Wausau school board president asks for ethics investigation into county clerk as rising number of parents call for school reopening

Published: Jul. 31, 2020 at 3:22 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Wausau school board president and Congressional candidate Tricia Zunker is calling for an ethics investigation into Marathon county clerk Kim Trueblood for her posts participating in a Facebook group of more than 800 Wausau parents asking for in-person school reopenings this fall, the county administrator and board chair have confirmed.

The investigation request comes as more than 600 parents sign a petition supporting an in-person reopening, started before the board’s decision on the 27th to conduct an all-virtual reopening for a minimum of the first month. The petition has gained hundreds more signatures in the past 2-3 days. However in emailed communication directly to Zunker or the full school board since the board’s decision, the response has been more in favor with 89 emails received in support, 30 opposed, and seven without a clear position but looking for more information.

Zunker said the investigation does not come in her capacity as school board president but in her function as a private citizen, noting the request came from her personal email. In her email to the county board, she referenced a comment made by Trueblood to do work “behind the scenes,” and calling out her function in overseeing elections in an official capacity, writing the following:

“Clerk Trueblood’s comments on this post regarding efforts to organize a recall election are unethical and frankly, likely illegal. She has offered to “get info & do anything behind the scenes” in regards to a potential recall election. She oversees elections in an official capacity. It could not be more wrong. It’s even more abundantly clear that she is aware of this as she prefaces the statement by indicating her need to be cautious publicly due to her official position.” The email goes on to request an ethics investigation, a resolution condemning the posts, an official censure by the board, and a statement from the board affirming the future integrity of elections. (Trueblood has been reached but has not yet provided comment on the allegations.)

Marathon County board chair Kurt Gibbs confirmed he is calling a special session of the executive committee board meeting on Monday; there is a possibility that the board will go into closed session to discuss posts to Facebook made by the county clerk, as well as any next steps. Gibbs noted that Zunker reported the posts to Gibbs in an email Thursday evening, but declined to discuss the case further until after the meeting.

Marathon County administrator Lance Leonhard said that he does not directly supervise elected officials such as the county clerk, but that the county remains committed to high standards of ethical conduct among employees, including elected officials. He pointed to a segment from the ethics policy for the county, highlighting that the county does not differentiate between in-person and social media communications.

“Marathon County is committed to the highest standards of conduct by and among public officials and employees in the performance of their public duties,” the policy reads. “Individual and collective adherence to high ethical standards by public officials and employees is central to the creation of and maintenance of public trust and confidence in Marathon County Government.”

The Facebook group, “Parents for Wausau School Reopening”, has garnered more than 800 members in the past couple days. According to the group’s description and posts made to the group, parents have been using the group to brainstorm ways to make their voices heard to the school board on the recent decision to start school virtually.

April Van Rixel, the organizer behind the Facebook group, said their group was organized to provide a voice to parents who felt they had not been able to be heard in the board’s decision process.

“We just wish we would have had a choice between doing the virtual learning and the in-classroom learning. The fact that we were not given a choice is very frustrating and it’s very sad for a lot of families,” Van Rixel said in an interview. “We’re not personally going after any one individual, we just want our message to be heard and listened to and heard and considered in the decisions that the WSD makes.” She indicated they were hoping to organize a peaceful protest, potentially in the downtown Wausau area.

“This group was made out of pure desperation to make our voices heard about the harmful consequences of the Wausau School Boards decision to implement virtually only learning for the 2020/2021 school year,” the page’s description reads. “This group is being organized to form a group of like minded individuals who are as fed up as me. We will protest and make our voices heard once more.”

Posts within the group have been centered on writing letters to board members, signing the petition to reopen schools, and discussions about organizing a protest or forming a recall of board members. Some comments were made on a post within the group discussing potentially protesting outside of Zunker’s private home, but no events have yet been formally scheduled; discussions also include locations in front of schools or city hall.

The Wausau School District is the only district so far in northern and central Wisconsin planning a fully-virtual return to school in the fall, with many of the larger districts adopting hybrid models.

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