WAUWATOSA, Wis. - It was easy to miss.
The February 8, 2021 presentation lasted fewer than 10 minutes. The board asked a handful of questions for the next 10. And without much fanfare, the Wauwatosa School Board voted unanimously to approve a three-year, $170,539 contract with AVID, a college and career readiness program.
There was no discussion about competing programs; no comparison quotes or competitive bids, either. No one asked for data about AVID's impact on students, or set benchmarks to measure the program's success. No one mentioned that then-superintendent Phil Ertl had already signed the AVID contract, prior to the board's approval.
And no one mentioned AVID was compensating the husband of Wauwatosa assistant superintendent Kristin Bowers, whose department recommended and would oversee the program.
A FOX6 investigation including more than 500 pages of public record emails, invoices, contracts and voicemails, along with interviews with current and former Wauwatosa School District employees, reveals Bowers spent years championing the vendor that compensated her husband, even after the district received legal advice calling the relationship a "potential conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety." Employees hesitant about the program say they felt they couldn't speak up, with one calling AVID "completely and disingenuously oversold."
After FOX6 filed open records requests, the district started to walk back its AVID contract, saying the rapid rollout was "too ambitious." And after FOX6 asked board members to respond to its findings, the district announced a formal investigation and moved to make more records available to the public.
The school board also called Wauwatosa Police, who are now conducting their own investigation.
"You’ve really done a good service with your journalism," Wauwatosa board member Mike Meier said. "Thank you."
‘Somebody has to know something’
AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a college and career readiness program. Students can apply to take an elective class that focuses on study skills, college applications, and tutoring. The schoolwide portion of the program trains other teachers to incorporate AVID strategies into their classes.
AVID markets itself as a way to "close the opportunity gap" in schools and improve equity.
David Dentinger is retired Wauwatosa administrator who left the district in 2020; he previously worked at a school that used the AVID program. While he says the program has strengths, he says there are educators who also have concerns whether it delivers on its equity promises enough to justify the cost.
"If the work of AVID is gathering skills for students, and supporting schools in self-improving, can’t those things be done sort of DIY outside of AVID for a much lower price tag in a world of limited funds?" Dentinger asked.
FOX6 will explore AVID's equity claims in an upcoming story that will air on Wednesday, November 17 at 9pm.
No one from AVID responded to FOX6's interview requests.
In the months following the school board's vote on the $170,539 AVID contract, former Wauwatosa school board member Mary Jo Randall repeatedly emailed the board and spoke during the public comment portion of public meetings, questioning how and why the district selected the program.
"Somebody has to know something about the origin and the lack of transparency of this proposal," Randall said during the July 12, 2021 school board meeting.
Emails show Kristin Bowers, an administrator in the Teaching and Learning department, was promoting the use of AVID for years prior to Wauwatosa's adoption of the program.
Her husband, Brett Bowers worked as a principal at Mequon-Thiensville's Homestead High School; his school district used AVID, and he spoke publicly about his enthusiasm for the program.
AVID was also compensating Brett Bowers.
Bowers emailed his wife the details of his AVID pay in 2016. He wrote about receiving $1,200 for training, $1,750 for work at each "summer institute" conference, plus $400 more to "facilitate a site team," and an additional $400 for travel and expenses. He wrote that he expected to receive more money ($2,250 per institute) the following year upon becoming a "veteran staff developer." Emails show AVID booked at least one flight for Brett Bowers for "staff development training."
"I know it's not great timing for you/our household," Brett Bowers emailed his wife, describing a scheduled AVID training. "But it's really good for our Spring Break fund."
Wisconsin law prohibits "conflict of interest," which is when "public officials" use their positions to substantially financially benefit themselves, immediate family, or organizations with which they are associated.
Wisconsin's criminal code also says it's a felony for public officials to participate in a contract of more than $15,000 per year if they have a financial interest in the contract.
Attorney Tony Renning, who advises school districts and municipalities, says he generally tells school administrators to "steer clear" of even potential conflicts of interest. While government agencies are permitted to contract with vendors who have relationships with employees or elected leaders, the employee or elected leader in question is typically required to refrain from any attempts to influence the process.
"There might not be a conflict of interest per se under the law, but it might create the appearance of a conflict of interest," Renning said. "And because of that, there are concerns about what that might do to the public’s trust."
Avid about AVID
Neither Kristin Bowers nor Brett Bowers responded to repeated interview requests.
"I was aware of the relationship," Dentinger said. "I mean, you had to be."
While AVID was paying Brett Bowers, Kristin Bowers was promoting the program in Wauwatosa. On multiple occasions, her husband sent her AVID materials that she passed along to supervisors and staff. Kristin Bowers registered then-superintendent Phil Ertl for an AVID "showcase" at her husband's school. In 2018, she emailed that she was adding AVID to the district's equity plan document. She also arranged a meeting between then-superintendent Phil Ertl and an AVID employee about the "next steps for Wauwatosa." Two days later, she sent the superintendent an email saying her husband suggested having the school board approve districtwide AVID implementation.
"Kristin is very enthusiastic about AVID," Dentinger said.
In 2015, Brett Bowers copied his wife on an email to an AVID employee, writing, "My wife's school district is (finally) getting serious about AVID," asking for implementation costs he could share. Kristin Bowers responded, "Man, you outed us. Yikes."
In 2018, Wauwatosa School District signed a $9,000 contract with AVID and presented it as a new high school course to the school board. There was no mention in the public meeting of Kristin Bowers' relationship to AVID. In 2019, the district signed a $39,978 contract and rolled out the AVID high school elective class.
Four current and former Wauwatosa School District employees who still work in education asked to remain anonymous to protect their jobs; three say they were surprised when the school board voted to expand the program to the $170,539 contract in 2021 because the pandemic made it difficult to know what kind of effect the existing form of the program was having on Wauwatosa students.
More to the relationship
Multiple employees also told FOX6 they were uncomfortable with Brett Bowers' relationship with the school district; Bowers made additional money through paid consulting, and Wauwatosa School District was one of his clients.
Invoices show the district paid Brett Bowers for professional development in areas like student engagement and "instructional framework;" the district also paid him for consulting when it was considering school scheduling changes.
In a 2016 email exchange discussing their spring break plans for the following year, Kristin Bowers suggested using the money AVID was paying her husband for their $3,900 hotel. Brett Bowers responded that his AVID checks would not arrive by the time the payment was due; she then suggested using money from his consulting work.
Brett Bowers replied, "I will contribute as much of that as possible."
That same week, he sent Wauwatosa two $1,500 consulting invoices, and emailed an offer to do additional paid consulting for Wauwatosa.
"We all knew about the relationship between Kristin and Brett and it made things really uncomfortable," a former employee, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their current job at a different school district, said.
The legal opinion
In 2019, Brett Bowers resigned from his principal job and went to work for AVID full-time as an assistant senior division director. It was only then that Kristin Bowers emailed then-superintendent Phil Ertl, asking if she should notify the school board of her AVID "connection."
Ertl said he would get advice from legal counsel.
On August 2, 2019, Ertl emailed the school board and other school administrators, saying legal counsel called the relationship "good to address it but it is not a conflict." Ertl added that legal counsel would send written guidance "on future decision making with AVID, in particular, if we intend to expand to the elementary level."
After FOX6 asked the school board to respond to the findings of its investigation, the board voted to voluntarily waive attorney-client privilege and publicize the legal opinion Ertl received from the law firm Buelow Vetter, dated August 16, 2019.
The letter calls the Bowers' relationship a "potential conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety," saying "most people would assume that Mrs. Bowers' husband would somehow benefit from the district contracting with the company."
It says Kristin Bowers should not be involved "directly or indirectly" with AVID decision-making, specifically regarding the contract. It also says she should not be the assigned AVID District Director who is responsible for quality assurance.
The opinion made no mention of Brett Bowers' work for AVID before he accepted a full-time position at the organization, nor did it mention his consulting work for the school district.
FOX6 asked Ertl for an interview; he did not respond.
Full steam ahead
Even after Ertl received the legal opinion, Kristin Bowers continued her involvement with AVID. She signed up for AVID leadership training, forwarded her husband's AVID emails to staff and touted work that was "new under Brett's leadership."
In an October 2019 email discussing AVID training Brett Bowers would conduct for Wauwatosa School District, Kristin Bowers wrote, "This is one of [Brett's] favorite workshops to facilitate. He doesn’t do them anymore so we had to get special permission to have him."
In spring 2020, Wauwatosa's Equity Team recommended expanding AVID in the district as an equity strategy.
"I do not recall us ever talking about it in the equity group," said Katherine Riebe, who served on the Equity Team. "I certainly did not know anything about it."
"I don't know how AVID got in the district's equity plan," said another Equity Team member who asked for anonymity to protect their job. "The committee didn't bring up AVID as an equity tool, because it isn't an equity tool."
Even though AVID takes up the equivalent of a full page in the six-and-a-half page equity plan, four members of the Equity Team tell FOX6 they don't remember it ever coming up in their meetings; two of them said they had never heard of AVID, and asked FOX6 for more details about the program.
Three current and former Wauwatosa employees say Kristin Bowers was one of the administrators overseeing the Equity Team. In emails from previous years, Kristin Bowers alluded to adding AVID to the district's equity plan document.
In August 2020, Kristin Bowers received a voicemail from an AVID partner engagement manager, saying, "It sounds like you are interested in training your whole staff and had some concerns about pricing."
By that point, Kristin Bowers had been named Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning. She was the head of the department overseeing AVID, the program her husband was paid to help implement in the school district.
In subsequent school board meetings, employees deferred to Kristin Bowers at times to answer questions about AVID. The budget for the program came out of her department. And even though Kristin Bowers was not the employee officially in charge of AVID quality assurance, the person in that role reported directly to her.
In November 2020, AVID put together a proposal for Wauwatosa's AVID expansion. Nicole Marble, Wauwatosa's AVID Director and Director of Secondary Education, sent AVID an email saying "Kristin and I reviewed the proposal and are wondering if we could set up a meeting to ask a few questions and hopefully gain some clarity on a few of the details."
Less than two months later, then-superintendent Phil Ertl signed the school district's three-year, $170,539 AVID contract, despite the fact that the school board had not yet voted to approve it. Marble emailed that "he may have done that prematurely."
The board voted to approve the AVID contract in February 2021, with no competitive bids or quotes from other programs.
‘It seemed wrong’
"I did not feel any pressure, implicitly or explicitly, to adopt AVID," retired Wauwatosa administrator David Dentinger said. "I can’t speak to other people, what they might have felt."
Other current and former employees, who asked FOX6 to remain anonymous to protect their jobs, describe fearing voicing their reservations about AVID and the associated costs.
"I think the program was completely and disingenuously oversold," a former district employee said. "[AVID] doesn't do anything to close the achievement gap…I never understood why it was sold as an equity tool intended to level the playing field for marginalized groups of students."
"Who's going to tell their boss, ‘Hey, I have concerns about the program that signs your husband's paycheck?'" a current employee said to FOX6.
"It was never openly discussed that she was contracting her husband's organization for such large amounts of money," a former district employee said. "It seemed wrong but nobody felt they could speak up. She was such a strong advocate for AVID and she really sold the program at every opportunity."
"I wasn't going to say anything to her when she brought in her husband to consult and run professional development, or when she kept bringing up AVID as the direction she wanted the district to go," the former employee added. "I certainly wasn't in a position to question our [director] about my concerns about her husband's organization…it's not like it was open for discussion."
"If you have to choose between chocolate cake and blueberry pie, but you know your boss made the chocolate cake, you're going to think twice before you pick blueberry," another former employee said.
"I've never known Kristin to do anything unethical," a current employee said, saying staff and students had become excited about AVID. This employee blames former superintendent Phil Ertl for "not following the right steps…now the public can't trust the process."
After the February 2021 vote to expand AVID in Wauwatosa School District, Mary Jo Randall contacted board members with questions. In the following months, board member Mike Meier started raising concerns in public meetings about the district's procurement practices. He said the February 2021 vote to expand AVID without competitive bids was a mistake, and said he wanted to bring auditors in to take a closer look at the issue. He cited those concerns as reasons for his "no" vote on the school budget.
But for months, the school district did not take formal action.
In August, FOX6 filed open records requests about the issue. In September, new superintendent Demond Means told the school board the AVID program was "too ambitious," saying the district was reevaluating; he also said the district violated its own policies by not soliciting competitive bids or seeking quotes from competing programs.
"What is the problem being solved, and how is AVID doing that?" board member Eric Jessup-Anger asked.
Even though the board had already approved the AVID contract, district administrators appeared to be unable to answer the question.
"I would just ask for a little bit more time for us to be able to capitalize on that question," said Nicole Marble.
In October, district administrators asked the school board to approve AVID payments for services already received, but said they're seeking to modify the existing contract.
"I’ve had to deal with questions of nepotism, questions of cronyism," said board member Mike Meier. "Right now I don’t have any confidence in how this school district has proceeded with AVID."
"We have got to start doing the right thing the right way 100% of the time and this misstep, mistake, shortcut stuff has got to stop," said board member Shawn Rolland.
"I just want to say that that isn't how I understand the situation, Mr. Rolland," board member Sharon Muehlfeld responded. "I just can't agree with your comments."
"I know we have the issue of when the contract was signed," board president Steve Doman said. "Outside of that, I’m not aware of any issues in terms of how we picked AVID."
FOX6 asked Superintendent Demond Means for an interview, for an opportunity to take a camera inside an AVID classroom, and to talk to teachers and families about their experiences with the program. He initially said yes, but later changed his mind.
Most Wauwatosa board members did not respond to FOX6's interview requests. Steve Doman initially said he was "unclear" about what the interview would be about, then said the district would provide FOX6 with a statement. No one sent a statement or followed up with FOX6.
Board member Mike Meier initially said he would do an on-camera interview, but changed his mind, as well. Board member Shawn Rolland initially declined to go on camera.
When FOX6 showed up at an October board meeting with a camera, both Meier and Rolland stopped to answer questions.
"We’ve had conversations about it," Rolland said. "And I can’t go too much into detail because we’re still having discussions about it."
"We [need to] not take any shortcuts, and ultimately to have programs we can feel really proud of from start to finish," he added.
"The way the program turned out, it was far larger than was understood by me," said Meier.
"My vote yes in February without competitive bids was a mistake, of course," Meier added. "And now we need to own that and see what can be done to remedy if there was any undesirable outcome from it."
Board member Mike Phillips said he was working on new board policies, but would not elaborate.
Board president Steve Doman refused to answer questions.
"You’re the president of the board, you’re the guy in charge," FOX6 reporter Amanda St. Hilaire said. "If you can’t answer questions, who can?"
"It's not that I can't, it's that I don't trust you to do a fair story," Doman replied.
"Why not?" St. Hilaire asked.
"Why would I? We don't have a relationship," Doman said.
Kristin Bowers was not at the meeting.
Two days after FOX6 showed up at the school board meeting asking questions, the district sent a message to parents saying it "failed to adhere" to its own policies, announcing a pause of the AVID expansion.
Meier and Rolland said they were not aware of the emails FOX6 uncovered showing Kristin Bowers' continued involvement with AVID, but wanted to know more.
Upon reviewing the public records, Meier and Rolland emailed the board president, calling FOX6's findings "very concerning." They asked for a formal investigation conducted by an independent entity, and for the board to waive attorney-client privilege in order to make the 2019 legal opinion about the Bowers' relationship public.
At the next meeting, the board voted to make the legal opinion public, announcing an investigation.
The day before FOX6 aired its investigative report, the district sent another message to Wauwatosa families. Kristin Bowers is on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation that's expected to conclude near the end of the calendar year. The school district also notified Wauwatosa Police, who say they are in the "very preliminary stages" of investigation, and created a webpage to post information about the case, including results of open records requests.
Mary Jo Randall says as a taxpayer, she'd like to see more systemic changes.
"Because this was pretty easy, however it happened," she said.