LUHS senior Francesca Baker speaks to the board on behalf of the students during the board of education’s committee of the whole meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 13, in Minocqua.
LUHS senior Francesca Baker speaks to the board on behalf of the students during the board of education’s committee of the whole meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 13, in Minocqua.
The Lakeland Union High School (LUHS) board of education’s committee of the whole met for their monthly meeting on Tuesday. The agenda contained two topics but the meeting lasted nearly two hours as the topics were two of what can be a couple of the most contentious in public school circles these days, critical race theory (CRT) and gender identification.
The meeting was held in the high school auditorium instead of the library to accommodate the 60 people in attendance.
“First, LUHS does not have a policy currently on CRT and gender identity,” board vice-president Barb Peck said to open the discussion. “And we are not talking about taking any action on any topic. We are just here to discuss those topics.” 
She informed those in attendance the reason the school board decided to tackle the two issues is because both have been brought to the board’s attention by the constituency on multiple occasions. 
Peck urged the audience to “agree to disagree” from the start.
Following the public comment portion of the meeting which featured 11 different people from the audience, school board members  took turns expressing their views on the two issues.
The majority of the 11 audience members who spoke agreed that the conversations of CRT and gender identification should be “stopped at the front door.”
Lisa Nomm, a parent of two LUHS students, said she believes the board should be more concerned with the cornerstones of education, such as reading and arithmetic.
Gabriel Martinovich agreed, saying this is the time for LUHS to shine and be a leader among other school’s around the state, instead of following in the footsteps of doing something because there is a feeling something needs to be done. 
Besides offering opinions directly on the two topics, those in attendance also criticized the board because they felt Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t advertised enough, an issue the board has been attempting to address and not just for meetings with agendas similar to Tuesday’s but for all of its monthly meetings.
Margo Sharron from St. Germain capped off the public comment portion of the meeting by first thanking the LUHS school board for talking about CRT and gender identity before taking any action, unlike the Northland Pines school district. 
“Our Northland Pines school board never did this,” she said. 
Critical race theory is an unavoidable topic, Sharron suggested, and then invited the board to attend a free event at Northland Pines on Thursday, Sept. 22, where University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh professor, Dr. Duke Pesta, is to give a presentation on CRT, diversity, equity, inclusion and social emotional learning. 
“Please listen to your people that are here tonight,” Sharron said. “Because it is a very frightening thing that a school board has went ahead and passed a gender identity statement without really considering the community. We had over 80 people show, asking the board to slow down, stop and listen to us. They passed it anyway. Thank you so much for listening to the community.”

In Smudde’s eyes
First-year LUHS district administrator Bob Smudde said he was actually opposed to having the CRT and gender identity conversation because there are higher priorities which concern the district at this time.
“What I think it comes down to with either of these topics, is it comes down to a very simple thing,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what we have to do for kids to get them where they need to go.”
Academic success for students, Smudde suggested, is his main focus. He deferred to the majority and explained that even though some guidance advises district’s to exclude parents from some of the conversation regarding CRT and gender identity, that is not an option for LUHS. 
“As far as these topics, I don’t feel CRT is a vetted curriculum,” he said. “Any curriculum would have to be balanced to show both sides of the issue, it’s not. It’s a college curriculum that as far as I’m concerned isn’t appropriate for high school.”
Smudde commended the district’s newly hired curriculum director Katie Rein and said there’s a process and protocol for the district to put a new curriculum in place.
With regard to gender identification, he said there is a legal process the district must follow with being a public school. 
“We will always get with the families and work with the families through anything,” Smudde said. “But I don’t feel the timing is correct for this conversation. I know (those) on this board, we don’t really pull punches, but my stance is I have things to focus on that are more important right now than these two topics.”
Smudde said he was not “thrilled” to be sitting in front of everyone, but, nonetheless, said he’s still glad the community and the board are having the conversation. 
“The reality of the situation is this is a topic,” he said. “It’s political. To me, it’s an adult issue. And I don’t have time for adult issues or politics in my school. I have kids to worry about, kids to feed, kids to find homes for, kids to teach that want to learn. That’s where I stand.”

How does the board feel?
School board member Dean Bortz said he felt maybe the board was “putting the cart before the horse” and maybe the board should be more concerned with the district’s budget deficit, among other things, at this time, and gather more information on CRT and gender identification in the meantime. 
Board member Barry Seidel agreed with Bortz to an extent. He said he believes there are a lot of things to be done before the board takes any action. 
“The biggest question that I have would be for Mr. Smudde,” he said. “And the way that I would approach this, as a board member, is to look at him and say ‘Bob, what do we need to do to be able to adequately run the school with regard to these two issues?’ Do we need to do anything? Do we need to create policy? Or do we need to wait for these issues to settle out in court? And for many of these other hot topics come down in the forms of laws that we have to follow according to like anti-discrimination policies and things like that.”
The fight belongs with politicians, Seidel said, but the board should make decisions where it can. 
“I think if you do anything now, you’re setting yourself up for a lawsuit,” Smudde said. 
Board member Pamela Carrol expressed faith in the district’s administration. She, too, commended the district’s new curriculum director and agreed with Smudde CRT is a topic better suited for the college level. 
“And then I also, as a board member … want to get back to talking about innovative ideas for education so that we can teach and preach to all students in which way they learn,” she said. 
Specifically with regard to gender identification, board member Heidi Fink gave an anecdote of recent court proceedings she has been reading about.
Offering no specifics, Fink said male students who identified as females in Wisconsin schools were raping their classmates while being allowed into girl locker rooms. 
“My whole purpose for what I wanted to bring forward to this board is a very simple, like one line policy that says, like Pam says, based on what it says on your birth certificate this is the bathroom and the locker room that you will use,” Fink said. “At this point no exceptions.”
Her suggestion was favorably received by many in attendance and it ultimately led to her formally asking the board to put the item on its next regular meeting agenda for possible action. 
“All I want is to protect our staff, our kids, anybody in this school that cannot be sued, harassed or charged,” Fink said. “Because in one of our area schools in northern Wisconsin … there was a boy in a girls locker room, and the girls charged him with indecent exposure and sexual harassment.” 
The school in which the incident took place, Fink said, did not have a policy in place, and that’s why she would like to prevent any possibility of LUHS ever being put in the same position. 
Board member Ann Hunt agreed with Smudde in that the  topics of CRT and gender identity are “a lose lose.” Everyone has differing opinions, she said, and encouraged members of the community to listen to one another. 
“Relative to critical race theory, I believe that we as a board have other goals in mind,” board member Shawn Umland said. “One is student safety, the other is utilizing tax dollars as best we possibly can to educate students.” 
Improving communication, not only within the district, but the community as a whole is another important goal of the board Umland shared. He apologized to all who felt Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t advertised better. 
Like Fink, Umland also suggested a simple policy be put in place for gender identity that would protect any student or staff member who accidentally calls another by the wrong name, further referencing a divisive and complex situation that has played out in a school district in the southern part of the state. 
“I would like to see a statement that says they are not going to be charged with discipline,” he said. “I’ve been called Mrs. Umland. I don’t care. Alright, you perform and do well in my class, you can call me whatever you want.”
Coming up with policy to address college level, adult issues for adolescents who are “just trying to get by” isn’t ideal, board member Shari Nimsgern said. 
She cautioned those in attendance that attempting to tackle issues such as CRT and gender identification could impact students negatively, even the community at large, with how divisive it could be. 
Guidelines could maybe be put in place, she said, but she agreed with those who commented that the board should focus on basic adequate education for the time being. 
Being a third-grade teacher, Nimsgern indicated how much she has seen students struggle as they readjust to post-pandemic life. 
“We need to catch up on the last few years,” she said. “They have lost a lot of ground on where they should be.”
Before the board opened the floor back up to members of the public, Peck reminded everyone of district policy which encourages parents to be in the know of their students’ curriculum. 
She then encouraged parents to take measures in making sure they are involved because as a board “that’s what we would like to see.”
“Because your child benefits from that,” Peck said. 
Additional thoughts, criticisms, comments
Nomm shared a few more thoughts. 
She first pointed to comments made by some board members who support the district’s administration in handling CRT and gender identification, suggesting parents shouldn’t be excluded. 
Nomm said Peck’s comments regarding all students should “feel safe and included” sounded ambiguous. 
“Having a male at birth come into a female bathroom or locker room does not make a female feel safe, even though it might make a transgender male feel safe,” she said. “So I think those are ambiguous terms that are hard to define in this current situation.”
Lastly, Nomm touched on the cases which may involve transgender participation in athletics. 
“My husband … could not train at all, and I trained in track and field all my life, and he could beat me in a race,” she said. “So if that’s a situation, then I agree with Heidi that that’s something we need to address … before they become a problem to be proactive rather than reactive.”
Some of the more colorful comments came from Mike Cirilli, who said he wasn't prepared to speak but was compelled to based on, what he said, was “real calculated talk” on the board’s behalf. 
“I don’t know if this talk is to be politically correct or what,” he said. “I had a friend once say to me it’s good to be open minded but not so open minded that your brains fall out. That’s what’s happening in this country right now.”
Cirilli said gender and race are simple conversations to have if everyone would just “cut to the chase.” 
“People that formed this country were common sense people,” he said. “This country was based on passion, it was based on love, it was based on love for our fellow man. With regard to race, there's only one race, it’s the human race. Race is skin deep. Don’t give me that crap that there’s differences. And I don’t like the fact that we’re tapping around the issue here. I mean be real. Our kids need to know the truth. Facts might be truth but truth is always fact.”
One of the last to comment was Karen Gabert, who said all three of her children graduated from LUHS. 
With much emotion, Gabert informed everyone she has been a teacher for 30 plus years teaching PreK and kindergarten. 
“I could identify at that age, children who I thought were a part of the LGBTQA community,” she said. “You just know.”
That community, Gabert said, is part of her family.
Furthermore, she said she felt “disheartened” by comments supporting the idea in which a student is limited to their gender identification by what their birth certificates say, “because I know what real life is like.” 
Gabert said a bullying survey containing questions such as “Do they feel accepted?” and “Do they feel respected?” for LUHS with regard to how those who are members of the LGBTQA community feel could be useful. 
“They are a parcel of our community,” Gabert said. We have a diverse high school, and they’re here.”
She received a round of applause for her comments.

A voice for students
LUHS students and twin sisters, seniors Francesca and Lily Baker also spoke, Francesca Baker saying she was “appalled” there were no other students in attendance. 
She said adults who had spoken to that point in the meeting about the transgender issue shouldn’t have done so since they really aren’t the ones experiencing it. 
Apprehensive at first, Lily Baker said she felt she needed to speak for the students who couldn’t be at the meeting. 
“I heard many things tonight about this being an adult topic, about this being a college level topic,” Baker said. “But here I am, a student at Lakeland, a teenager being affected by this topic every single day.”
There are many “characteristics” at LUHS which need to be changed, according to Lily Baker, CRT and gender identity included. 
“What many don’t understand is students can’t focus on math and science if they aren’t being treated right, if they aren’t being treated equally,” she said passionately. “We can’t just push this aside.”

‘A good exercise’
Following the meeting, Smudde told The Lakeland Times he thought the meeting went well, even though he wasn’t necessarily on board with the idea at first. 
“We got a chance to hear what people are thinking in our community,” he said. “You know, no decisions were made tonight, (but) we have some things to discuss at the board level for action. And we’ll see where that policy goes from there.”
Respectful was how Smudde described the meeting’s atmosphere. 
“I think it was a good exercise for the community and our board,” he said. “I still have apprehension about it because I think there’s other things we maybe should prioritize first … but you know, it wasn’t a bad meeting and ended up being a positive moving forward, and will allow us to move forward and maybe take some action.”
Trevor Greene may be reached via email at trevorgreene@lakelandtimes.com.