An advisory committee that was part of the search process for a new Altoona schools superintendent in early 2012 recommended against hiring Connie Biedron because of fears her management style wasn’t a good fit with the district’s teachers and staff, panel members said.
That committee, comprising school staff and community members, heard presentations by Biedron and another candidate selected as finalists to replace the outgoing superintendent. Following those interviews, committee members told Altoona school board members they didn’t believe either was the right choice, committee members recalled.
Biedron, those members said, appeared to lack people skills and didn’t seem at ease answering pointed questions. Her responses felt mechanical and rehearsed. Biedron — who was a principal in the Blair-Taylor school district — seemed at times defensive and closed off, they said.
“(Biedron) said she had an open door policy, but the way she said it, the disingenuous tone, I didn’t believe her,” said Todd Lenz, a committee member and an Altoona High School teacher for the past 19 years. “She just couldn’t connect with people. We quickly came to an agreement that she wasn’t going to be a good fit for our district.”
However, four other groups comprising community members and those who attended a community forum on the topic disagreed and recommended the school board hire Biedron.
When Lenz heard that board members had decided to hire Biedron as superintendent on March 19, 2012, he said he was surprised. He worried that her management would affect Altoona teachers and other staff in a negative way.
“I think she might be in over her head,” he thought at the time. “This could be bad.”
Almost six years later, on Dec. 4, the Altoona school board relieved Biedron of her superintendent duties, in effect removing her from that position after deciding in a closed-session meeting one month earlier to negotiate a settlement to part ways. The board is scheduled to meet Monday, when it will discuss ongoing negotiations with Biedron.
The decision to end Biedron’s tenure as superintendent occurred after a board investigation of the controversial Aug. 31 firing of Altoona High School football coach Steve English by high school dean of students Jamie Oliver. Board members chose to dismiss Biedron after they said she misrepresented her role in that incident.
The superintendent told board members she opposed Oliver’s actions and recommended he be disciplined. But text messages between Biedron and Oliver the day after the firing indicate Biedron supported that decision. Conversations with staff members led board members to believe that Biedron knew about the firing. Biedron maintains she did not.
That situation, board members learned, was just the most recent example of what district staff said was Biedron’s mistreatment of many district staff throughout her tenure as Altoona superintendent, according to information provided during interviews with school board members and 48 current and former staff members.
“We didn’t take action regarding (Biedron) because of the Jamie Oliver situation,” school board President Robin Elvig said. “It was about so much more than that. We discovered that situation wasn’t an isolated incident but was just the tip of the iceberg.”
‘Intimidation and fear’
During her time as superintendent, Biedron’s top-down, heavy-handed management style created an aura of fear among district staff, current and past employees said. Biedron often angrily confronted people who questioned her initiatives or disagreed with her ideas, they said.
Some current and former staff said they dreaded interacting with Biedron because they feared upsetting her. Some talked about a supposed list of names Biedron kept of those she didn’t view as team players and worked to get rid of.
Others said Biedron was an oppressive micromanager, regularly telling employees in detail what they could and could not do. Many staff said Biedron often acted as if she was seeking staff input but then made decisions as if that input didn’t matter.
Many said they worried they would lose their jobs if they didn’t acquiesce to Biedron’s demands. Some described being called to Biedron’s office or before school board members if they were critical in any way of how the district operated, even when speaking among friends away from school.
“It became more and more common that people were afraid to speak up,” said Jenny Madsen, who taught special education, then fourth- and fifth-graders in Altoona for a decade before leaving the district at the end of last year because the climate had become too negative. “You were always worried there would be some sort of reprimand (from Biedron). The morale went down and down.”
Past and present staff members said they were willing to be interviewed for this story, but they didn’t want their names used because of a fear of retribution from district officials or school board members. Others said they were simply too afraid to discuss Biedron at all, even though she is no longer in Altoona schools.
“The reticence of people to talk about this, even now, is a good indicator of the fearful environment that existed in that district during Connie’s time there,” said Erik Kampa, a high school science teacher in Altoona for 18 years before he left in June 2016 for a job in Fall Creek because he said he could no longer tolerate working under Biedron.
Teachers and other staff members said over time they learned to come to work, keep their heads down and not make waves in order to minimize their stress and retain their jobs.
“We have been living and working under this cloud for many years, and it will take time for us to trust again,” said Melanie Engen, a high school Spanish teacher in Altoona for the past 19 years. “This was not a situation of a bad working environment. This was one of great intimidation and fear.”
When Altoona school board members hired Biedron, they sought a strong, dynamic personality who had new, innovative ideas to push students’ education to the next level. They also wanted a leader who could oversee staff changes in the wake of Act 10, controversial state legislation that, among other things, eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees in Wisconsin, including teachers, that had taken effect the previous year.
“We were looking for a strong leader to take us in a new direction,” Elvig said.
Biedron handled oftentimes difficult decisions regarding changes in employee relations related to Act 10, moves that likely made her unpopular with teachers. She acknowledged difficulties related to her implementing changes in the wake of that legislation.
“Those changes were especially difficult and unwelcome, and some staff may have mistakenly forever connected me with those difficult changes,” Biedron said.
Biedron defended her relations with staff. She acknowledged that as superintendent she at times made tough decisions and was in charge with ensuring that district policies were followed. She said she had “an open-door policy to one and all” and described her management style as “inclusive and positive with a focus on our students.” She denied yelling at staff who disagreed with her.
She said her actions were directed by following the school district’s strategic plan and school board directives. “I carried through my responsibilities at all times with the board’s knowledge and approval, consistent with its mission and vision of offering large school opportunities with a small school approach,” she said.
Biedron maintains she did not direct Oliver to fire the football coach and had no knowledge of that decision beforehand. She said she enjoyed a close relationship with school board members and was shocked when the board decided to negotiate her leaving the district. She pointed to what she said were board members’ positive evaluations of her job performance and the fact that in September the board renewed her contract for two years and granted her a pay raise.
“This turn of events has been surprising to me, to say the least,” she said.
Current and former staff members point to staff turnover and an administrative shake-up in Altoona schools during Biedron’s tenure as evidence of the difficult work environment she created.
During the past four school years, 25 Altoona schools staff members have retired and another 39 have resigned. Figures for the beginning of Biedron’s tenure were not available.
How many of those retirements were people dismissed or leaving early is uncertain, as is the number of staff who would have taken other jobs regardless of whether Biedron was superintendent. But current and former staff said normal retirements and turnover don’t account for nearly all of those departures.
Administrative turnover began shortly after Biedron began as superintendent. First, Pedersen Elementary School principal Chelsea Engen left. Then, in 2016, high school principal Jeff Pepowski and intermediate school principal Gary Pszeniczny took early retirement deals. That was followed by the reclassification of elementary school principal Joann Walker at the end of last school year for reasons staff members said remain a mystery.
Staff and other sources familiar with those departures said those principals were forced out or left because they could not tolerate working with Biedron. The departure of Pszeniczny was especially notable, staff members said.
The onetime football coach was a popular, well-respected figure who was seen as a seemingly permanent fixture in Altoona schools. The license plate on his vehicle spelled out a version of “Railroader,” a reference to Altoona’s mascot. His wife, Sarah, teaches in Altoona.
“Gary was Mr. Altoona,” said Angela Nelson, a special education teacher in Altoona schools for the past 12 years. “When he decided to get out, it was a real shock to all of us. It was a sign of how bad things had gotten.”
Kampa began teaching in the Altoona school district in 1998, and for the first 14 years of his career, the high school science teacher felt the job was a great fit. He loved teaching science, loved imparting knowledge to his students. He enjoyed his colleagues in the tight-knit high school, where many staff members were not only colleagues but friends.
That situation changed abruptly with the arrival of Biedron as superintendent, Kampa said. The mostly friendly vibe between staff and administration under Biedron’s predecessor, Greg Fahrman, disappeared, replaced by a tense, repressive relationship, Kampa said.
Relations between Biedron and Altoona teachers union members, including Kampa, their lead negotiator, went frosty, he said. More troubling were terse feelings between Biedron and other district staff members, Kampa said, especially those in the high school. Staff previously had some say in school affairs, he said; once Biedron arrived, they did not.
“Things got bad right away,” Kampa said. “All of a sudden there was this fear, this reticence to talk. The environment turned very negative very quickly. You didn’t want to get on Connie’s bad side, or things didn’t go well for you.”
Kampa said he was told to meet with school board members after it was reported he had made what was perceived as a negative comment about some aspect of the district. He was directed against making any such further comments, he said. An addition to the teachers’ handbook forbade staff members making any such statement.
“There was this very unhealthy climate, one that bred mistrust,” Kampa said. “(Biedron) wanted to know what we were doing at all times.”
Staff members said a chain-of-command policy the school board approved that prevented staff from communicating directly with board members but allowed Biedron to control that information was particularly harmful and made an environment many labeled as “toxic” to exist.
“We felt like we had no recourse,” Melanie Engen said. “We were told we couldn’t go to the board, and we feared reprimand if we did so.”
Others described a similarly stressful workplace and fears of making comments about the district at any time that might be deemed negative. Lenz recalled being on a committee with Biedron and voicing an alternative to her idea.
“She told me ‘No, that is out of line. You should not question this,’ “ Lenz recalled. “I quickly learned you could not disagree with her. There was no room for that. And if you did disagree with her, or question one of her ideas, it would be held against you.”
Biedron appeared to have garnered the support of the school board during her time in Altoona. They backed her initiatives, from boosting student technology access to an innovative fabrication lab, and periodically cracking down on staff members who balked at some of Biedron’s proposals.
She brought new ideas to Altoona schools, ideas board members typically supported. “We wanted to move the education we were providing our students forward,” Elvig said. “We needed to make some changes, and Connie did that for us.”
Biedron took a direct role in those changes. She initiated a Spanish language program in the elementary school. She wrote multiple grants that allowed the district to boost technology and other educational efforts. She established partnerships between the district and UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout and Chippewa Valley Technical College to benefit student learning.
She also played a significant role in garnering approval for a building referendum in 2014 and oversaw construction of the fab lab, in which students use high-tech equipment to learn. That effort and others attracted not only grant funding but the positive attention of state education officials and Gov. Scott Walker.
“She was a leader who was not from the small town of Altoona. She was taking us places, putting Altoona on the map,” Elvig said of Biedron.
Past and current staff acknowledged Biedron’s ideas, some of which they supported. But they objected to others and said the good publicity she generated was often self-centered and didn’t offset the toxic workplace she created. Many staff said they believe the board hired and retained Biedron to do some of its dirty work.
“The board got exactly what it wanted with Connie,” said Jay Mielke, a high school counselor and the teachers union president. “They were looking for someone who had a distinctly different leadership style than (Biedron’s predecessor as superintendent) Greg Fahrman ... They wanted Altoona schools to be innovate, and to a certain extent they got that. But her way of doing things was really, really detrimental to a lot of people.”
Working in fear
After more than one month of controversy, countless difficult conversations and three closed-session meetings, Elvig was more than ready to be finished with the situation involving Jamie Oliver and the football coach. But even after it concluded Oct. 2, the school board president continued to receive countless messages urging her to look further into the situation.
Elvig decided to visit the school complex. The school board had approved two policies during Biedron’s tenure that prohibited school staff from speaking directly with board members. Instead, all talks had to take place directly with supervisors, a chain-of-command system that made Biedron the only person who directly conveyed staff issues to and from the school board.
Since those policies were enacted, board members rarely visited classrooms. When Elvig did so in mid-October, she said she was stunned by what she discovered. As she approached teachers, she said, they turned from her and walked the other way. Puzzled, she eventually cornered a staff member she knew and asked her what was wrong. The woman began crying.
One by one, Elvig met with more staff that day and in subsequent days. She said she was horrified at what she heard from them. District employees worked in a demoralizing environment, they told her, the result of Biedron’s harsh treatment. Many said they were afraid constantly — afraid of losing their jobs, afraid to question even policies they disagreed with, afraid of being called into Biedron’s office.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, how people appeared to be living in terror,” Elvig said. “They were afraid to even talk to me because they saw me and the board as an extension of Connie. Some of them seemed traumatized, as if they were dealing with a form of (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
Elvig and other board members met on Oct. 25 to discuss the situation, and on Nov. 6 they decided Biedron’s management style wasn’t tolerable. They voted to begin negotiations for her departure. They subsequently named business manager Michael Markgen acting superintendent.
Board members said learning about staff difficulties under Biedron has prompted them to question their oversight of her. As they listened to staff, board members learned that Biedron had often misrepresented staff issues to them, board member Helen Drawbert said.
“As a board member, I accept full responsibility for what happened,” Drawbert said. “To hear what our staff has endured has saddened us tremendously. We have incredible educators, and listening to their stories has been extremely painful.”
For years, Elvig said, she defended Biedron to staff and others who questioned her, in part because Biedron “is a strong, intelligent female leader.” The board also sometimes relied on Biedron to enact tough decisions, Elvig said.
“Maybe I wanted to believe the positive attributes so much that I justified her communication issues as those of a strong leader,” Elvig said. “We on the board are doing a whole lot of second-guessing ourselves right now.”
In recent weeks Elvig and other board members have continued to meet with staff members as groups and individually, an effort to learn more about staff life under Biedron and to move forward to a better place. Board members voted to rescind the chain-of-command policy and are making staff input part of superintendent evaluations. “Going forward, this district believes in the importance of board members meeting with staff on a regular basis, to ensure this situation does not happen again,” Drawbert said.
Staff members said they’re grateful for board members dismissing Biedron and for their meetings with staff about the issue. They appreciate the board’s willingness to admit to their role in allowing Biedron’s actions.
But staff skepticism of the board remains, Nelson, the special education teacher, and other staff said. Mielke, the teachers union president, said it’s difficult for him to hear board members say they didn’t know about low staff morale after he and other staff told them about it in recent years.
“There is still a trust issue there with the board,” Nelson said. “I don’t know if the trust can be rebuilt, but I hope it is possible.”
So does Elvig. She said she will continue to meet with staff as often as they want in an effort to move toward restoring what she called “a positive school environment.”
“There is a lot of pain, a lot of difficult things that happened,” Elvig said. “A lot of healing needs to take place ... Now we are going to do everything in our power to make Altoona schools a place where staff feel supported and want to work again.”