Validity Of Teacher's School Board Bid Called Into Question
A teacher, union grievance chairman and longtime critic of current school district leadership has filed to run for a seat on the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District (MCPASD) Board of Education.
Some in the district, as well as an attorney for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said David Dahmen would be in violation of multiple laws and codes that are on the books to prevent conflicts of interest.
Dahmen, who last year accused the school board of treating its teachers like “adversaries and villains,” said he plans to retire in June and would therefore be able to serve. (The next school board term will begin in April.) He said the superintendent and current board members are hoping to keep Dahmen, whose MEA union has multiple legal grievances against the district, from gaining a position of power.
In total, five people filed to run for three seats on the MCPASD Board of Education. Nomination papers and Declaration of Candidacy had to be turned in by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 2.
In Area I, incumbent Jim Greer, 5228 Scenic Ridge Trail, Middleton, is currently slated to run against Dahmen, who lives at 5621 Dahmen Dr., Waunakee.
Greer is on the tail end of his first term on the board. Dahmen is a teacher at Glacier Creek Middle School and vice president of the MEA teachers union – a fact that some legal experts say could prevent him from sitting on the nine-person school board. Greer was unopposed when he first took the seat in 2010.
In Area III, incumbent and board vice president Diane Hornung, 7719 Greenwood Road, Verona, will run against Fred Zietz, 7734 Welcome Dr., Verona. Zietz challenged Hornung for the same seat in 2010 and garnered 34 percent percent of the vote.
In Area IV, incumbent and board president Ellen Lindgren will again run unopposed.
Each year, three seats on the nine-member school board are up for election. Citizens residing in those areas are eligible to run. The spring election will be held Tuesday, April 2.
Greer vs. Dahmen
Greer said the school board has worked effectively to address important issues during his initial term – noting accomplishments like passing a successful building referendum with widespread public support and improving school safety and security.
“I think it’s been a good three years in many ways,” Greer said. “We’ve addressed some important issues; not just overcrowding but school security as well.”
“I’ve always taken the long view,” Greer continued. “I went into this ‘eyes wide open’ and my goal has always been to do what’s best for the kids.”
Superintendent Don Johnson said there are legitimate legal questions surrounding whether or not Dahmen could be a voting member of the school board without violating state statutes. Citing the Government Accountability Board’s guidelines, Greer also questioned whether Dahmen could be certified as a candidate.
Annette Ashley, clerk of the MCPASD School Board, on Tuesday confirmed that Greer had filed a challenge to Dahmen’s nomination paperwork. The challenge was based on the fact that Dahmen turned in photocopies of the signatures required to run for office, rather than originals.
Chapter 4 of the Government Accountability Board’s administrative rules, which are based on state statute and carry the weight of law, are referenced in Greer’s challenge and state: “Nomination papers, recall petitions, and … campaign finance reports … may not be filed with the filing officer by facsimile process. Nomination papers and recall petitions shall not be considered filed with the filing officer until the signed original of each nomination paper and each recall petition is received in the offices of the filing officer.”
Dahmen has until 5 p.m. Thursday to respond to Greer’s challenge, after which Ashley, as clerk, will rule.
Dahmen said the school district didn’t inform him that he was required to provide original signatures until after he declared his candidacy. He called Greer’s challenge a “cowardly act.”
“It was not communicated to me at the time I filed my papers that originals were required, and as soon as I was informed of that intention, which was the next day, I took in my originals,” Dahmen said. “There was no deceit, no blatant violation, there was simply an honest attempt to comply with the law, given my understanding, and my reliance on the advice of the district’s filing officer.”
Greer pointed out that such challenges occur often in government races, ensuring that nomination papers are in order.
Dahmen on Monday went on to say many of the questions about the validity of his candidacy are politically motived.
“One has to wonder why the superintendent’s office has anything whatever to do with this process,” Dahmen wrote in an email to the Middleton Times-Tribune. “He’s obviously biased against teachers, he’s obviously got a financial interest in maintaining his board, and his office is passing along information to his candidate about the propriety of my nomination papers.”
“It’s incestuous, and if there’s a serious problem here, it’s not with photocopy integrity,” Dahmen said.
Having taught in the district for 30 years, Dahmen said serving on the school board would be a natural extension of his desire to help students.
“I’ve been in public service my entire adult life,” he said. “Whether it has been helping kids understand basic science, or helping teachers in their professional lives, I have been doing what I could to help people in ways I know how to help.”
“The board seems like that might be some place where I might do the same,” he added. “I’m not unfamiliar with how the board works, and it could be a place where I could make a difference.”
But Dahmen said it is “pretty clear” district leadership doesn’t want him on the board.
Barry Forbes is associate executive director and staff counsel for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB). He said last week there is very little ambiguity in the laws and codes of conduct that prevent current employees from sitting on the elected government boards that oversee their jobs.
Forbes, who has worked as an attorney for WASB since 1983, said there is nothing to prevent Dahmen from running. There are, however, at least three rules in place that could prevent him from being a voting member of the MCPASD Board of Education, according to Forbes.
Forbes said the criminal conflict of interest statute (WI Stat. 946.13), the code of ethics for government officials (WI Stat. 19.59) and the common law doctrine of incompatibility of offices or positions all contain prohibitions intended to keep elected officials from overseeing themselves as employees.
“Past attorneys general have issued very clear opinions,” said Forbes. “If an employees is a board member, the employee is supervising the person who supervises him.”
Forbes said there would be no legal violation until Dahmen would be sworn into office. Should he win on April 2, that would occur on the fourth Monday in April.
“I’ve made the following suggestion to employees who want to run for office,” he said, “resign before that time, or [don’t run].”
Forbes said conflict of interest regulations often prevent board members from voting on certain issues. For instance, longtime MCPASD Board of Education member Tim Statz recused himself from votes on contract items that would have impacted food service workers, because that department employed his wife.
In fact, the attorney general has ruled that sitting school board members may not work as substitute teachers, even for a single day, according to Forbes.
Forbes said if Dahmen were to remain a teacher while sitting on the board of education, a wide range of people – including law enforcement agencies, board members and ordinary citizens of the district - could file complaints against him.
Dahmen doesn’t agree with Forbes’ interpretation of the laws. He went on to say WASB “is not an organization that values diversity with regard to educational policy decision making.”
“[T]heir threats are, of course, ridiculous,” Dahmen continued. “Were I elected I would be an employee for a matter of weeks, during which the probability of me voting on anything affecting me is negligible. Their presumption is one of a lack of integrity, which they know something about.”
Dahmen said he is still researching the legal nuances of his bid for office.
The school board is scheduled to vote on Dahmen’s retirement at Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting.
“I think it makes perfect sense that a retired district employee shouldn’t vote on things like health insurance for former employees,” Dahmen said. “But there are all kinds of things that I could vote on. School boards affect teacher[s] a lot, and I think a teacher kind of understands the animal in a unique way.”
The MEA and the MCPASD have spent a good deal of time in court in recent years. Both sides have racked up sizeable legal bills fighting over the district’s firing of Glacier Creek Middle School teacher Andrew Harris for viewing nude images on his work computer. (The district in August appealed a circuit court ruling against the MCPASD in the case.) The MEA also has a pending grievance regarding the handling of a teacher placed on a district performance improvement plan.
“I think many board members are intelligent, rational people,” Dahmen said. “But I don’t think they are necessarily non-partisan. I would like to bring a new perspective to the board.”
“They don’t generally err on the side of teachers,” he continued. “I think the relationship between the district and the MEA has steadily declined ever since Don Johnson took over as superintendent and … I think a teacher’s credibility on the board could help repair some of those relations.”
Hornung vs. Zietz
In Area III, voters will get a rematch of a lopsided 2010 race.
“I am seeking re-election because I offer a moderate, well-reasoned voice to the board,” said Hornung, the incumbent. She earned 66 percent of the vote the last time Zietz challenged her. “I have been fiscally responsible and a taxpayer advocate while at the same time supporting public education, exceptional programming, as well as our staff.”
“I have worked hard for these last 12 years to maintain the quality of education in our district that our community has come to know and expect,” she added.
Zietz said he is challenging Hornung to change a “wasteful” culture created by district leadership that “celebrate[s] mediocrity.”
“MCPASD says they do well,” Zietz continued. “They do average. The next generation can be great and we should lead the way.”
“The time wasted in schools is amazing,” said Zietz. He pledged to “bail” from the school board after six years, if elected.
“Why would people keep running if they don’t have kids in school?” Zietz asked.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly indicated Dahmen was the MEA union's vice president. He is in fact the union's past president.