Three Ladysmith School Board members, including the board president, were served with a statement of intent to circulate recall petitions against them, Monday, less than a week after they went against a task force recommendation and voted in favor of a much stricter mask mandate in schools.
School Board President Todd Novakofski, Deputy Clerk Colleen Peters and member Melissa Rudack are facing possible recall petitions for the reasons of requiring students to wear masks, failure to act in the best interests of the students and dereliction of duty. Petitions against Peters and Rudack also allege violation of Wisconsin open meetings.
Recall petition intent documents were submitted to the school district office on Monday, Aug. 23, five days after the board voted 5-2 on a back-to-school plan that now will require students, staff and school visitors to wear masks in buildings. Prior to the decision, the board voted 5-2 to amend its task force back-to-school plan recommendation to include the mandate.
The task force had recommended a back-to-school plan that called for masks to be optional for those who are vaccinated and recommended for those who are not vaccinated.
Voting in favor of amending and adopting the plan were Novakofski, Peters and Rudack and board members Chrysa Ostenso and Mike Russell. Voting against both motions were board members Gerard Schueller and Jeff Wallin.
A recall election is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before his or her term has ended. The right of recall in Wisconsin extends to all elective offices in the state, but only after the elected official has served a full year of a current term of office.
Sources said Ostenso and Russell were not served similar documents as they were just elected to new terms last April.
The petition against Novakofski was submitted by Dustin Mataczynski.
The petition against Rudack was submitted by Jared Prokop.
The petition against Peters was submitted by Bill Rands.
Petitions against Peters and Rudack alleging violation of Wisconsin open meetings stem from emails between board members, a source said.
The Ladysmith News requested board members emails involving the back-to-school plan and masks. It later revised its request to include all emails.
In an Aug. 10 email to all board members, Ostenso wrote, “Wanted to make sure you noticed that the CDC, our local public health department AND now our State of WI DPI are ALL IN AGREEMENT that all schools should reopen with mask mandates for everyone in the building.” The email also stated, “Bruce voted last night- masks optional. Flambeau will probably do the same tonight but we have an opportunity to be the adult in the room here and I hope we take it. I can guarantee if we do, we will have less disruptions - kids and staff out for long periods of time on quarantine and improved safety for our kids. To me this is a real no brainer.”
In an Aug. 16 email to all board members, Peters wrote, “Hi Chrysa and Board members, “I am in complete agreement with this plan. My belief is that, in this case, safety of our students and staff is the PRIORITY!!
Education, Sports and all other aspects of school, though very important, are secondary to the health and very lives of our students and staff. There is bound to be disappointment with this decision but my conscience could not rest with a decision based on “what other schools are doing” rather than following the best practices of our medical community’s advice on all levels. Let’s BE A LEADER in Northwestern Wisconsin.”
After the board voted, all board members were contacted in an email on Aug. 19 by district resident Carla Closs. She stated, “I know that your job is not an easy one. I know that it is a job in which you will never make all members of a community happy. However, with that being said I do feel the need to let those of you who voted for mandatory masking last night know that it was VERY evident that before that agenda item was even started to be discussed, based on politics or your own personal agenda, you had your mind made up. That is extremely unfortunate. You are elected by the public to represent the school district and our kids, not have a personal and/or political agenda that influences your decision making. The back to school plan that was presented was drafted for the benefit of all of the students and staff, to get the children back into the school building safely to return to in person instruction. Our administration did an excellent job in drafting and presenting that plan. Instead you vote to change that policy as presented and change it to NOT be in line with the CDC guidance? It clearly states on the CDC website that masks are “RECOMMENDED”. Now we as a school board vote to REQUIRE this? What happened to following CDC guidance? Everyone in this school district should put the kids first, unfortunately we have all just witnessed that this is not the case.”
Ostenso replied on Aug. 19 to Closs, including all other board members as recipients to the email response. The email reads, “Dear Carla, I can see how things may appear that way. I want to assure you that I studied all of the recommendations, spoke to our local Public Health office and 4 local physicians, and listened to all community input. We were really forced into a time crunch, with the Delta variant coming on so fast right as the school year is about to start. None of us really knows how every parent, staff and community member feels about this issue. Therefore, I felt it was best to vote for best practices and staff and student safety. It is true, that we have many people on the board that are progressive in their politics. However, I can confidently say that every board member does her or his best to ALWAYS vote for what is in the best interest of first our students, then our staff, district and community. There is a history of keeping politics out of school board business and we all believe that that is what is best. In regard to the mask policy, we remain open to input and new data and information as we all navigate another difficult school year. WE already have it on next meetings agenda. My final point is the CDC recommends that masks be worn by all students, staff and visitors to our buildings, they do not recommend that we recommend it. The new plan is what is in line with their recommendations. Thank you for your questions and your concern for our students and our school.”
Also on Aug. 19, Rudack replied to Closs, including all other board members as recipients to the email response. The email reads, “I am sorry you feel that I am not putting the kids first when I voted for masks to be worn inside the school buildings as that is far from the truth. The fact that I did a lot of research on both the CDC and DHS website did have me going into the meeting with a clear idea of which way I would vote, and unfortunately I didn’t hear any facts that negated the research I did. I know that what I voted was the unpopular opinion in our community but sometimes the popular position is not the safest position. If I keep one family from seeing their child intubated then I think it was worth it.”
The number of signatures required on petitions to force a recall of a school board member is 25 percent of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, which in November 2018 was 1,854. As a result petitions require about 463 signatures.