karling: “Recently, I failed to vet the purpose of the governor’s visit as thoroughly as I should have even though the intent and purpose was expressed to me,” Karling said, reading from a prepared statement. “This was a mistake on my part, and I apologize for that. It will not happen again.”

The board also adopted a new policy that expressively prohibits political actions and use of school resources by school employees and school board members while serving in a school role. The policy does not infringe, however, on their First Amendment rights, including political activities and speech, outside of a school setting.

Board president Tom Rulseh said the campaign ad, “Teach Our Kids” prepared by “Friends of Scott Walker,” caught board members by surprise, even through they knew the governor was coming to visit. But no one, apparently, thought the visit and the filming of the governor would turn into a political ad for television, online and social media. “I knew nothing of the visit turning into a campaign advertisement,” Rulseh said.

It was reported by the Vilas County News-Review that Karling had received approval from the school board to allow Walker’s campaign to conduct the filming, including comments from a couple school staff and even school board member Terry McCloskey.

Three Lakes, with the first-ever in Wisconsin K-12 Fab Lab, apparently was an ideal candidate to laud Walker’s commitment to invest in rural skills training. Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) first reached out to Karling to get permission for the governor’s visit and subsequent filming.

Rulseh didn’t have to wait long to get the public reaction to the campaign ad. He said an e-mail from a district resident questioned the district’s participation in the ad filming. His reaction was similar when he searched for it online. “I found it to be alarming because it clearly did put the school in a position of publicly supporting a candidate as part of an ongoing media campaign,” Rulseh said. The district’s policy manual apparently did not specifically address political partisanship by employees or board members. But it was “a general understanding” that such activities by public employees should not take place at the school, the board president said. “I suspect the advertisement came about as a result of a combination of naivety and poor judgment,” he continued, referring to Karling’s role. “My goal in setting this meeting was to have a board discussion and possible action on political partisanship at the school. And ideally, the outcome will be achieving a clear understanding of our district’s policies regarding political partisanship.”

But that didn’t totally satisfy the audience, some visibly upset that the board president did not allow them to speak during the meeting. Among them was retired corporate attorney Gretchen Hoover of Sugar Camp. Saying Karling was naive in allowing the filming, she went a step further: “The governor’s office needs to issue a retraction both at every television station where that ad played, plus some kind of retraction on social media,” Hoover said. She noted that an article in the Eagle River newspaper quoted a person as saying the ad ran only in north central and northern parts of the state. “ I have friends who saw the ad in Madison and Milwaukee. It played statewide,” she countered.

The ad was airing on a few television stations as late as Thursday morning, according to audience members. Karling said he was informed the ad run, which started the week prior, was ending that day. At the meeting’s onset, Rulseh said “politics can be decisive” and that he wanted to avoid that. As such, he decided not to open the meeting to public discussion. He said board members would be available after the meeting to discuss the issue with attendees. A man from audience responded: “This does not let the public express its desires at all. It would cost nothing to listen to public comment right now.”

But the board president said the state’s Open Meeting Law prohibits topics, including public discussion, to be addressed unless specifically on the meeting agenda. “We are bound by the agenda,” he said. After the meeting, the board president talked individually with citizens and the news media. He said it’s likely the matter will be listed on a future meeting agenda so people can ask questions and voice concerns.