An outside agency could soon be reviewing and updating the Madison Metropolitan School District’s policies.
Neola, based in Ohio with consultants based in Wisconsin, has more than 1,000 client districts around the country, including 269 in Wisconsin, where it has worked since 1989. In Dane County, those districts include DeForest, Stoughton, McFarland and Monona Grove.
MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds said the district’s legal services department needs the help, and confirmed it’s a partnership the district is “strongly considering.”
The department has four staff members, according to the district’s website: a secretary, Title IX investigator/Affirmative Action officer, general legal counsel and associate general legal counsel.
“We have such a small legal counsel that we need support on the policy piece,” LeMonds said. “Primarily the service that they’ll be providing is not writing the policy but working with us to update policy. There’s a lot of them, some are several years old and just need to be updated.”
But School Board member Nicki Vander Meulen, who is one of two board members on the board’s policy work team, is concerned that working with Neola will leave the district with boilerplate policies that aren’t applicable to local concerns.
“This is one of the most important things the board does,” Vander Meulen said.
Neola has more than 400 policy templates that “cover the vast array of issues facing K-12 school districts,” according to its website, though it “does not recommend the use or incorporation of district-specific materials.” While the company will provide legal assistance for claims that the policies do not “accurately reflect what is required by state and federal law,” the district is liable for risks related to included district-specific materials.
Neola associate Steve LaVallee, a former superintendent, said districts still have control over the policies that are put in place. Many policies, like those for field trips, don’t have state or federal laws to guide them, leaving it up to the district to choose wording, he said. The company works with local law offices to ensure compliance with state and federal laws.
“I always tell boards you end up with policies that were original Neola policies, you’ll end up with hybrids and then you're going to end up with standalone district policies,” LaVallee said. “We create this updated policy book and then we also are sort of cleaning up in some ways the old stuff out of the policy book.
"It’s tedious work, it’s difficult with everything else going on to keep it up to date. A lot of districts just don’t have the staff to do it.”
Vander Meulen is also concerned about the timing of the discussions, given new superintendent Matthew Gutierrez starts on June 1. She said any negotiations now make it seem like the administration “wants to limit his power.”
“Do we want him to be able to effect change in the district or do we want to force policy on him?” she said.
LeMonds said no contract would be signed before Gutierrez begins, and that they’re looking at starting any policy review in the next school year, if at all. If the contract is for more than $20,000, the board would have to give approval. LeMonds said in an email Friday “cost is still being determined,” and LaVallee said the cost can vary based on the services provided and the size of the district.
Neola’s website shows it offers services on bylaws and policies, administrative guidelines and procedures and a district policy website.
No matter the cost, Vander Meulen said it would be “incredibly problematic” to give up policy writing duties, one of the board’s “core functions.”
The board policy work team, which includes her and board member Ananda Mirilli, met with Neola representatives earlier this month to hear about their work.
Rules on policy changes
Current board policy dictates that policies and procedures are mostly reviewed on a five-year cycle that began in the 2014-15 school year: pupils and auxiliary services in year one, operations and instruction in year two, ethics and charter schools in year three, board and personnel in year four and administration and community relations in year five.
“Following said review, the superintendent shall present his/her recommendations at a work group meeting for review and approval by the board,” policy 1301 states. “The review cycle does not preclude the board from taking action on any policy determined to be in need of revision.”
Policy 1301 also allows the superintendent to “utilize the resources of the staff to make recommendations in the altering or modifying of policies and procedure.”
LaVallee said once Neola helps get a district’s policies up-to-date, they offer twice a year updates based on new laws or guidelines.
“You have a proactive, systematic way to keep your policy book up to date,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you won’t create your own individual policies based on circumstances, but everything’s not reactive.”
LeMonds said turnover in the legal services department, which included general counsel Matt Bell leaving last fall, helped spark the discussion about using Neola to help avoid policies becoming “dated.”
“What was of most concern to the superintendent was these policies that are a few years old now and need to be looked at and tweaked and rewritten before they become even more outdated,” LeMonds said.
The process for approving new policies could take about a year, according to Neola’s website, and policies would likely come to the board in groups to be approved all at once. Vander Meulen worries that process could make it difficult to follow what changes are happening.
Criticism for student publications
Neola has faced criticism in some districts where it operates for its model policies on student publications. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on an incident at Oshkosh North High School in Spring 2019. Neola works with the Oshkosh Area School District on its policies, including one that calls student publications “nonpublic forums.”
"It's (Neola) a policy mill and, honestly, their student media policy, in particular, has been something we have been battling here at the Student Press Law Center for 15, 20 years, something like that," Student Press Law Center senior legal counsel Mike Hiestand told the Journal Sentinel. "They're horrible student media policies, if you really believe that you should be teaching young journalists how to actually function as journalists."
LaVallee said that districts choose how restrictive such policies are, as Neola offers four options with a range of restrictions, something that applies to some other policies as well.
“Our policy is not the most restrictive,” he said. “We actually provide a toolkit for districts that help them walk through those choices.”
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