A few weeks back, Isthmus wrote about a club at West High devoted to teaching kids to fight, through mixed martial arts. Turns out the club's adviser, bilingual science teacher Kirk Mefford, also advises another student group that's potentially way more controversial: West High's Freedom from Religion Club.
"It's been a heck of a ride so far," says Mefford of the club, an affiliate of the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation. The club, now in its first year, meets one day a week, as part of an array of noon-hour social clubs open to West students.
Mefford says the group has a dozen core members and three main goals: to "support students who are breaking free from the religion of their parents"; "educate students on the dangers of religious dogma"; and "inspire students to take responsibility for giving their own lives meaning."
There are other "free thought" clubs in schools throughout the nation, says Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but the one at West is unique in one respect: "So far as I know, it's the first time a high school club has adopted our name."
Mefford has heard from folks who feel the club has "no place in a public school," and some of its posters were vandalized. But he's also gotten positive reaction from teachers and staff, who "have in a way come out of their closets" as open nonbelievers.
This Friday, Feb. 12, the birthday of Charles Darwin, the Freedom from Religion Club will donate two dozen "free thought" books, three books on CD and five DVDs to the West High library. Some were donated by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, others purchased with money from fundraisers and a $100 grant from a school foundation that supports student groups.
West High principal Ed Holmes did not return a call seeking his views on this group. School employee Julie Pophal, past adviser of the school's Christian Club, welcomes it with open arms.
"I think everybody should be able to have the club they want," says Pophal. "I don't want to put my beliefs onto them."
Pophal says it took about a year for West students to get school permission to use the name Christian Club, which she suspects owes to concerns about the separation of church and state. She thinks having a club for nonbelievers might lessen those concerns.
Beyond that, Pophal shares a story about her own embrace of nonreligious tolerance. It concerns Isthmus' recent article on the Freedom from Religion Foundation ("Happily God-Free," 12/18/09) - or, more precisely, the harsh letters it drew (Letters, 12/31/09).
"That really hurt me personally to hear the hate," she says. "It changed my viewpoint on the Foundation." And so Pophal wrote a letter to the editor of her own, published in the Jan. 5 Wisconsin State Journal. It concluded, "Let's come together as a community in 2010 and respect the beliefs of all, no matter how different from our own."
More intrigue at city parks
Isthmus' recent article on the "gag rule" in place at Madison's Parks Division drew an online comment from Fritz Kroncke, the division's former recreation supervisor.
Kroncke, who abruptly retired last June after 42 years with the division, wrote that Parks Superintendent Kevin Briski "threatened" him for answering questions about park conditions from Jennifer Miller of WIBA radio. He also accused Briski of playing a "shell game" with costs for the Goodman pool.
Last year, for the first time, the pool broke even, with both revenues and expenditures at about $316,000. Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz crowed about this in a recent blog post, crediting Briski and his staff "for making tough decisions that led to this outcome."
Tim Fruit of the city comptroller's office says there's been a reduction in costs because the pool manager position was eliminated last year; this employee's oversight function is now performed by other Parks staff, including Briski.
Kroncke, in an interview, says one Parks supervisor was "at the pool all summer - basically a full-time employee," without being counted as pool staff.
Other costs may also have shifted. For instance, the pool budget allocated $10,000 and spent $8,596 on "general equipment and repairs" in 2006, its first year. Last year it budgeted $2,000 and spent nothing in this category. And Kroncke says some pool prep, maintenance and training costs were "hidden elsewhere" in the division budget: "I don't think the numbers the mayor's bragging about are right."
Briski did not respond to requests for comment.
Gag's the word
How messed up is the Madison Parks Division? Consider:
Former Madison Ald. Andy Heidt is "appalled" at recent devastation of the conservation woods at Madison's Olin-Turville Park. He says there's been "reckless cutting and plowing," presumably to deter sex encounters (see "Hey You, Knock that Off!," 10/8/09).
In the past, Isthmus would have contacted Russ Hefty, the city's conservation parks supervisor, who would have knowledgeably and tactfully addressed the issue. Now an inquiry to Hefty draws a terse email reply: "I am the project manager for the restoration effort at Turville. Please forward this request for information to Laura Whitmore," the division's spokeswoman.
Whitmore did not respond to the forwarded request. [Incorrect: See this item at http://www.isthmus.com/isthmus/article.php?article=28161]
Former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin addressed this issue in a recent blog post. "No one is served well by limiting the speech of city staff," he wrote, noting that in his 14 years as mayor he asked only that employees "make sure you know what you are talking about" or else refer the matter to someone else.
The result? "There were a few embarrassing moments when a staff member said something and did not have all the information, but nothing that would remotely justify a gag order."
Ah, for the good ol' days.
Ald. Paul Skidmore is planning a "chicken summit."
It all started when Pastor Jeff Wild of Madison Christian Community, one of the churches in Skidmore's west Madison district, expressed interest in raising chickens - ideally more than the four permitted for residential properties under the city's existing ordinance.
Skidmore contacted Madison's "chicken czar," Greg Patmythes of city zoning, who made an interesting discovery: The land on which the church rests is zoned agricultural. That means Wild can have a whole lotta chickens, as well as pigs, goats, horses and cows, so long as it's for noncommercial use.
Before anyone goes hog wild, Skidmore wants to hold his summit, sometime this month, to discuss reasonable rules and other issues - like, for instance, the fact the neighborhood has "a lot of coyotes."