Glenwood City school district residents question reimbursements of $40,650 to superintendent
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By LeAnn R. Ralph
GLENWOOD CITY — Two Glenwood City school district residents have questioned payments of $40,650 in reimbursements to the school district superintendent for attending classes at Viterbo University in La Crosse.
Amy and Dan Dopkins spoke to the Glenwood City school board about their concerns during the public comments portion of the April 24 meeting.
Before the public comments started, Dr. Lisa Kaiser, school board president, read a statement about the board’s policies on public comments.
Public comments are the board’s opportunity to hear concerns of the public regarding educational issues, she said.
The school board president can recognize members of the public to speak when it is in the best interests of the school district. Those wishing to speak must sign in and may be limited to three minutes to share information, Dr. Kaiser said.
The school board president may interrupt and terminate the speaker’s comments when the speaker’s statements become too lengthy, obscene or are irrelevant, she said.
The second option for people to address the school board is for a citizen to request that an item be added to the board’s agenda. Items can be added to the agenda by contacting the superintendent at least seven days before the school board meeting, and when the item is on the agenda, a speaker will be able to make a 20-minute presentation, Dr. Kaiser said.
The school board president said she appreciates the participation of the public but that people must be aware whether the content of their speech could be harmful to an individual and that the individual could have a legal complaint.
The Supreme Court has said there is no privilege for comments made at meetings during public comments. Speakers must be aware of comments that could be defamatory, slanderous or otherwise harmful, Dr. Kaiser said.
Amy Dopkins, who identified herself as a school district resident, said she had concerns about the reimbursement for classes that superintendent Tim Johnson had taken at Viterbo for continuing education and had made open records requests.
The classes were taken between August of 2017 and December of 2020 with a total of nine reimbursements for $40,650, she said.
After approaching the school board president about having her concerns discussed in closed session, Dopkins said she was told “no.”
A packet of information pertaining to her concerns was given to the Board of Education last year in closed session, and Dopkins presented the same packet of information to the Board of Education at the April 24 meeting.
The Tribune Press Reporter also received the packet of information.
To his credit, Dopkins said, Johnson responded promptly to her open records requests.
The receipts “seem a little odd,” so Dopkins said she had asked for transcripts.
Johnson refused to give her transcripts of the classes he had taken, which is his right, Amy Dopkins said.
Dopkins contacted Viterbo.
The receipts Johnson presented to the school district that indicated they were from Viterbo did not originate at Viterbo, Dopkins said she was told by a representative for the university.
An e-mail message from the business office dated April 7, 2022, confirms that Dopkins was told the documents did not originate from Viterbo.
The documents have Viterbo University, Inc. at the top and the university’s address.
“I just want to clear this up. I want to see this stuff from Viterbo directly that these courses were taken,” Dopkins told the school board.
One e-mail message to Dopkins from Viterbo registrar’s office, dated June 22, 2022, states “Yes, Timothy took classes here but our course titles are totally different. I can’t really go by what you have listed below. And as for the cost, you will need to contact the Business Office for the cost. I think it would be best to have him request transcripts. Then you would be able to see the exact titles of all these courses.”
The superintendent’s contract also includes a $25,000 performance stipend to take continuing education courses, Dopkins said, adding that she understands and has no problem with the superintendent taking continuing education classes to stay up-to-date on laws, rules and regulations.
Dopkins said what she wanted to know from the school board was whether the $25,000 was supposed to offset the $40,650 in reimbursements or was the $25,000 in addition to the reimbursements.
Dopkins said she would like to see the information from Viterbo directly and presented a permission document for Johnson to sign “so they could get the information from Viterbo ourselves.”
Board of Education member Chuck Draxler pointed out that the school district’s finances are subject to an annual audit, that the auditors meet with Johnson, and that there has never been an issue with audits.
Has a forensic audit been done? Board of Education member Nicole Miller asked.
Dr. Kaiser said she had contacted Viterbo and that individuals have a right to either be part of the university’s directory or to opt out of being in the directory under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
If a student opts out of the directory, that does not mean he or she did not attend classes, Dr. Kaiser said.
The educational institution cannot confirm or deny attendance if someone has opted out of the directory, she said.
After contacting Viterbo, there is no evidence to show anything inappropriate occurred, Dr. Kaiser said.
When payments are made, there are paper trails for the money, said Dan Dopkins.
How can an institution not know whether someone was there or whether there were checks from Glenwood City or whether a credit card was used? he asked.
Viterbo is not the CIA. The university “is not running secret ops,” Dan Dopkins said.
“Can you explain?” he asked.
Dr. Kaiser said it was not her area of expertise and reiterated that Johnson has the right under FERPA to opt out.
Dan Dopkins wondered whether Johnson was required to show that he had taken the courses in order to receive reimbursement.
“Why cover it up? It does not make sense to me. Why would you do that?” he said.
Dr. Kaiser said that Dopkins did not understand all of the components of FERPA.
“Explain it,” Dan Dopkins said.
Dr. Kaiser said she was not going to explain.
Is there something that says Johnson is not signing off on his own courses? Dopkins asked.
Dr. Kaiser said she had seen the transcripts and that Johnson does not have to share them with anyone.
At one point in their back and forth, Dan Dopkins interrupted Dr. Kaiser to ask for explanations, and Dr. Kaiser reminded him it was her turn to speak.
If Dopkins kept interrupting, Dr. Kaiser said she would have him removed from the meeting.
District resident Carrie Klatt also briefly addressed the Board of Education.
Klatt said in her opinion, the concerns expressed by Amy and Dan Dopkins “was a lot whole lot of nothing.”
The Board of Education has handled the situation in a professional manner, Klatt said, and she appreciated the school board’s efforts.
Anyone can file a lawsuit and get information, she said.
The Tribune Press Reporter has noticed over the years that sometimes when people make public comments during a meeting, they become upset because board members will not answer their questions during the public comments.
Readers should note that under the state’s Open Meetings law, a board is not required to allow public comments, and if the board does allow public comments, the chief presiding officer has the right to set a time limit on the comments and to remove speakers from the meeting who are disruptive.
During public comments, board members can ask questions of speakers to clarify information but should not get into a discussion with the people making comments because the item being presented by the speaker is not on the agenda.
If the board has a discussion or takes action on an item that is not on the agenda, that is a violation of the Open Meetings law.
If a board takes action on an item not on the agenda, the public has no way of knowing about that particular business coming before the board, and therefore, has no opportunity to make public comments or to let their elected public officials know their opinion on the subject before the board votes on the subject.
The Tribune Press Reporter also has noticed in recent years that some auditing firms are including statements in their audit reports that their job is not to detect fraud, but rather, their job is to make sure the accounts balance.
A forensic audit is intended to detect whether fraud has occurred and is a separate procedure from the annual audit.