Staff defend Hortonville Middle School administrator
By Scott Bellile
Dozens of parents packed a school board meeting where they accused administration of bullying teachers and students at Hortonville Middle School.
The public applauded parents and booed administration throughout the hour-plus public comment session Monday, June 27, where three mothers told the board they have 40 pages of emails documenting mistreatment of school staff.
The trio demanded the board investigate the alleged incidents of bullying, release the results of a school climate survey taken by HMS employees and take action against HMS Principal Steve Gromala.
District Administrator Heidi Schmidt told them she has not received any workplace harassment claims by HMS teachers. Board member Bob Van Den Elzen said unless teachers file claims, the board is limited in what it can investigate.
“They’ve got to file that,” Van Den Elzen said. “That’s what gets the process going. So without doing that formal procedure, it kind of handcuffs [us] up on where we can go.”
The parents’ claims
The mothers, Joelle Fellinger, Gabriell Laughlin and Colette Berres, claimed in packets distributed at the meeting that at least six teachers and two paraprofessionals, all female, have been verbally harassed by their higher-ups since Gromala was hired as HMS principal in 2012.
Gromala attended the meeting but didn’t speak.
The mothers said they gathered information from former and present teachers. Among the claims the mothers made:
• Administration spread misinformation or lies about teachers and refused to accept responsibility.
• Administration physically “got in their faces” to the point teachers were fearful.
• At an all-staff meeting, teachers were told, “All of you sound like a bunch of PMSing women.”
• The online climate survey that collected teachers’ opinions about the atmosphere wasn’t anonymous.
• Only women have been targeted, to which former male teachers agree.
“It has not been until the last four years that there has been this level of behavior toward them specifically from administration, to make them feel belittled, to make them feel undervalued,” Fellinger said.
The mothers additionally wrote “disturbing statements” by staff regarding students have gone unaddressed: the Class of 2021 was called “a bunch of shmucks” (sic), girls were told over the announcements “girls, cover your hineys” in reference to the dress code, and teachers were told a particular girl “dresses slutty.”
“This administration is responsible for the professional bankruptcy of our school district,” Berres said. “We will no longer be able to compete at high levels for open enrollment against schools such as Appleton North, Kimberly, even New London and Neenah. As seasoned educators, as their talents make an exodus from HASD, our families will be open enrolling in other districts. That is the word.”
The mothers wrote they’re concerned that Gromala held four vice principal or principal jobs for two to three years each prior to arriving to Hortonville, in the school districts of Wautoma, Ashland, Manawa and Wrightstown.
The district responds
The board and administration concurred with little of what the mothers said, other than board member Craig Dreier agreeing it’s “a very serious issue.” He told them to submit their evidence so the board can investigate the situation and discuss it in closed session down the road.
School Board President Paul Thome insisted personnel matters concerning individuals can’t be discussed in open session. Berres at one point motioned to go into closed session. Thome told her a member of the public can’t do that.
John Thiel, attorney for HASD, advised the crowd that anyone whose public comments could hurt an employee’s reputation could be liable for defamation. That didn’t stop speakers from calling out staff by name on several occasions.
Laughlin said numerous parents have told her Gromala has mistreated their kids.
At another point, Berres told Schmidt in regards to perceived harassment at HMS, “After the climate study, I believe that you told the entire staff, the entire teacher group, that ‘Steve Gromala’s in charge. I’m washing my hands of this. I don’t want to hear about it anymore.’ And your words were, ‘you are on your own.’”
“Oh I don’t think that’s—I have my script to that and those are not the words that I used,” Schmidt replied. “I did support the administration in the findings that I found and said we would follow [grievance] processes in the future, and there wouldn’t be any deviation from that.”
Dreier took issue with Berres’s statement about open enrollment declines.
“As of now, our projected open enrollment ‘in’ students versus our open enrollment ‘out’ students, we will have a projected increase of 53 students,” Dreier said. “And also, as our overall district, we are projecting an increase of 126 students. So your comment that people are leaving—”
“I didn’t say people were leaving,” Berres interjected. “I said there was a possibility of that. And that is a very big concern.”
“Yes, and I’m saying the data that we have right now shows that people are actually coming in,” Dreier said. “And I think that we are doing great things in this school district to encourage people to come in, all right? We’re being aggressive to get students to come to this school district. I think we’re a very good school district, so don’t disparage everyone or the school board or certain people.”
He suggested the teachers who allege harassment might be misconstruing the feedback they’re receiving from their higher-ups as bullying during the school’s transition to professional learning communities. (Several teachers who spoke in support of Hortonville Area School District that night said the transition was stressful.) The audience verbally disagreed with Dreier.
Fellinger, Laughlin and Berres said quality teachers are resigning or retiring due to the conflict. Laughlin asked Thome to explain the number of staff resignations the board accepted over two June meetings, which was 15 district-wide, including two at HMS. Thome said eight were retirees taking advantage of the district’s early retirement benefit.
Thiel criticized Fellinger, Laughlin and Berres for taking the teachers’ allegations into their own hands.
“The response is to not bring parents and everybody to a board meeting,” Thiel said. “The response in the legal process that’s followed in 432 school districts in the state of Wisconsin is to follow the policy that’s in place: file [a] complaint.”
Teachers support HASD
Four HASD teachers—April Lee, Sara McMorrow, Larry Manley and Greg Hall—spoke favorably about the district. No teachers spoke against the district.
Lee said Gromala has always treated her with respect and professionalism, even during disputes. She said six teachers are bringing a negative atmosphere to a wonderful district.
“Let’s move on,” Lee said. “The other 26 of us are trying to move forward and build positive relationships, and there are a few that keep picking the scab, and it is time to heal. We are done with this. The 26 of us are exhausted with this. We want to move forward.”
McMorrow described Gromala as “a leader who runs a tight ship” but said he works hard and supports his staff. She expressed disappointment in the comments HMS employees made about Gromala in the climate survey.
“I was appalled by the words and actions that were used by some members of our staff to describe Mr. Gromala,” McMorrow said. “It was a very small group who used negativity to an extreme that was downright cruel and set a tone that made all of us look unprofessional. Referring to Mr. Gromala as Hitler, a man who killed 6 million people, is not only grossly inappropriate, but it’s also pure hatred. And in education, there is no place for hatred.”
Manley said he was speaking on behalf of the mostly-female HMS staff when he said Gromala is a supportive principal whom employees need to give a chance.
Hall said Act 10 has created “the most stressful four years of teaching I have gone through,” but Gromala has worked hard for the teachers and children and the teachers must support one another.
The process continues
The district representatives’ responses did not deter Fellinger, Laughlin and Berres from continuing forward. They said they’ll follow up with open records requests, submit their evidence and return to the July 11 board meeting.
Their Change.org petition generated 277 signatures from people demanding change and helped increase attendance at the June 27 meeting.