Members of the Wausau School Board are questioning an administrative decision that resulted in the temporary disbanding of a high school choir group and puts an end to holiday programs in Wausau elementary schools.
School district officials last week implemented an administrative rule that requires schools to limit the use of music with a religious theme in their performances. In a statement released Monday, the district says it asked the leader of the Wausau West High School Master Singers to modify his scheduled song list while making trips around the community. “District legal counsel has advised that public school districts are generally prohibited from sponsoring Christmas caroling in connection with the religious celebration of Christmas.”
Officials say that the district wants to reduce the number of religious songs in the concert schedule, and that the district cannot be found to be unconstitutionally endorsing the religious aspect of the Christmas holiday. “The Wausau School District will continue to take necessary steps to comply with its legal obligations under the U.S. Constitution and otherwise. The District will also strive to ensure that we are respectful of the backgrounds and beliefs of all of our students and their families.”
The decision resulted in the choir temporarily disbanding. Music Director Phil Buch says the administration gave options of performing five non-religious songs for every religious song, have a concert with no holiday music, or postpone concerts past December.
The situation has sparked controversy in the community. Wausau School Board member Pat McKee accused the administration of taking it upon themselves to make a policy decision without the board. He also wants to know if there were any complaints that brought about the change. McKee says “historically, if there has even been the slightest whisper of any pending legal activity within the district…the administration has always gotten the board into closed session and we reviewed it. That never happened, which tells me there may not have been any complaints.”
McKee says he’s very upset that the school board was not brought into this issue in the beginning. “We have to be able to respond to this at least halfway intelligently. Not having information to do so has been extremely frustrating from my perspective. We’ve got to get to the bottom of this. We’ve got to know who made what decisions, and with the constituents help, I think we need to hold those people accountable in whatever manner we can.”
District Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Williams was in closed-door meetings all day Monday working on this issue. The administrative team declined to be interviewed, but did send out a statement and three supporting documents describing the administrative rule on religious music in schools, the district’s Statement of Principles, and an advisory letter from attorneys.
School Board President Michelle Schaefer declined to comment on the music issues, but says she’s trying to organize a special school board meeting to bring the board, administration, and public together later this week to discuss the decision.