A Merrick County resident is hoping to recall two members of the Northwest Public Schools Board of Education.
Abby Thomas, a member of the Save Chapman Committee and a district parent, filed official paperwork with Hall County Election Commissioner Tracy Overstreet’s office on Nov. 26 to recall Northwest board members Dan Leiser and Robin Schutt. Thomas had to file paperwork in Hall County because Northwest is headquartered there.
In the official paperwork, Thomas lists eight reasons for recalling Leiser and Schutt, with the main reason being “gross mismanagement of the district.”
“That breaks down into failure to develop and implement a viable middle school plan,” Thomas said. “Also, the current business plan the district is operating under is dependent on option funding, meaning if we lose all of our option funding, we cannot stay afloat. Option funding is not a reliable source of income. We are not entitled to that, we are not guaranteed that and the state can adjust that accordingly.”
Other reasons for recalling Leiser and Schutt are failure to recover monies from Grand Island Public Schools for educating 849 option students, failure to pass proper procedures and documentation for option students to attend Northwest, a lack of concern to protect the district boundaries and for being unresponsive to the public.
“They are completely unresponsive to the public — which is also the taxpayers — at board meetings,” Thomas said. “They refuse to acknowledge us, answer our questions and our Freedom of Information Act requests. They have refused to let us put items on the agenda.”
When asked to respond to the claims laid out by Thomas in the recall paperwork, Leiser called the claims false.
“I do not see anything that I have done in the last 11 months that warrants a recall,” he said. “I really think the whole thing is just a big waste of everyone’s time and tax dollars. If enough petitions get signed, someone is going to have to pay for an election. If it comes down to them having enough signatures, we will let the district (voters) decide if these claims have any legitimacy or not.”
Schutt said, in general, recall efforts are “good for many reasons,” but that it will be up to the Northwest voters to determine if the reasons laid out in the recall paperwork are legitimate and warrant a recall.
She refutes the claim that the board has failed to develop and implement a middle school plan. Schutt said there was a failed middle school bond issue nine years ago and that while previous boards have failed to implement a middle school, the current board has taken actions toward doing so.
“I would argue that this board and myself have been successful in implementing trimester educational opportunities for our current middle school students,” she said. “That started this school year. I said at a meeting earlier this year that doing nothing is not an option. At least we will have done that, which is honestly more than what has happened since the previous failed bond many years ago.”
Beginning this school year, Northwest has offered trimester courses — art, careers and technology — to its middle school students. The three teachers rotate between the district’s three middle schools each trimester.
Thomas said she initially wanted to recall the entire Northwest board, with the exception of board member Zach Mader, but was unable to do so. Overstreet said the remaining board members — Bret Mader, Mike Shafer and Karl Quandt — could not be recalled due to all three being up for reelection next year.
“When she (Thomas) came in, she had a list of five people she was interested in recalling,” Overstreet said. “State statute says that a recall cannot be launched against an incumbent within six months of the incumbent filing deadline, which is Feb. 18, 2020. We are within that six-month time frame, so those three are not eligible for recall.”
Why not recall Zach Mader? Thomas said the reason for not doing so is due to the way he treats people who speak during the public comment portion of the Northwest board meetings.
“He is the only one who will actually engage with the person speaking, make eye contact, actually turns around in his chair to acknowledge what you are saying. You can tell by looking at him and watching his body language that he is hearing what you are saying. He is nodding as he goes along. You can read his reaction to things on his face.”
She added: “He (Zach Mader) is also the only one who is willing to, so far, speak up and say, ‘We have got to do something about this.’ He is also the one who is not afraid to step up and say, ‘Look, this is what we are doing and that is not OK.’ The reference to that is that these (option) students are costing us $2,000 a head and the taxpayers aren’t aware of that. They (board members) are not forthcoming with that.”
Overstreet said now that the recall petition paperwork has been filed, Leiser and Schutt have 20 days from the time they are served paperwork notifying them of the recall petition to prepare a defense statement. She said they do not need to have a defense statement, but once they have them, they will be included with the recall petitions.
If the statements are received prior to 20 days, Overstreet said, she can move forward with the process sooner. She said she will then have five days to prepare the petitions and the circulators have 20 days to pick up the petitions once they are prepared.
Thomas will then have 30 days to gather the needed 352 signatures from registered Northwest Public Schools voters to proceed with a recall election against Leiser and Schutt. Overstreet said the 352 signatures do not need to be from all over the district. The petitions merely need 352 signatures from registered district voters in order to proceed with the recall effort.
“If they get enough signatures, then I will notify the school district,” she said. “They will then have 50 to 80 days to set an election. Depending on how long it takes and how much time passes, they could have it on the primary ballot. It could also be a special election in the summer. It just depends on how the timing works out on this.”
Overstreet said that if a special recall election is held outside of the primary, there will be a cost to the Northwest district.
“The cost of any recall election is borne by the political subdivision, not by the circulators. So it would be paid by Northwest district taxpayers,” she said. “It would probably be a lot cheaper to have it on the primary election ballot where they are sharing the ballot printing and layout costs with a lot of other political subdivisions, versus a special election. On a special election, they would have postage on top of it to pay besides the ballot printing and layout.”
Overstreet said having a recall on the May 12, 2020, primary election ballot, versus having a special election, saves Northwest about $15,000.
Thomas said the committee plans to be at the Chapman Village Hall on a certain night for people to sign the recall petitions and to view the documentation associated with them. She added people will also be able to ask questions about the recall petition at this time.
Thomas said the committee also plans to have other locations throughout the Northwest district where people can sign the recall petition.