Kate Lyman, who teaches second- and third-grade students at Hawthorne Elementary, saw it as a learning opportunity. The Madison school district saw it as an abuse, for which Lyman was reprimanded and threatened with termination.
"I was just shocked about this," says Lyman, a Madison schoolteacher since 1976. "I was very surprised."
Fittingly, the brouhaha began with what was arguably a wrongheaded overreaction. District officials, alarmed that some schools planned end-of-the-year visits to the Goodman Pool, issued an edict banning aquatic excursions to non-district facilities.
That put the whammy on Lyman's plans to take her 15 students on a field trip to Rutabaga, to paddle about a lagoon in canoes. Indeed, the decision came down the day before the trip was supposed to take place.
"Of course, they were very disappointed," says Lyman, who is trained in teaching canoeing and kayaking and took her class on a similar trip the year before, sans incident.
Hawthorne parent Dan York, a part-time Rutabaga employee who helped arrange these trips, argues that the district's actions put students more at risk. Hawthorne, he notes, has many low-income students - "not kids going to summer camp and taking lessons at the Y" - and the outing afforded a rare chance to learn water-safety skills in a controlled and well-supervised setting.
York made a similar argument last June in a letter to The Capital Times. Lyman's students, it turns out, felt a similar desire to question the actions of public officials.
The day after the trip was nixed, one boy brought in a letter he'd written: "We got mad but I am very sad...sadder than you think." Lyman let him read it to the class, and other students wanted to write letters too.
"I thought it was a good exercise in essay writing and representative government," says Lyman. She had her charges brainstorm reasons for the trip ("You can't just say it's going to be fun"), as well as arguments against it, so they would see both sides.
"I didn't tell them what to write," she relates. "I just gave them a format." Several students expressed that this might be their only chance ever to go canoeing. One lobbed this grenade: "[I]f you were us and we were you, how would you feel if we canceled your favorite field trip?"
The school district's curriculum for second- and third-graders explicitly includes teaching them to write letters and "apply and practice" skills like persuasion. Besides, says Lyman, "I think they were following democratic processes, and it's in our standards that they're supposed to be learning about democratic processes."
The Madison school district didn't agree.
Lyman says her principal informed her that students had to stop sending emails to Assistant Superintendent Sue Abplanalp. Lyman complied, but let students continue sending emails to the school board, not realizing that these also went to officials, including Abplanalp. She was then told her students couldn't write to the board, and put an end to the exercise. But one email that was blocked because of a computer glitch got sent after this warning.
That may have been one email too many.
On June 14, 2007, Lyman was summoned to a meeting with Abplanalp, the Hawthorne principal, and two union reps, including MTI assistant director Ken Volante. The upshot was that Abplanalp issued Lyman a "verbal reprimand" - in writing - for violating district policy 9000A. It warned that "further incidents of this nature will result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal."
Lyman was told her actions ran afoul of rules barring teachers from using their position for personal, political or financial reasons. She doesn't see how this applies. The letter-writing exercise wasn't political, and there was no financial gain. It's true she likes canoeing - a personal reason - "but I can go canoeing anytime I want."
Volante thinks school officials rushed to conclude that Lyman "put her students up to it" and refused to be swayed from this theory. MTI filed a grievance, saying Lyman had done nothing wrong. Late last fall, the district relented, removing the reprimand from Lyman's file.
"We were happy with the result," says Volante. Adds MTI executive director John Matthews, "It was one of those situations where the heavy hand of management got in the way of workplace justice."
Abplanalp declines comment: "It's a personnel matter. I cannot discuss personnel issues." Apprised that the conduct most readers would find questionable is not Lyman's but her own, Abplanalp's answer remains the same.
Records with a 'shush!' attached
Kendall Hallett is already a public records martyr; now he's becoming a public records hero.
The former parking enforcement officer, fired by the Madison Police Department after he posted a document listing the number of citations issued by himself and others (see "Not Giving Him a Break," 11/30/07 and "MPD Fires Parking Enforcer," 12/14/07), has stood up to the city on a records issue and won.
Hallett, who is fighting his termination - his union rep says Hallett was canned for being "a thorn in their side" - made a series of records requests. But the documents he got bore an ominous stamp: "This record was released by the Madison Police Dept. It may NOT be re-released."
"Why is the MPD so secretive about these records?" asks Hallett. "I don't think it's what our founding fathers intended."
In letters to the MPD and City Attorney's Office, Hallett challenged this stamp, calling it "arbitrary and capricious." One of these documents, he noted, was previously released to Isthmus, without this stamp.
Last week, Hallett got an email from MPD Capt. Carl Gloede, saying these documents will all "be re-released to you without cost and without the stamp restricting access."
Gloede says the MPD used a stamp that was "sitting around" for use on records shared internally. It later realized "this restriction was improperly put on" records released via a public records request.
Don't open that envelope!
The media have had a field day with recent privacy breaches by public entities, in which Social Security numbers have appeared on address labels and confidential identifiers have been posted online. But a recent breach at the Wisconsin State Journal has, curiously, gone unreported.
The paper sent statements to employees listing annual salary, benefits and 401(K) contributions. But some statements were put into the wrong envelopes, and thus got sent to the wrong individuals.
This prompted an urgent email from Debbie Reed, human resources director of Capital Newspapers, on Jan. 22. "As you can imagine, it is critical that we retrieve the mailing as soon as possible. Please DO NOT open the envelope but return it to Human Resources." She stressed the need to correct this error "so no one is harmed."
"At first I was worried that the envelope may contain traces of anthrax," jokes one State Journal staffer. "Then I realized that the harm is to all the corporate types, because the last thing they want me to know is what my fellow worker is making." The staffer wondered if Reed had some other interpretation.
Reed did not respond to messages seeking comment. At least when government agencies screw up, they talk to the press.
Confidential to 'Curt'
Dude, if you're going to walk around State Street with a huge sign that says "Everybody Sucks But Me," and if you have a decent rap on how this constitutes wry social commentary, use that business card you were given and tell Isthmus all about it.