The Eleva-Strum District has had a difficult road the past few years as questions and concerns involving its superintendent, Kellie Manning, have mounted. In December the E-S School Board hired attorneys to launch an official investigation into various aspects related to Manning’s employment, uncovering a multi-pronged trail of troubling evidence that has affected the district financially, emotionally, and academically.

Investigation of former E-S Supt. Manning yields shocking allegations

Fake doctorate degree, lack of attention to SPED staffing, confidential files from past employers among the revelations

 

by Beth Kraft

 

Questions that have long surrounded former Eleva-Strum superintendent Kellie Manning—some of which have persisted since the summer of 2016—have finally been answered to the best of the school district’s ability.

Residents, members of the E-S School Board, and even teaching staff have long voiced issues with Manning, highlighted by skepticism of her doctorate degree and persistent concerns for elementary special education staffing levels, concerns that finally sparked an investigation initiated on Dec. 20 by the school board. The information uncovered by that investigation, obtained via an open records request by the Mondovi Herald—yielding well over 100 pages of email correspondence, letters and other incriminating documentation—appears to confirm the suspicions of many along with a few plot twists.

The alleged doctorate degree? Likely a sham. Special education staffing concerns? Validated with proof of gross negligence of staffing levels and student IEPs coupled with retaliatory disciplinary action against staff who advocated for their students.

There’s also evidence that Manning flat out refused to cooperate or even respond to communications related to the investigation into matters concerning her employment, for which she was placed on administrative leave in mid-January.

And then there are the hundreds of files found in the E-S district office that appeared to be taken from school districts where Manning previously worked. Many of the files were found by investigators to contain confidential information.

School board members who were contacted to comment on the results of the investigation—conducted by the district’s attorneys, Kirk Strang and Chad Wade of Strang, Patteson, Renning, Lewis & Lacy, S.C.–agreed the documents from other districts were the most shocking find.

“There’s no way anyone could have ever known that,” commented E-S Board president Dan Wallery, who also said the documents have since been returned to their respective districts.

Among the documents found to be from the Waupun, Sheboygan Falls and Fall River school districts were items such as pupil records (including student test scores, suspension letters, incident reports, special education referral letters, etc.) and personnel records (request for leave, disciplinary letters, performance evaluations, etc.).

Some of the documents are “template style” letters, the attorneys’ summary notes, but other documents contained personal information including student/employee names and addresses. A binder with special education students’ Individualized Education Program documents (IEPs) from other districts was also found.

The summary of findings also notes files in Manning’s office were found to be in general state of disarray.

“The entire counter in the room is full of files that are stacked in piles,” the investigation notes. “There does not appear to be any order or organization to how the files are stacked.”

“One thing led to another,” said Board member Karla Svedarsky of the drawers and carts jam-packed with files. “I was shocked.”

“To me this was the most bizarre twist in the investigation,” Board member Josh Stendahl added. “There is no way someone should take files with personal information from one District to another...It will be up to those districts what happens with this information.”

Board member Craig Semingson, also a past E-S superintendent, agreed taking records from one district to another is unethical.

“That really surprised me,” he said. “I don’t know what reason she would have to be in possession of those records.”

 

‘Proof’ of doctorate traced to diploma mill

The investigation also indicates Manning’s doctorate degree is a fake—confirming months of skepticism voiced by parents and Board members after she repeatedly denied open records requests from the public and inquiries from the Mondovi Herald to settle the matter.

Documentation obtained as part of the investigation appears to indicate Manning holds two doctorate degrees in educational leadership, one from Paramount California University, dated Sept. 15, 2005, and the other from Barkley University, dated March 6, 2015. She also provided a rather official-looking “letter of equivalency” dated Sept. 20, 2017, from the American Board of Higher Education Commission (ABHEC) that appears to validate her doctorate degree as “equivalent to a College/University/ Educational Institution in the Region.”

However, despite Barkley University having a legitimate-looking website, both Barkley and Paramount California University are connected with a parent company, Axact, based in Pakistan, that is a known diploma mill accused of selling fake academic degrees.

“I can print my own off in five minutes,” Svedarsky said.

A 2015 New York Times article, included as part of investigation materials, notes Axact’s reach was found to span upwards of 400 websites drawing in tens of millions in revenue each year from the sale of  non-accredited, phony diplomas. Axact was also the subject of a 2009 class action lawsuit involving some 30,000 American claimants.

And while Manning’s degrees from Barkley and Paramount appear to be fake, so too is the ABHEC she references in an attempt to validate them. She also provided a document to the Board, titled “Information,” in which she worked to explain away various questions about her degree.

Manning stated in a 2015 interview following her hire at E-S that she holds a doctorate in educational leadership from Lamar University. She also went by “Dr. Kellie Manning” on official communications, such as the district’s letterhead.

However, by Manning’s own admission, she hadn’t finished her online classes with Lamar for “additional certifications,” noting she had to put that work “on hold because of job related projects that have consumed my time.”

She indicated she had completed credits toward her doctorate in educational leadership as of March 2015 (referencing approval by the non-existent ABHEC) but did not yet have a PhD. Manning stressed her current position did not require a doctorate and she is not being paid as such.

But for Board members, the fact that she wasn’t paid extra for holding a doctorate is beside the point.

“She lied to the district,” said Svedarsky, adding that it leads her as a Board member to question if Manning was dishonest about other matters related to district decisions over the past few years, such as transportation finances and teacher compensation.

Bus services at Eleva-Strum were contracted out beginning with the 2016-17 school year, a move that was supposed to save the district money, but a financial audit indicates pupil transportation finished out that fiscal year over $87,000 in the hole, costing more than $421,000.

Figures shared in Feb. 2016 indicate the district was providing bus services in-house for $389,000 per year.

“There are a lot of wrongs that need to be righted,” Svedarsky said.

Educational leaders should be held to a high moral standard, Stendahl said.

“In my opinion if the purpose was buying a diploma to call yourself a doctor that was a huge issue for me,” he stated.

Semingson said he was surprised the investigation  indicated Manning’s doctorate degree was faked, “but yet I wasn’t surprised because enough people had been investigating it.

“The evidence was pointing to something wrong with the doctorate degree,” he added.

Speculation began about two years ago and was addressed to a questionable degree in August 2016 when the Board, led by then-president Lois Havenor, allegedly received documentation confirming Manning’s doctorate degree. Havenor at the time said she was “more than satisfied with the documentation,” but declined to share specifically what was provided.

Wallery said he isn’t sure if the phony diplomas investigators discovered are the same documentation Havenor claimed was satisfactory proof Manning held a doctorate.

“There were diplomas showed to us, but whether it’s the same information I can’t say,” Wallery said.

He did say he was “disappointed” Manning chose not to answer questions or defend herself at any point during the investigation.

“As a result we’re left with information that does not look favorable,” Wallery said.

 

Manning purposely ignored, refused cooperation with district’s investigation

According to correspondence from Wallery to Manning, the former superintendent never cooperated with the district’s investigation or responded to Board directives to be interviewed for it. Her refusal to cooperate via silence led Wallery to declare her insubordinate and finally cut off her pay on Feb. 15. Manning resigned from the district five days later.

The provided letters indicate cooperating with the district’s investigation, during normal working hours, was the only job responsibility Manning was given after being put on administrative leave in January. She was offered three separate opportunities in early February to be interviewed, including the option of meeting in Oshkosh closer to her home, but neglected to attend or even respond to Wallery’s letters, emails, and phone calls directing her to appear—no-shows that “seriously inconvenienced our counsel,” Wallery wrote.

“I am disappointed that you have taken this approach with our District,” a Feb. 14 message from Wallery to Manning stated. “When you were informed back in December that the Board was instructing you not to take any further disciplinary action with employees until further notice, you angrily left the District and said that you were going back on FMLA leave and that we would be hearing from your attorney. This incident did not, with due respect, appear to have anything to do with your health; instead, you were angry and wanted to leave, so you did.”

Prior to her resignation, Manning had not worked in the E-S District since Dec. 14, Wallery said.

Manning had taken FMLA leave from the district last fall and indicated to the Board in December she planned additional FMLA leave until mid-January. However, Wallery writes, Manning gave no other notice to the Board that she needed to extend that time period—something she was obligated to do as an employee.

Wallery in a Feb. 16 letter to Manning determined she was insubordinate by refusing to cooperate with the investigation, which also violated the terms of her administrative leave.

“Your persistent refusal not only to appear, but to communicate with District representatives and me in any way is both bizarre and unacceptable,” Wallery wrote.

He also denied a new FMLA request from Manning’s attorney, sent Feb. 12, noting there is “no substantive basis for FMLA leave in this context,” referring to directives that asked Manning only to cooperate with the investigation by answering questions via email or phone.

“...there is no question that you can do your job as it is currently defined; you are simply refusing to comply with our directives or even to extend the courtesy of a response to us,” Wallery wrote, also informing Manning of the decision to suspend her pay.

Manning submitted a brief resignation letter on Feb. 20.

“I appreciate the opportunities I have been given during my time with your district, as well as your professional guidance and support,” she wrote, also wishing the district good luck in the future.

Wallery referenced in his Feb. 14 message to Manning that he understood she would be willing to resign in exchange for a buyout. However, attorneys instead were able to negotiate a severance agreement that was finalized by all parties by Feb. 21.

The severance agreement absolves Manning from paying liquidated damages (defined in her contract as $5,000), while also preventing her from filing any grievances, complaints or lawsuits against the E-S district, school board, or staff for any reason.

Manning’s contract with the E-S district was extended by the school board last April through June 30, 2019, stipulating an annual salary of $133,120.

 

Longtime SPED staffing concerns spike, trigger Nov. 2017 recall

In addition to her role as superintendent, Manning also served as the district’s special education director. Her attention to SPED tasks was another facet examined by the recent investigation, revealing some painful longtime shortcomings and staff frustrations that snowballed into disciplinary action against them last year. The district also received corrective actions from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in part for failure to follow IEPs.

Investigative materials include email correspondence going as far back as January 2017 between Manning and SPED staff members Dana McConnell, Tresa Van Roo and Julie Booth as well as elementary principal Marty Kempf as they repeatedly asked for additional staff to help meet the needs of SPED students at Strum Primary.

In most cases, the emails reveal, Manning’s responses were short and offered few solutions to combat severe staff shortages that resulted in classroom disruptions and left SPED staff largely unable to provide all academic services and supervisory coverage per student IEPs. The emails show teachers and aides tried various creative solutions to combat the shortages and even chose to forgo lunches, breaks and prep time during the school day to work with students.

The discussion first came to a head last August as staff members voiced concerns with staffing levels headed into the 2017-18 school year given the number of students needing SPED services, particularly 1:1 coverage.

After meeting with SPED staff himself, Kempf broke down the numbers in an email to Manning that revealed glaring shortages in staff time vs. student needs.

“It seems like just our one on one students use up all our staff minutes and more,” he wrote last August, noting 143 hours of staff time didn’t even cover the 187.5 weekly hours for Strum’s high-needs students.

Other students needing additional supports throughout the day equaled 215 hours/week at the time, yet Manning denied requests for extended time for part-time staff.

Frustrated, Booth bypassed Manning and sent a letter to the E-S School Board on Aug. 21 detailing the SPED situation “to make final attempts to address the staffing and support needs of our school on behalf of the special needs students,” she wrote.

Booth’s letter goes on to detail heavy caseloads and instances of employee compensation being denied or withheld for working extra hours to keep pace with student needs. She also reminded the Board that school district compliance with state and federal laws governing special education is a requirement, not an option, with costs offset by Medicaid reimbursements.

“If our federal and state government offers reimbursement to support these children, then so must we,” Booth wrote. “...We cannot use lack of funding as an excuse not to provide services to children of special learning needs...Multiple requests by seasoned administrative staff have occurred over the course of the last year, only to go unanswered.”

If Manning used lack of funding as an excuse to deny hiring additional staff, the district’s financial audit figures don’t support it.

The E-S district banked over $500,000 during 2016-17, the financial audit shows, ending the fiscal year with a fund balance of $1.83 million.

Strum Primary teachers also went to bat for SPED staff, penning their own letter to the Board on Aug. 23 that echoed many of the same concerns as Booth’s letter.

“We feel these staff members are not being supported by their director of special education and board of education,” the teachers wrote. “Currently, these staff members are not able to take their required 30 minute lunch, 15 minute break or required prep time. They have chosen to come in early and stay late for the benefit of the students.”

In response to their concerns, Booth and first grade teacher Brianna Zwiefelhofer, who emailed the letter to Board members, were slapped with a formal notice of reprimand from the district, citing “unsatisfactory performance” and “disrupting the orderly operation of a school and program.”

Booth was subsequently walked out of Strum by Manning and Havenor on Aug. 24 and was briefly put on administrative leave, allegedly for not following the district’s “chain of command.”

That walkout of a valued teacher clearly angered many in the E-S community and fostered a petition seeking to recall Havenor from her position on the school board, ultimately setting the stage for a recall election last November despite Havenor’s resignation in the days after the petition was filed Sept. 15.

It was the last straw for Strum staff as well.

“After repeated denials and directives from Ms. Manning to ‘figure it out’ with current staffing levels, we knew someone needed to be the voice for the children who couldn’t advocate for themselves,” SPED staff said in a joint statement via email. “Parents send their children to school, trusting the district will provide quality service, especially that which is required by law and ethics. Our primary responsibility is to do right by the students, families, and community. From a leadership standpoint, we feel teachers should be encouraged to advocate for their students, not discouraged, criticized or retaliated against. Therefore, when it became apparent in August, 2017 when the required support was denied, our team of professionals (general education staff, special education staff and principal) knew we had no other choice but to ‘stay the course’ and advocate for appropriate staffing.”

In addition to her letter to the school board, Booth also filed a complaint with the Wisconsin DPI on Aug. 28, alleging the district hadn’t properly implemented IEPs for PK-3 students since Sept. 2016.

A decision handed down by the DPI on Oct. 27 outlined corrective actions, including demanding that the district make changes to meet the required minutes of instruction for each student, as set forth in their IEP, provide appropriate adult supervision as specified, and provide access to a resource room that often wasn’t manned due to lack of staff. IEPs were also to be reviewed within 30 days to provide additional details about student needs, and all staff were to be appropriately licensed, the decision states.

Manning then gave staff direction to review and revise IEPs, but had little to do with the time-intensive process and furthermore didn’t give staff much time to comply with the DPI’s deadline.

While the DPI decision came out Oct. 27, it appears there was a time lag of nearly a month between directions for corrective actions and Manning asking staff to complete them, giving them just one week to meet a Nov. 27 deadline.

Staff also received little guidance from Manning regarding compliance with a DPI order to provide compensatory services for students who were short minutes in various subject areas per IEPs. They questioned how and when they could provide extra services when they couldn’t cover student needs as it was.

“As we have expressed to you, we have not had adequate staffing to meet current IEP identified needs up to this point,” McConnell wrote in a Nov. 20 email. “So I’m struggling to see how we could provide additional compensatory services under current circumstances.”

Manning responded back simply with, “Ok,” the next afternoon.

It has been a long process, SPED staff agree, but currently the district is in compliance as the school board has taken steps in recent months to add much-needed staff.

Those changes include a second full-time teacher for special education/early childhood and increasing hours for three paraprofessionals, two of which are now full-time SPED staff at Strum.

“Current staffing now provides for appropriate levels of service as required by each student’s IEP,” Strum SPED staff said. “It also allows that each paraprofessional and teacher are provided with a scheduled time for lunch breaks and prep.”

In Manning’s absence, SPED staff have also worked with the DPI to follow through on the corrective actions as prescribed in its official decision. Students’ families have been involved in the process as well.

The investigation also indicated Manning failed to complete various reports on time, including those related to SPED such as a 2016-17 Medicaid annual cost report.

As a former superintendent and principal, Semingson is well aware of the gravity that comes attached to DPI mandates and reporting requirements related to special education.

“These are state and federal laws,” he said.

The E-S district could see its state aid reduced as a penalty for non-compliance, Semingson said, but he noted McConnell and Van Roo as co-SPED directors have been “in close contact with the DPI” to work things out in hopes of avoiding a financial hit.

In hindsight, Semingson said it’s clear combining the superintendent and SPED director positions was “not a good fit,” as it left staff with no one to turn to with SPED concerns when Manning ignored them. 

The issue has also brought the need for district policy changes to light, a few Board members agreed.

“Currently the policies do not allow for official contact between staff and board,” Stendahl said, noting it’s a problem because it effectively bars staff who are school district voters from talking with their elected officials. “We need a solution that allows communication which works for the next superintendent, the Board and staff,” he added.

The Board won’t likely look to combine the two positions as it begins the search for a new, permanent superintendent, Semingson said, but may look to join part-time SPED director duties with another position.

 

Persistent concerns, Board changes finally sparked investigation

All things considered, the school district and the community may never fully understand why Manning appeared to choose deception and closed decision-making over transparency and collaboration.

“She never came in to answer questions about any of this,” said Wallery of the investigation.

It’s possible there’s another side to the story, he asserted, but Manning doesn’t necessarily deserve the benefit of the doubt.

“If she wanted the benefit of the doubt she would have come in and explained,” he said, though speculating that perhaps she didn’t bother because it was a “foregone conclusion” the Board was seeking her ouster.

Semingson said he was upset by the results of the investigation as a whole and the ramifications of issues that were allowed to drag on for so many months.

“It saddens me to think of all the things that have happened in the school district that have divided the community,” he said.

He agreed the district may have avoided such a high level of strife if the Board had moved sooner to investigate Manning. At the same time, every Board has different ideas of how much leeway to give its superintendent.

“There’s a fine line between having checks and balances and micromanaging,” Semingson said. “[The previous Board] did things the way they saw fit.”

But going from having a handful of spectators at Board meetings to upwards of one hundred quite regularly “should have been a red flag” to the Board, he added.

One parent, Ali Christ, became a regular speaker during the “hearing of visitors” segment on the Board’s agenda, begging the Board repeatedly to look into Manning’s doctorate.

“It feels good to be right, but I also think it should have been looked into a long time ago,” Christ said.

Some painted her as a trouble-maker whose sole goal was to get rid of Manning, but “that wasn’t it at all,” says Christ.

Her questions started with 4K programming concerns two years ago and quickly snowballed to other topics when Manning declined to openly address her concerns.

Christ says she still has nine outstanding open records requests pending with Manning and the school district that have not been fulfilled.

It took a change in school board leadership starting last April for questions and concerns like hers to find listening ears, Christ said.

“I don’t think we’d be here today if Karla, Craig and Josh weren’t on that Board,” she said.

“I feel very thankful that the community wanted answers and cared enough to get answers,” Svedarsky said.

District voters have now moved three times to elect new faces to the Board, swinging the pendulum in favor of Board members who wanted answers and ultimately sparking the investigation.

“Those votes were the difference that allowed us to get to the truth,” Svedarsky said.

Though Manning is gone, it will likely take some time to erase the shadow she cast over a multitude of district operations.

“She took a lot from our district,” Christ said. “It’s a sense of relief and I feel confident with the Board moving forward. I think we have the right people on the Board that are not going to keep things hidden.”

 

District moving forward with lessons learned

As the E-S District closes the book on a volatile few years, all eyes will be on school leaders as they work to hire a permanent superintendent and execute a planned PK-5 building construction project at Central.

“There will be a lot of healing to do over the coming years,” Wallery said. “I think we’re already trying to move forward based on some lessons.”

The E-S District has hired the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) to assist with the superintendent search, set to include thorough background checks for candidates as well as efforts to gather feedback from the community.

“That’s something that’s a positive step forward,” Wallery said. “Part of that is based on what we’ve learned.”

“In truth, the school district belongs to the people,” Semingson said. “We have to look at what they want. I’ll be looking forward to hearing specifically what the people are looking for in a superintendent.”

Stendahl said it’s “critical” for the district at this juncture to find a superintendent who can communicate effectively and balance the district’s budget.

“We have a lot of mending to do with the District itself and in today’s political climate trust is a tough thing to gain back,” he shared. “We need to do that through integrity, honesty, and openness.”

The Board moved last month to hire Bob Fasbender as interim superintendent and long-term manager of the PK-5 construction project.

Fasbender holds over 30 years of experience in education, including oversight of over a dozen school construction projects.

“He is working daily to build and rebuild relationships with staff and community members,” Wallery said of Fasbender. “It’s a starting point and a chance to turn the corner from where we were.”

Work to prep the future home of E-S elementary students for excavation is in process and is expected to start any day with heavy equipment arriving at Central on Monday.

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