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Closing Bliss to public “completely legal,” district official say

By Brandi Makuski

Leaders in the Stevens Point Area Public School District say they had their legal counsel’s approval to close the district’s administrative building to the public just a few minutes before a May 10 meeting of the elected school board.

Superintendent Craig Gerlach said he received a phone call Monday morning from a Stevens Point man who said he planned to attend Monday night’s meeting, which a large group in tow, without masks or face-coverings. The decision to close the building where the board was meeting, made by himself and Board President Meg Erler, was a safety measure.

“Their take on it was, masks are optional,” Gerlach said. “They aren’t. We have a mask mandate in all district buildings.”

The Stevens Point School Board authorized Gerlach alone to shoulder the district’s mask policy, along with the other elements of the district’s reopening plan. The plan included bringing students back for in-person instruction four days a week in April, then a full five-day-week schedule on May 17. Masks remain a requirement through the end of the school year.

Gerlach said his decisions were based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, state and county health officials, and their lawyers at the Green Bay-based Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis, & Lacy.

He’s aware that the Wausau School District recently voted to make masks optional beginning with summer school, but he said he’s relying on the “advice from professionals in the health field,” including Portage Co. Health Officer Gary Garske, with whom Gerlach speaks regularly.

The group that attended Monday’s meeting was lead in part by Brock Maddox, who believes the mask mandate violates the United States Constitution. The group came to protest the policy—which is why they weren’t allowed in the Bliss Educational Services Center, Gerlach said.

“Masks were not on the agenda, and it’s been school board policy for some time that public comment relates only to items on the agenda,” Gerlach said. “We’re going to wear masks until the end of the school year so there was no reason to put it on the agenda. If you look across the state, these are becoming very ugly conversations. It’s very controversial. It’s not a business decision by the board; the community was upset because they wanted a public forum.”

Attendees at Monday’s meeting were greeted with a sign saying the building was closed to the public and directing them to Ben Franklin Jr. High, where the district provided a live stream of the meeting in the auditorium.

Maddox said he was “very disappointed, alarmed, concerned” when he saw the sign announcing that Bliss was closed. He and about 70 other people in attendance felt the closure was not only a violation of the public trust but also a clear violation of the Wisconsin Open Meeting Law, though they did enter the Ben Franklin auditorium, without masks, to observe the first part of the meeting.

Stevens Point police were present but Assistant Chief Bob Kussow said the department “had no intention” of citing or arresting anyone who entered the building without wearing a mask. Police were at both locations to ensure there were no altercations.

One such altercation occurred in February when Maddox and several others attended a board meeting at Bliss and refused to wear masks. Gerlach said he had no choice but to call the police. The incident was peaceful, with the district ultimately offering the group an overflow conference room if they agreed to wear masks. But the incident delayed the board meeting by about 30 minutes, and Gerlach said he wanted to avoid another confrontation. This time around, Gerlach said he didn’t have police support, so he and Erler made a proactive decision.

“The police department and the sheriff’s department were not going to enforce our mask policy; that’s up to us because it’s our policy,” he said. “That said, if we have people to come in without masks, we’re forced to deal with that and we’re limited in how we can deal with that.”

Erler said the decision “had nothing to do with control,” but as board president, her priority was the safety of the board and others in attendance Monday night, with several in the audience scheduled to make a presentation. Like Gerlach, she makes no apologies for closing the building.

“Under open meetings law, we are responsible for ensuring the public has access to our meetings, and we provided that. Our board meetings are business meetings of the board; the public is invited to attend, but like any visitor coming to our building, visitors need to comply with safety protocols during a pandemic,” she said.

Erler also disagrees with the characterization that an elected body opted at the last minute to shut down public comment from being included at the meeting, saying the public always has the option to contact board members via email and that “masks were not on our agenda (Monday) night; our policy allows public comment on agenda items. Under state law, we are not required to allow public comment at all.”

She said the board actually created a policy allowing public comment about six years ago, but that in-person comments were temporarily suspended during most of the pandemic when the board began meeting virtually. Currently, the board meets with some members in person, and others virtually. The meetings are live-streamed and archived via YouTube.

Under state law, governmental bodies “shall be publicly held in places reasonably accessible to members of the public and shall be open to all citizens at all times unless otherwise expressly provided by law,” and must be publicly noticed at least 24 hours in advance. An emergency meeting can be scheduled with four hours’ notice to the public. Erler said she doesn’t believe the board violated that law with the last-minute change in venue, and neither does its lawyer.

“I don’t believe it made a difference. We notified everyone and the public was given a different venue,” she said. “I don’t believe any member of the public was inconvenienced. We stream all of our meetings and will continue to.”

Gerlach said the mask mandate will remain in place through the district, but he’s not unsympathetic to student and parent concerns about them.

“You think I want to wear masks all summer? I don’t want to wear masks now, so I understand the frustration. But if I’ve got the CDC, the DPI, Gov. Evers, our legal counsel, the county health department all saying, ‘We recommend you wear masks to the end of the year,’ why the hell would I put that up for debate? I’ll die on that cross,” Gerlach said, adding he “really hopes” the district can make masks optional with the start of the new school year in September.

When asked whether he had any concerns that closing Bliss on May 10 would set a precedent for future closures based only on a potential meeting disruption, Gerlach said, “The board always has that right. Board meetings do not have to be open to the public; they have to have access to the board meeting. So as long as we’re streaming live, we do not have to have anybody in there. We could go virtual; I’m not saying we’ll do that, I don’t want to go that way, but they could have the public forum be all-email. The meeting is held in public, it’s not a public meeting. I’m not interested in going that route, but it’s legal.”

According to the Department of Justice, the state’s open meeting law “does not require a governmental body to allow members of the public to speak or actively participate in an open session meeting. The law only grants citizens the right to attend and observe open meetings.”

When asked why the district didn’t announce the change in venue via its website, social media, or the press, Gerlach admits he has regrets.

“I wish we would have. But our communications director was ill. We missed that, we missed social media, we missed the website, so I learned something—I wish I would’ve done that. But things happened so fast,” he said. “But I was concerned if we were going to screen people in, they’d wear their mask and then take it off when they go inside. So we made the decision that we’re going to close Bliss, and we had a lot of business to get done. I know people are upset, and I understand that. To be frustrated, I get it, but people shouldn’t be surprised.”

A request for comment from District Attorney Louis Molepske, Jr., was not immediately returned.