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Caution led officials to lock down North High

Monday’s lockdown of North High School was prompted by a concerned parent who repeated an item seen on social media about an incident that happened last week on a school bus.

Eau Claire police officers roamed hallways and students were kept in their classrooms during the morning, but an afternoon statement from the school district said there is no credible threat to North High.

“We have no reason to believe there was or is any threat to North High School,” the district’s news release stated. “However, we wanted to operate out of an abundance of caution to ensure the safety of our students and staff.”

A parent called the school district at 6:30 a.m. Monday with information believed to be “possibly threatening” that was posted Friday on social media.

By the time school officials saw the post, students were already in the building and others en route on school buses. When classes began, students were kept in classrooms except during “controlled transitions between periods,” according to the district’s news release.

“Every time we receive any type of threat that involves children in our school system, we take it very seriously,” said Eau Claire police Lt. Derek Thomas.

About a half-dozen police officers responded to the school, ultimately leaving at about 11:25 a.m.

In its statement, the school district said it appreciated patience and understanding of families, students, staff and community members as it dealt with “this serious issue.”

The social media post that led to the lockdown referred to an initial call to police about a student who overheard what he or she thought was a threat during a school bus ride on Thursday, Thomas said. That incident remains under investigation, he said.

People have every right to listen to police calls over radio scanners and be curious about what’s happening in their community, Thomas said. However, he cautioned that those calls go out before officers arrive on the scene to investigate what happened and are short of important details needed to fully understand a situation.

“Understand there’s far more than the couple sentences that go over the scanner when responding to a case,” Thomas said.

Also in its Monday afternoon statement, the school district revealed there was a separate, unrelated incident that happened Friday night in the North High parking lot.

A man confronted several youths who were making noise in the parking lot at about 11:17 p.m. During the confrontation, the adolescents learned the man had a gun on him. Police arrested the man Friday night, Thomas said, and he will be in court on Wednesday for disorderly conduct and having a gun on school property.

Evers does away with public records website Walker created

MADISON — Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration scrapped a public website created under his Republican predecessor to track compliance on public records requests, a move criticized in a report issued Monday by a conservative law firm.

Doing away with the website dashboard is one example of a step backward in open record compliance that’s occurred between Scott Walker’s administration and Evers, the report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty said. The report accused Evers of slow response times, disorganization and a lack of transparency on open records issues.

Evers disputed many of the report’s key findings, with his spokesman Melissa Baldauff saying Evers is actually responding more quickly to requests than did Walker.

While state agencies are no longer required to maintain the website showing compliance with public records, the Evers administration is evaluating how to better present “accurate information about public records to the public,” Baldauff said.

“The dashboards used by the prior administration did not provide consistent information across agencies,” she said. “Specifically, agencies used different means to calculate the same metrics. Further, the dashboards required significant staff time and resources to implement and maintain. Staff time and limited resources are better spent on responding to actual records requests.”

The state’s chief advocate for open records, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council President Bill Lueders, said he hoped the Evers administration would take the report “as a prod to do better.”

“The executive branch should strive to be a model of transparency,” Lueders said.

Walker created the website in 2016 after a failed attempt by him and Republican legislative leaders to gut the open records law and keep secret almost all materials related to lawmakers’ work. Walker and lawmakers backed off quickly after a loud public outcry from both Democrats and Republicans against the move.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, known as WILL, has been a frequent critic of Evers and is suing the governor over partial vetoes he made in the most recent state budget. The group also has representation on the Freedom of Information Council and has fought for more accessible open records.

Its report released Monday accuses Evers of backtracking on a pair of executive orders issued by Walker establishing best practices for responding to open records requests.

Walker’s executive orders, which earned him an award from the Freedom of Information Council in 2018, required state agencies to track and post their compliance with record requests on a public website, imposed limits on what could be charged and called for responding within 10 business days.

Baldauff said Evers was following state law and guidance from the Department of Justice, which mirrors Walker’s executive orders in some areas. But Lueders said it was a “shame” that Evers was not “aggressively implementing” the Walker executive orders.

“While Walker was far from perfect on the issue of government openness, these orders created an official expectation of timely compliance, beyond what is proscribed by (law), so any retreat from those goals is of concern,” Lueders said.

WILL recommended that Evers re-issue the Walker executive orders and bring back the public website to track open records compliance. It also called on the Republican-controlled Legislature to step in if Evers doesn’t act.

WILL requested information from 11 state agencies to see how they were dealing with open records. The report determined that the Evers administration’s tracking system of open records requests is disorganized and inconsistent with no tracking system in place.

Baldauff, Evers’ spokeswoman, disputed that and provided The Associated Press a spreadsheet tracking what she said was every open records request the administration has received. That showed that Evers had fulfilled 195 out of 209 open records requests received between when he took office in January and Friday.

Contrary to claims in the report, Baldauff said Evers’s response time has been better than Walker’s. During Evers’ first six months, the average response time to 149 public records requests was about 23 calendar days, Baldauff said. Walker’s average was 26.5 business days, based on his administration’s internal tracking sheet, she said.

The WILL report also faulted Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes for taking 22 business days on average to respond to just 13 open records requests. The law requires a response “as soon as practicable and without delay.” The attorney general’s office recommends responding within 10 business days, which Walker also ordered.

Baldauff defended the response time, saying Barnes has received “complex and expansive requests” that require a “significant amount of time to respond to.”

School district to sell Little Red Elementary

Over 35 people attended a meeting Monday when the Eau Claire school board voted to sell the Little Red Elementary school, which has been shuttered for over a decade, to a regional plumbers and steamfitters union.

The board also voted to sell about 22 acres of the surrounding property to a town of Brunswick resident.

The sales were both approved 5-2. Board members Tim Nordin and Aaron Harder voted against the sales.

The UA Local 434, a plumbers and steamfitters union, has offered the district $509,740 for the Little Red building and almost 12 acres of surrounding land, the district said in a Monday night press release.

The building will sell as-is, contingent on an inspection.

The union’s main office is in Mosinee, and it has a union office and training facilities at 2406 Ridge Road in Eau Claire, according to the its website. The local chapter covers Eau Claire, Chippewa, Dunn and 27 other western and central Wisconsin counties.

The union said in a statement from the district: “We have outgrown our Eau Claire training center. The Little Red School is an ideal building since it is already a school for a larger training center for the training of our Journeyman and Apprenticeship Programs.”

A party known as Martinek-Jereczek offered to buy the other tract of land at the site for $110,000, the district said Monday. That party owns property next to Little Red, Torres said.

The offer is contingent on the Martinek-Jereczek party getting financing, an appraisal and an inspection. The buyer would also cover closing and title-related costs.

Little Red Elementary, located next to Highway 37 in rural Eau Claire, has been closed since 2008.

The board has discussed selling the Little Red property “over the past few weeks,” board president Eric Torres said.

The board has heard reports of population growth on Eau Claire’s south side and is anticipating needing another school or adding onto its existing buildings, Torres said.

“In our discussions we have considered that turning the value of that property into cash would put us in a more sound financial situation, which will be reflected in the fund balance,” Torres said.

Nordin said he disagreed with the sale because he wasn’t sure selling Little Red was more financially sound than keeping the property.

“When we’re talking annually about running a deficit of $3 (million) to $5 million and working to cut, a one-time shot of $620,000 is not going to really make a big drop in that bucket,” Nordin said. “It’ll be a one-time injection, but for me it hasn’t met that.”

Harder agreed, saying he’d like to see the sale happen with more community input: “I wouldn’t be heartbroken to see it happen, but would like to see it happen in a way that just gives us an opportunity to show our work a little better to the taxpayers of the community, and also to those who have an emotional investment in this place.”

Board member Laurie Klinkhammer said she supported the sale, and liked the fact it would serve as a training facility.

“Being within the district’s jurisdiction, (Little Red) has sat, and seen and served nobody,” said board member Joe Luginbill. “With this union, what they’re looking to do there, they would be directly partnering with us, the senior grades in high school.”

Until this summer, the Little Red property sat in the town of Brunswick, but the Eau Claire city council voted June 11 to annex the property into the city.

Town of Brunswick chairman Gordon Steinhauer said Monday that he and some town residents are concerned about the sale of Little Red, worrying about the property’s future.

“There’s going to be many acres of land that other buildings may be put on ... we’re not looking at just a school; we’re looking at a school plus the potential for other buildings,” Steinhauer said in a phone call Monday with the Leader-Telegram. “I’m totally opposed to this at this time.”

At the meeting Monday, nine community members urged the board to hold listening sessions and postpone the decision to sell the property.

Little Red “is still a rich environmental resource,” said Karen Voss of the town of Brunswick, whose daughters attended the school and who has worked on habitat restoration at the school.

Voss said she was concerned about the lack of public input on the sale.

“As a citizen (I have) an even stronger concern that something like this has not been open to the light of public comment,” Voss said.

“I’d urge you to halt this process and open it to public input and public hearings,” added Martin Voss of the town of Brunswick.

The south side of Eau Claire is growing and the district expects more students in that area, Nordin said.

Several community members urged the board to keep the school and property, and consider transforming Little Red into a school to contain southside growth.

“We’re growing in that direction, there are subdivisions being built and the population is growing that way,” said Peggy Schwengel of the town of Brunswick. “(We’re) going to have to buy land … why sell something you’re going to need?”

“It is a gem out there. It is beautiful land, a beautiful site for a school, and it’s also in a part of the Eau Claire school district that’s expanding exponentially,” said Susan Smith of the town of Brunswick.

The board and outside organizations have discussed the future of Little Red Elementary for several years.

A grassroots nonprofit group, Initiatives for New Directions in Education, proposed in 2017 a plan to create a charter school and nature campus at Little Red.

But INDE revised their plan in May, instead proposing a charter high school and an outdoor-focused learning program called EauZone that would reach about 450 students, according to Leader-Telegram records.

The new charter school, called the LAND School, would work at “any facility in the district,” due to the cost of renovating Little Red, according to INDE’s website.

Roosevelt plans

The board may vote this month on authorizing a secure entrance to be added to Roosevelt Elementary.

Planned improvements at Roosevelt Elementary, including adding a secure entrance, will cost about $200,000, said Kim Koller, executive director of administration, in a report to the board Monday.

If approved, construction would likely happen in the summer of 2020. Design would need to begin this fall, and the bidding process would be scheduled for late winter and early spring, Koller said.

Unlike other district schools, Roosevelt doesn’t have a hall that requires visitors to pass the school office before reaching the classroom and student areas, schools superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said in August.

In the meantime, Roosevelt will update its security policies for the 2019-20 school year, Koller said. For events open to families or the community, Roosevelt will begin requiring people to RSVP. The school is also looking into hiring a full-time staffer to monitor visitors and the school’s entrance, Koller said.

“All visitors will be asked to identify themselves and will be directed to the office,” Koller said.

Several Roosevelt parents have urged the board this summer to consider upgrading the school’s entrance, citing worries about security.

In other school district news, the board’s 2019-20 student representatives are Morgan Priem of Memorial High School and Johnny Xiong of North High School.