WISCONSIN NEWS ROUND-UP: Wausau school district backs down on school choir policy
WAUSAU - The Wausau School District is backing off from its administrative policy of limiting Christmas music by choral groups -- at least until after the holidays.
The School Board held a closed session last evening to discuss a possible lawsuit in the matter. Then, around 50 people spoke their minds on the issue as over 450 others looked on. The original policy from school administrators would have resulted in elementary schools canceling their holiday programs -- and the Wausau West High School Master Singers scrapping around 15 community appearances in December that feature Christmas carols. Now, the West Master Singers will start rehearsing again on Monday -- and elementary principals can once again schedule concert dates. School Board member Pat McKee suggested having a large panel look at the issue after the holidays, and get many more community groups to provide input. Wausau Superintendent Kathleen Williams said earlier this week she was most concerned about not breaking the law by endorsing a particular religion. She said officials never dictated a certain ratio of holiday songs to others -- and she's still working with the Master Singers' director on a compromise for that group's holiday concerts.
A state committee might decide today whether it will keep considering the idea of a self-insured health plan for state government employees. A panel from the Group Insurance Board plans to determine whether it will move ahead by getting more information. About 20 other states self-insure their government employees. Those states handle their own risk for health plan losses -- and they pay benefits directly to employees instead of having a private insurer do that. Right now, tens-of-thousands of state employees get their insurance from 18 HMO's throughout Wisconsin. The state Association of Health Plans is against the change. That group says competition in the health care industry would be threatened -- provider-patient relationships could be altered -- and the economies of several communities which rely on the status quo might be hurt.
Funeral services will be held tomorrow in western Wisconsin for a pioneer in milk production. 78-year-old John Selz died last Friday at a hospice home in Marshfield. He graduated from UW-Madison in chemical engineering, and returned to his family's Clark County farm in 1959 where he developed Joliam Holsteins. The herd became well-known for its high-type and high-production. Selz was also a member of several national-and-state dairy groups, including the U.S. Animal Health Association. He was the president of both the National and Wisconsin Holstein associations, and was World Dairy Expo's "Dairyman of the Year" in 1996. The Selz farm near Humbird has been in the family for 125 years. Funeral services for John Selz begin at 11 tomorrow at Saint Joseph's Catholic Church at Fairview. Visitations are set for this evening and tomorrow morning at the Anderson Funeral Home in Augusta.
Democrats accuse Republicans of over-stating the economic impact of a $100-million-dollar property tax cut which the GOP proposed yesterday. It's expected to speed through a special session of both houses next week. The non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau said the average homeowner would get an extra $13 next year, and $20-dollars more in 2015 while still paying a higher tax bill. The Republican Walker and his party's legislative leaders said they want to return a current surplus of tax collections to the people who paid them in the first place. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) said it would boost the economy -- but Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) said many homeowners would not get the benefit. That's because the tax relief would be funneled through public schools -- and the state school aid formula means that some districts would get higher-than-average tax relief, while others get none. The fine print of the tax cut proposal will come out in a bill to be submitted today. The Joint Finance Committee will take public comments on Tuesday before the Assembly takes the Legislature's first vote on the measure next Thursday.
A Racine man will spend the rest of his life in prison for killing a retired teacher who was giving out quarters to needy people near a Laundromat. A judge refused yesterday to set a possible supervised release date for 68-year-old Wilbert Thomas. He was convicted in June for the beating-and-strangling of 67-year-old Sandra Teichow in October of 2010. Thomas pleaded insanity. He spent time in a mental institution getting treatment after he was first deemed incompetent to stand trial. After that, Circuit Judge Tim Boyle threw out the insanity plea. He said Thomas had a mental condition at the time of the slaying, but he still knew right-from-wrong. Teichow was beaten-and-strangled on a sidewalk in Racine, and her body was later taken to a wooded area. Police identified Thomas from photos the victim managed to take with a digital camera while being attacked. Yesterday, Thomas sat in a wheelchair as he told Judge Boyle he'd appeal his sentence and conviction.
The body of a fisherman was found yesterday in a northern Wisconsin lake, two days after he was reported missing. Price County sheriff's deputies organized a search for the man, after being told that he was late in returning home from a fishing trip. The body was recovered around 11:30 yesterday morning on Letourneau Lake in the Price County town of Flambeau. The victim's name was not immediately released.
U.S. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Janesville was among the Republican leaders who met with President Obama last night to try-and-work out a deal to end the federal shutdown. The GOP offered the president a temporary increase in the debt ceiling to avoid a default next week. In exchange, the president would start negotiating with Republicans on its budget priorities. Ryan said the president quote, "didn't say yes, didn't say no," and the two sides will keep talking. The White House said the talks went well. House Rules chairman Pete Sessions (R-Texas) says an agreement could come as early as today on ending the impasse -- but he said a number of hurdles remain. Ryan, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, was criticized by some in his own party for laying low after the shutdown began. Ryan said he remained busy behind the scenes. In the Wall Street Journal this week, Ryan called on Obama to seize the current situation to work out a plan for paying down the national debt, and jump-starting the U-S economy. Ryan did not address a desire to delay key parts of the Obama health law, but he's expected to talk about it today at the annual Values Voter Summit in Washington.
Amazon.com's new distribution center in Kenosha will come at a cost to the firm's Wisconsin customers. That's because they'll start paying sales taxes on what they buy from the giant Internet retailer. They didn't have to do that in the past -- but now that Amazon is about to have a physical presence in Wisconsin, Laurel Patrick of the state Revenue Department says the firm must start charging sales taxes on Wisconsinites. Amazon has told the state it would obtain a necessary permit by November first, and start charging taxes on Wisconsin's Internet customers after that. Amazon has not made a public statement on the matter. This week, the Kenosha City Council approved $18-million dollars in tax incremental financing to pay for utilities that will serve Amazon's new distribution center. It's expected to open next fall near Interstate-94. Mayor Keith Bosman says it will have 1,100 full-time employees and around 2,500 seasonal workers. A bill is still pending in Congress to require sales taxes on all Internet purchases. The Senate passed the measure in May. The Republican-controlled House has not acted on it.
The next UW System president could make almost $600,000, under new salary ranges endorsed yesterday by the Board of Regents' business committee. The full board will consider new pay scales for a number of top officials today, in a meeting at UW-Parkside near Kenosha. The panel also recommended the first pay raises in five years for 10-of-the-14 campus chancellors. They average three-and-a-third percent a year, and are applied under existing salary ranges. La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow would get the highest raise, with $10,500. That would raise his salary to $210,000. Republican lawmakers swallowed hard, still feeling stung after learning that the UW had $650-million dollars in reserves. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) said $600,000 for a new university president is a lot of money. However, both Vos and state Senate Finance Chair Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) said the university needs to be competitive. Regent Gerald Whitburn says Wisconsin is getting a bargain compared to Ohio State and Penn State, where the top leaders make $2-to-3-million a year. Outgoing UW President Kevin Reilly makes $418,000. The proposed new pay scale for his post would rise to between $399-and-598,000. Newly-hired chancellors at Madison and Eau Claire will not get raises, and neither will the Stevens Point and Colleges-and-Extension chancellors. Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, a former Obama White House official, makes around $500,000.
It appears that Wisconsin's national parks will not re-open until the federal government starts paying for them again. Yesterday, the Obama administration said states could re-open national parks -- as long as they pay for it themselves. The Wisconsin DNR says it won't accept the offer, at least for now. The state is already paying extra to keep parts of seven state parks open, where the federal government cut off partial funding for those places. Spokesman Bill Cosh says the DNR's priority is to keep those seven parks open to accommodate people like hunters, hikers, bird watchers. The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway have both been closed during the federal government shutdown. Most of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is also closed. Cosh said the DNR would have to evaluate the situation, and decide whether the state could afford to run the national parks.
A southern Wisconsin man will remain free, after he struck a plea deal to settle a 26-year-old murder case. Terry Vollbrecht of Prairie du Sac was granted a new trial last year, after the Wisconsin Innocence Project at UW-Madison found evidence which showed that another man killed 18-year-old Angela Hackl. Her naked body was found tied to a tree near Sauk City in 1987. Vollbrecht's new trial was supposed to begin next March. He settled the case yesterday by pleading no contest to second-degree murder. A judge sentenced Vollbrecht to 25 years in prison, but he has already served 22 years and reached his mandatory release date. That will keep him out of prison, but he'll still have to serve 35 years on parole. Vollbrecht is now 52. The Innocence Project spent over a decade trying to free him -- and they finally did it by proving that Kim Brown killed Hackl. Brown is serving a life term another murder in Oxford, about six weeks after Hackl was slain. The Innocence Project said its evidence showed that the two deaths were similar. They also found DNA from an unknown male on Hackl's body and a sleeping bag.
A swimming pool in suburban Milwaukee will re-open today, after it was closed for 10 days due to an outbreak from crypto-sporidium. The North Shore Health Department had asked the Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay to shut the pool temporarily, to help stop the spread of the crypto parasite. The center's director, Mark Shapiro, said some its members were among those who got sick. He tells WISN-TV in Milwaukee that the pool was emptied, cleaned, and re-grouted before new water was put in. Health officials blamed water from swimming pools for the crypto outbreak. Nineteen people became sick as of Monday. No new cases have been reported since then, but officials say folks are still being tested. The crypto parasite spreads through water-and-food. It killed over 100 people and made 400,000 others sick in 1993, when crypto got into Milwaukee's drinking water.