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Altoona school board hires counseling service

Administrator situation prompted call for program

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    Holly Hakes addresses the Altoona school board Wednesday about the REALiving employee assistance program.

    Staff photo by Julian Emerson
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ALTOONA — School district employees now have access to counseling and other services designed for their well-being, a move made in the wake of revelations of employees having experienced a negative work environment during the tenure of schools Superintendent Connie Biedron. 

As part of a contract that began Jan. 1, Altoona schools staff can access services provided by Chippewa Falls-based REALiving, an employee assistance program provider that is part of Aurora Community Services. The services will cost $7,800 over three years.

Altoona school board members heard a presentation Wednesday by REALiving officials, who outlined various services to employees available via the program. Those services include such assistance as counseling and coaching for multiple topics to a crisis phone service.

“We want to help people be their best, whether at work or in the rest of their lives,” said Holly Hakes, executive director of REALiving, which was founded in 2009 and provides employee assistance services to private businesses and local governments, including the Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls school districts.

District officials said they had considered adding similar employee services in the past and that doing so now was prompted by the situation involving Biedron. The school board voted on Dec. 4 to relieve Biedron of her superintendent duties, action prompted in part by board members learning of Biedron’s often adverse interactions with district staff members.

Biedron remains a district employee, and lawyers representing her and the school board continue to negotiate terms of her departure from the district. Biedron’s current contract is through June 30, 2019, and her settlement may include a buyout of part or all of that contact. She received a pay raise on Sept. 5, boosting her salary to $136,311. 

In recent weeks board members and district administrators have met with staff to discuss communication problems that occurred between staff members and Biedron during her nearly six-year tenure in Altoona. Some teachers and other staff members have described the climate under Biedron as one of intimidation and fear. 

Unlike some larger school districts, Altoona does not have a human resources department to deal with such issues, school board President Robin Elvig said. Because of that, hiring a company like REALiving to do that work makes sense, she said.  

“We don’t have anyone on staff with the kind of training to deal with this,” Elvig said. “This seems like the right thing to do for our employees.”

School board member Mike Hilger referenced challenges faced in recent months by district employees and his fellow board members as they’ve dealt with the situation involving Biedron.

“This board is an expert on bumps in the road,” he said after Hakes used that term during her presentation.  

Hakes acknowledged that Altoona schools staff members appear to have faced tough times and said she is confident the services her company provides will help. 

“Oftentimes, in difficult situations, there is lots of room for things to get better,” she said.

Contact: 715-830-5911,julian.emerson@ecpc.com


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