In conjunction with a lawsuit settlement issued by Wilber-Clatonia Board of Education member Gary Wooten against the five other members, a letter of apology sent to the W-C student body in January was officially declared void during the school board's June 15 meeting. Here’s a recap of what happened from beginning to end:
The students’ letter and December meeting
Wilber-Clatonia Public Schools held its biennial Multicultural Day event in October 2019. Shortly after, 21 students wrote a letter to Wooten, claiming he made comments to speakers that made the students feel intimidated or uncomfortable. It was sent to him and addressed at the school board’s Dec. 16 meeting. At that time, Wooten said he was unsure what he should apologize for, but agreed a letter should be drafted and presented at the next meeting on Jan. 20. Also during that meeting, Wooten named then senior Luke Sykes personally as being the one who composed the letter.
The January meeting
Wooten was absent at the Jan. 20 meeting because of illness. However, an apology letter dated Jan. 6 was released to students with Robert Sykes, Russ Schuerman, Tim Riechers, Chris Cerveny and Scott Havel’s signatures. “The undersigned members want the message to be clear that while Mr. Wooten’s actions are not the responsibility of the Board of Education members, we deeply regret his choice to disrupt your learning event,” the document reads.
In March, Wooten filed a lawsuit claiming a violation of the open meetings act took place before the January meeting and that he never had a chance to sign the apology. In their response to the lawsuit, board members said Wooten was notified of it and had it sent his way prior to the meeting.
On June 8, Wooten submitted a motion to dismiss the lawsuit and board members agreed to settle. The apology letter to the students was declared void, with another not to be produced, and a payment of $2,500 for legal fees were each stipulations of the agreement.
The June 15 meeting
Official action on payment of fees and declaring the letter void were taken June 15.
But that didn’t stop students and members of the public from speaking out before the motion was voted on.
Stacy Sykes, Class of 2020 graduate Luke Sykes, Kim Zimmerman and Saline County Commissioner Stephanie Krivohlavek all spoke during open discussion, specifically asking if any further action would be taken and what potential steps board members would take from this point forward.
“I understand the decision you’ve come to today, but I want it to be noted the students came together to voice their concerns,” Zimmerman said. “How do you plan to respond to the students?”
When asked if he would be willing to respond, Wooten said he was advised by his legal counsel to refrain, instead tapping his pen on a notepad and not making eye contact any of the speakers.
Luke Sykes addressed Wooten directly about an incident at the Dec. 18 meeting, when he was named personally by Wooten as being the one who sent the student letter.
Sykes read a statement typed out on his phone, saying, “By calling my name out, you made me feel like it was my fault the letter was written and I would like for you to know it was not me who wrote it. I thought your actions were immature and simply unprofessional.”
Following discussion, a motion to agree to the settlement carried. Schuerman spoke to the audience, saying, “I think the kids know at least five of the board members stood up for them.”
In a follow-up phone interview with the Wilber Republican, Wooten said he appreciated people speaking out during the meeting, but felt the apology letter sent out to students was not really an apology and that there were many added elements which did not make it so.
“When I agreed to an apology letter, I thought it was going to be a simple apology,” Wooten said. “It was never my intention to interrupt their educational experience.”
During the Multicultural Day, Wooten, who was the only board member to take part in the event, said he asked a speaker about their immigration status in the United States.
To his knowledge, this is what upset students, as shared in a meeting with superintendent Ray Collins and then-principal Mark Fritch.
“(In asking) I was hoping they (the speaker) would list the advantages and disadvantages for citizenship in the U.S.,” Wooten said. “I wanted the students to see there are advantages and disadvantages of each.”
According to Wooten, he asked Fritch send out an apology from him to the student body, which he understands to have occurred.
His lawsuit followed in March, claiming board members met in a secret meeting to sign the apology letter. Board members formally responded to his claims on April 20, rebutting almost every one. Board members said they each signed the apology on their own time and that Wooten was notified of it before the meeting on Jan. 20.
The lawsuit was officially settled June 15 and as far as Wooten is concerned, the issue is over.
“I just want to get back to taking care of business,” Wooten said.
He's never formally apologized to students.