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EC school board approves deal with Hardebeck

The Eau Claire school board announced Friday it has approved a one-year contract with Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck that would extend her tenure in the district’s top job through June 30, 2020, at which time she said she will retire from the district.

Board members approved the contract on Jan. 29, and Hardebeck signed it the following day. It wasn’t until an emergency meeting called Friday that board members announced the decision. The board met in closed session beforehand to add the retirement language to the contract.

Hardebeck was present at Friday’s meeting and declined comment regarding her contract. She said she plans to discuss the matter more at the board’s next scheduled meeting Feb. 18.

“I think I’ll have a lot of things to share later,” she said, “but I don’t think that now is the time.”

Hardebeck’s current two-year contract ends June 30. She was hired as Eau Claire schools superintendent in 2012. She previously worked as assistant superintendent of personnel services at Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia.

Hardebeck said in a news release she will work to help find the district’s next superintendent and ease the transition to a new leader. That process will begin next school year, with the new superintendent taking the position starting July 1, 2020.

“I am proud of the work we are doing,” Hardebeck said in the news release. “We will spend the next year-and-a-half taking that work to the next level.”

In the release, the district highlighted some of its academic achievements under Hardebeck’s tenure, among them its work to promote equity and access to public instruction, advanced placement courses and family-friendly summer school programs.

Board President Joe Luginbill praised Hardebeck for her efforts to improve student achievement, narrow the achievement gap and increase post-secondary opportunities.

“She is known professionally for advancing equity for all students and for building community support for public education,” Luginbill said in the release. “We are grateful for her leadership.”

A decision regarding Hardebeck’s contract was scheduled to be announced during Monday’s school board meeting, but that session was canceled because of heavy snow that prompted the closure of district schools.

The board has attempted to reschedule another board meeting to announce the board’s decision, but cold weather and snow that prompted school to be canceled six days during the past two weeks have gotten in the way, as have board members’ schedules.

Hardebeck’s contract talks have prompted interest in recent months as teachers and other district staff have raised concerns about what they describe as Hardebeck’s top-down management style that has damaged staff morale and prompted some to leave the district.

Many have questioned ongoing funding shortfalls despite the passage of an $87.9 million referendum in November 2016 that included money for staff pay raises and building improvements. At the time, district officials said referendum money would help prevent future budget problems, but the district faces a projected $3 million deficit this school year.

Board members met six times starting Nov. 19 to discuss Hardebeck’s performance evaluation and contract in closed-session meetings. Typically the board meets once or twice to evaluate superintendents before announcing a decision regarding a contract. Details of Hardebeck’s compensation have not been finalized.

Three years ago Hardebeck’s performance evaluation prompted board scrutiny. At that time, board members identified concerns about Hardebeck’s management style and ordered her to work with a Madison-based job coach to improve her performance.

Trailer park owner, city officials differ on approach to Maples Mobile Home Park

The owner of a troubled mobile home park on Eau Claire’s north side said he is willing to make investments to improve the condition of those dilapidated units, but city officials question whether those expenditures will happen, and whether they will be enough to meet safe housing regulations.

Reed Woith, who owns the trailer park, said he is committed to helping pay for improvements to Maples, 1611 Western Ave., to keep the park open. Eau Claire city officials have discussed shutting the park down because living conditions there have become unsafe.

However, whether Woith, who lives in Ellenton, Fla., is willing to make the kinds of improvements city officials said are necessary to ensure residents living in the park’s 46 trailer homes are in housing that meets minimum health and safety standards remains uncertain. He has owned the Maples trailer park for 12 years and the condition of its units — already in rough shape when he bought the property — has deteriorated during that time and is now among the worst housing in Eau Claire.

City officials have sought upgrades to Maples and proposed a plan to replace the park’s run-down trailer homes with new or better ones during a five-year period. Woith balked at that plan, saying it is too ambitious and he can’t afford that many improvements on that timeline.

Instead, Woith said, he would pay for improvements the city wants only if the park maintains the remainder of its mobile homes and if all of its residents are up to date on their rent payments.

“It depends on what the city wants done,” Woith said when asked what financial commitments he is willing to make toward Maples, where trailers are at least a half-century old. “It’s a catch-22. I need more money so I can make more investments there.”

Paying for upgrades the city wants isn’t likely, Woith said, because currently only about half of Maples residents are making monthly lot rental payments as they fear the trailer park’s shutdown and are saving money in case they have to relocate. Some Maples residents acknowledged they have stopped paying rent because of concerns the park will be closed.

Woith said he is willing to make repairs to trailers at Maples and has had that work done in the past. But the city has denied the issuance of permits to do that work in recent months, he said.

City officials said keeping all homes at Maples Mobile Home Park likely isn’t practical, given the run-down nature of some and density concerns there that hinder firefighting efforts. Ensuring that all residents living there are up to date on rent payments at any given time seems unlikely, they said, noting the difficult financial situations many who live there face.

Officials question Woith’s claim he can’t afford to update Maples, saying rent totals he collects minus property taxes leave enough profit to do so.

City Manager Dale Peters expressed frustration at Woith’s contention he can’t make repairs at Maples’ trailer homes because the city doesn’t allow it. The city has denied permits for repairs only on units in such rough shape the city determined further investment in them wasn’t feasible.

“It is disappointing and troubling that the landowner is stating that the city is the reason he can’t make health and safety investments in the property,” Peters said.

City officials said they are willing to work with Woith to keep the Maples trailer park open, allowing its residents, including young children, to continue living in a location where the monthly rent is less than $400, less than half of the average Eau Claire rent of more than $800. Many have said they can’t afford other places to live and likely would wind up homeless or living with others if the trailer park is shut down.

Peters and other officials said they are sensitive to the tough situation Maples residents face. During last week’s cold snap, when the temperature dipped to -30 degrees and windchill readings reached 50 degrees below zero, outdated furnaces at some trailer homes stopped working and pipes froze and burst. Leaking sewage pipes are commonplace at the trailer park, as are leaky roofs, mold, damaged siding and other problems.

“The city is simply asking for a long-term viable plan with the owner making investments at this property to improve the health and safety of people living there,” Peters said. “We are willing to work with the owner and residents on long-term improvements. But there must be a commitment from the owner.”

Repair questions

Exactly what repairs at Maples Woith is responsible for and which ones trailer home residents are on the hook for remains ambiguous, those involved with the situation said.

Except for one unit, all trailers at Maples are owner occupied, Woith said. That would indicate the people living in them must make or pay for upgrades.

However, city officials said Woith has owned most or all of the trailers there at some point since buying Maples, meaning he is responsible for at least some repairs to those homes, deputy city attorney Doug Hoffer said. In some cases, when trailers become available for one reason or another, Woith resells them to new park occupants, he said.

“It looks like some kind of ownership shell game,” Hoffer said.

While individual property owners are accountable for repairs to individual units, state statute and city ordinances state the owner is responsible for the overall condition of trailer parks, Hoffer said. When conditions become as bad as they are at Maples, the owner has a legal obligation to improve the situation.

“The bottom line is conditions at many of the homes at Maples fail to meet minimum health and safety standards,” Hoffer said. “That needs to change.”

‘Want to stay’

The desire of many living at Maples to remain in their homes and keep the trailer park open has become evident in recent months since the city first announced the possibility of closing it.

Park residents have organized and have spoken publicly about their desire to fix their homes and remain in them. They met last month to question city officials about the park’s future and to express their displeasure about such issues as the city’s home inspection policy and the demolition of trailers without what they deemed proper notice.

On Monday they gathered at the Labor Temple Lounge on Eau Claire’s north side to continue discussions about the trailer park. Woith and his wife, Connie, were there, having flown from their Florida home to attend the meeting. Members of Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope, a local organization that works on behalf of poverty and social justice issues, were there too. The group has partnered with mobile home park residents to address issues.

“The residents living at Maples need to be included in the decisions that are happening where they live,” said Susan Wolfgram, co-chair of the JONAH Affordable Housing Task Force. “Their voices need to be heard.”

Emily Shields has lived in Maples for the past two years. She has helped organize neighbors to work with the city and has led efforts on such issues as demanding more notice when bulldozers raze condemned homes at the trailer park and police monitoring of the park.

“We want to be treated like other neighborhoods, like we matter,” Shields said. “We want to stay in our homes.”

During the meeting several Maples residents questioned city policies regarding their homes. Some said they support Woith and expressed frustration at city officials. Woith reiterated that he intends to try to keep Maples open and has no intention of selling it.

Hoffer acknowledged tensions but said continued discussions have led to progress. He said he believes a workable solution for Maples is possible, but that ultimately will require a commitment from Woith.

“(Woith) seems willing to make a commitment,” Hoffer sad. “Promises are a positive step, but what we need at this point is action.”

Abortion case shows Roberts firmly at Supreme Court's center


Chief Justice John Roberts broke with the Supreme Court’s other conservative justices and his own voting record on abortion to block a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Roberts didn’t explain his decision late Thursday to join the court’s four liberal justices. But it was the clearest sign yet of the role Roberts intends to play as he guides a more conservative court with two new members appointed by President Donald Trump.

Since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy last summer, Roberts has become the court’s new swing vote. He is, by most measures, a very conservative justice, but he seems determined to keep the court from moving too far right too fast and being perceived as just another forum for partisan politics in Washington.

“People need to know that we’re not doing politics. They need to know that we’re doing something different, that we’re applying the law,” Roberts said during an appearance this week at Tennessee’s Belmont University.

Roberts’ vote in the Louisiana case was the fourth time in recent weeks that he has held the decisive vote on 5-4 outcomes that otherwise split the court’s conservative and liberal justices.

In late December, Roberts joined the liberals to keep Trump’s new asylum policy from taking effect. It would have prevented immigrants from making asylum claims if they didn’t enter the United States at a border crossing. Then, in January, Roberts voted with the conservatives to allow restrictions on military service by transgender individuals to be put in place.

On Thursday, a half hour before the court acted on the Louisiana law, Roberts voted with the conservatives to deny a Muslim death row inmate’s plea to have his imam with him for his execution in Alabama. The federal appeals court in Atlanta had ordered the execution halted, but the Supreme Court lifted the hold and allowed it to proceed.

The final vote was the order to keep Louisiana’s admitting privileges law on hold while the court decides whether to add the case to its calendar for the term that begins in October. Louisiana’s law is strikingly similar to a Texas measure the justices struck down in 2016.

A district court judge had struck down the Louisiana law because he found it would have resulted in the closure of at least one, and perhaps two, of the state’s three abortion clinics, and left the state with no more than two doctors who could meet the law’s requirements. But the federal appeals court in New Orleans upheld the law, concluding it was not certain that any clinic would have to close.

So much of what the court has done in recent weeks has been through emergency appeals, cases that call for temporary, yet often revealing, votes. Unlike in cases that are argued and decided, the votes come with little explanation. When there is an opinion, it usually is a dissent.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the only dissent in the Louisiana case, arguing that the court should have allowed the law to take effect because it is not clear that doctors would have been unable to obtain hospital privileges during a 45-day transition period.

After the ruling, some Democrats seized on Kavanaugh’s vote as proof that he was not following through on his assurances at his confirmation hearing to respect past Supreme Court decisions on abortion. But in his dissent he said otherwise. Kavanaugh acknowledged that the court’s decision in the Texas case is the guiding precedent and seemed to suggest he might be willing to vote the other way if it turned out that hospitals were unwilling to afford the doctors admitting privileges.

The Louisiana clinics had argued that they would have been forced to stop performing abortions immediately and that clinics, once closed, are difficult to reopen.

Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s two high-court appointees, were among those who voted to let the law take effect.

The execution aside, the recent votes are not likely to be the court’s last word on asylum, military service by transgender people or the abortion clinic legislation. A decision on whether the high court will take on the abortion clinic legislation could come this spring. If it does, as seems likely, a ruling on the constitutionality of the Louisiana law would likely come next year. There’s no guarantee that Roberts will be with his liberal colleagues then.

In 2007, Roberts voted to uphold a federal ban on an abortion method its opponents call partial-birth abortion. Three years ago, Roberts was in dissent when the court struck down a Texas law that is strikingly similar to the blocked Louisiana measure.

Justices often feel bound by a prior decision of the court, even one they disagree with, at least until the court formally takes on a case to consider overruling the earlier decision.

If he ends up voting to invalidate the Louisiana law, Roberts wouldn’t be the first chief justice to put institutional concerns above his own views. Chief Justice William Rehnquist had been a fierce critic of the Supreme Court decision that requires police officers to advise arrestees of their Miranda rights to remain silent and have a lawyer represent them. Yet, in 2000, he was the author of a 7-2 decision that reaffirmed the Miranda case.

There are few high-profile cases on the court’s docket this year, seemingly by design, after Kavanaugh’s tumultuous confirmation hearings. In March, the justices will consider whether to impose limits on drawing electoral districts for partisan political gain. They also could hear arguments this spring on another controversial Trump administration initiative, to add a question on citizenship to the 2020 census.

Already on the calendar for next term is the court’s first examination of gun rights in nine years. That decision, as well as the Louisiana case, could come in the spring of 2020, fodder for a presidential campaign in which the court could play an outsized role.


Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.


Board reverses climate change ban

MADISON — An obscure Wisconsin board voted to lift a ban on its employees working on climate change during state time that was put in place by Republicans to target the daughter of Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, who was the board’s executive director.

The state Board of Commissioners of Public Lands instituted the ban in 2015, driven by concerns from two Republican office holders. Newly elected Democrats who replaced them on the board last month joined with Democratic Secretary of State Doug La Follette on Monday in unanimously reversing the ban.

Not taking climate change into consideration is “completely reckless,” said board chairwoman and state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski on Friday. She, La Follette and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul voted to overturn the ban that covered work done by the board’s nine employees.

The board provides money from a $1.2 billion endowment fund for school libraries and makes loans to municipalities and school districts. It also manages 77,000 acres of timber land.

Eau Claire native Godlewski said the climate change ban was making it hard for them to make sound decisions about state lands. Removing it is about fulfilling a responsibility to manage state assets properly, Godlewski said.

The ban was put in place when the board’s executive director was Tia Nelson, the daughter of the late Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin who founded Earth Day. Tia Nelson left the job three months after the ban was enacted.

Republicans on the board who voted for the ban in 2015 were then-Attorney General Brad Schimel and Treasurer Matt Adamcyzk. Kaul defeated Schimel and Adamcyzk ran for the state Assembly rather than seek re-election as treasurer. He was defeated.

Adamcyzk proposed the ban, saying at the time he was upset that Nelson worked on global warming issues on board time. She was co-chair of a global warming task force created by then-Gov. Jim Doyle in 2007 and said in 2015 that she had done no work on the issue since that group disbanded in 2008.

Adamcyzk said in defense of the ban that global warming had nothing to do with the board’s mission.

Last year, investment income provided $35.7 million to school libraries across Wisconsin. The board also loans municipalities and school districts money for public purpose projects. In addition to repealing the global warming ban, the board also voted to accept applications from school districts looking to finance energy efficiency projects.

The move comes as Godlewski has been trying to raise the profile of the treasurer’s office, which had its duties severely curtailed in recent years by the Republican-controlled Legislature. Voters last year rejected a constitutional amendment to eliminate the office, something Godlewski campaigned against before she decided to run for the office. Serving as one of three members of the public lands board is the treasurer’s only remaining constitutional duty.