Superintendent candidate chastised over bleacher donation

Posted at 1:24 PM, Mar 13, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-13 15:54:25-04
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- State superintendent candidate Lowell Holtz was chastised by the school board where he most recently worked for donating football field bleachers to a nearby private school his children attended without notifying the board, personnel records show.
The records also show he was at odds with the Whitnall School District board over his communication about a district employee who used a computer to facilitate a sex crime.
Holtz retired in June as superintendent of Whitnall, in Greenfield, after clashing with the school board. Holtz faces two-term state superintendent Tony Evers in the April 4 election. Though it is officially nonpartisan, conservatives are lined up behind Holtz while liberals are backing Evers.
The superintendent oversees the state Department of Public Instruction, which runs K-12 education policy, curriculum and programs, and administers state and federal aid for all 424 public school districts. The department also works with private schools in the choice program and runs teacher licensing and regulation.
 Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now received Holtz's personnel file through an open records request and provided them to The Associated Press.
Holtz on Monday downplayed concerns raised by his former employer in his personnel file, including performance reviews in which he was faulted as being a poor communicator and leader.
"Anybody can criticize somebody who is doing their job," Holtz said in an interview. "I've been doing this for over 30 years. Sometimes you make great decisions and sometimes you make decisions that are upsetting to people on the board."
Holtz's 2013 performance review faulted him for not immediately notifying parents after the district's food services director was arrested, and later convicted, for using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime. Holtz didn't release information about it for two weeks.
Holtz said he withheld the information at the request of police as the investigation was ongoing, and he organized a community meeting about the issue once the arrest was made public by a journalist.
"My rule is kids first, informing people second," Holtz said.
A 2012 letter from the board titled "Item of Concern" faulted Holtz for giving away bleachers to Luther Prep in Watertown following renovation of the Whitnall football field. The letter said Holtz gave them to a private school his children attend without telling the board, in apparent violation of district policy.
"You are expected to follow Board policies," Holtz was told.
Holtz denied that he had violated policy. He said in a response letter, and on Monday, that he actually saved the district "thousands of dollars" the construction company would have charged to take apart and dispose of the bleachers. He said the only school that could take the bleachers "happened to be a school that my children have attended."
Holtz said in the letter that he approved donating the bleachers using authority granted to him by the board to oversee the construction project.
"It really wasn't a big conflict," Holtz said Monday.
Holtz downplayed his uneven performance reviews from 2014 and 2015, saying they reflected criticism from individual members, many of whom were new to the board.
One Wisconsin Now's research director, Jenni Dye, said the records show Holtz can't be trusted.
"Lowell Holtz has spent his campaign taking shots at the performance of our students and teachers, but he's the one who got failing marks wherever he worked," she said. Holtz has criticized Evers for not doing enough to raise graduation rates and school performance.
Holtz was hired as Whitnall's superintendent in 2010.
He previously worked six years as an elementary school principal in Peshtigo, where he earned the state Principal of the Year award in 1999 and a national distinguished principal award from the U.S. Department of Education.
But the Cambridge district school board voted not to renew his contract in 1995. School Board President Mark Sewell said in a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal at the time that Holtz had divided the community after taking seven weeks off to be with his newborn child.
Holtz went on to work as superintendent of the Palmyra-Eagle School District for four years and was superintendent in Beloit for three years before leaving in 2009 to run for state superintendent. He finished last in the primary in the race eventually won by Evers.
In 2010, he was hired by Whitnall, which encompasses five school districts southwest of Milwaukee.

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