OSHKOSH – The Winnebago County District Attorney's Office will not file charges after a complaint accused the Oshkosh school board of violating open meetings law after protestors refusing to wear masks prompted the board to postpone an August meeting.
The Wisconsin Transparency Project, a firm dedicated to enforcement of Wisconsin's open meetings and public records laws, filed a complaint Nov. 10 on behalf of Oshkosh Area School District parent Kristine Walsh of Neenah, claiming the board violated open meetings laws. That complaint stemmed from an Aug. 25 meeting that the board postponed after protestors refused to wear masks inside the boardroom.
Deputy District Attorney Eric Sparr notified the complainants Thursday that he won't file charges against the board as a result of that meeting, which means now Walsh would be able to sue the board if she chose to do so.
In a memo, Sparr said the situation was "fairly unique" compared to other cases of open meetings violations in that other individuals seemed to prompt the alleged violations.
The school board postponed the meeting after protesters refused to wear masks inside the boardroom. President Bob Poeschl asked the protesters before the meeting to wear masks, but many refused. Poeschl said board members would not start the meeting until protesters wore masks and then went into Superintendent Bryan Davis' office.
About 45 minutes later, Poeschl returned and told the people who remained that the meeting was postponed. The meeting was later rescheduled for Aug. 30 via Zoom. At that meeting, the board approved the district's COVID-19 safety plan, which includes requiring masks for staff, students and visitors in all district buildings.
Sparr said the board had an obligation to follow open meetings laws and that members said they did not discuss school business while in Davis' office.
If board members had ended up discussing school business in Davis' office, that "could be construed as being non-complaint with open meetings requirements," Sparr said.
"However, even if I assumed those facts, I still would not conclude that the filing of formal action by a neutral entity would be the appropriate way to address the issue of a board's potentially non-compliant response to other individuals conducting themselves in a non-compliant manner."
In a statement issued Friday, Poeschl said he never called the Aug. 25 meeting to order because of the disruption and that when board members left the room and went into Davis' office, they did not discuss school business.
Poeschl said he and Davis went into a different office, separate from the rest of the board, where they consulted with the district’s legal counsel and Oshkosh police before eventually deciding to postpone the meeting.
The board regrets “any confusion caused as a result of its response to the disruption,” and said following open meeting laws and board policies is a top priority for the district, Poeschl said.
Tom Kamenick, president and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, said in an email to the Oshkosh Northwestern that he and his client are disappointed with the decision but that it's "not surprising" since "DA's rarely choose to enforce the open meetings law, even if they agree there was a violation."
Kamenick said his client is considering her legal options, including bringing a lawsuit against the board herself.
Contact Bremen Keasey at 920-570-5614 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Keasinho.
This article originally appeared on Oshkosh Northwestern: Prosecutor: No charges against Oshkosh school board over meeting