Wauwatosa superintendent initially protected employee accused of conflict of interest

Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Demond Means publicly promised accountability after allegations his employee encouraged the district to adopt the academic program paying her husband.

But public records show in private, he initially worked with assistant superintendent Kristin Bowers to defend her relationship and the program's efficacy. 

Means did not respond to FOX6's request for comment about his actions related to Bowers; he has declined interview requests about this issue since October. 

Kristin Bowers and her husband, Brett Bowers, continue to ignore FOX6 interview requests.

The backstory

AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a college and career readiness program. In November, a FOX6 investigation revealed Wauwatosa Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Kristin Bowers advocated for the district's use of AVID while her husband was on the program's payroll, both as a part-time staff developer and later as a full-time employee.

Kristin and Brett Bowers

When Brett Bowers accepted a full-time job at AVID, then-superintendent Phil Ertl received a legal opinion from district counsel about the Bowers' relationship. The opinion calls the relationship a "potential conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety," recommending Kristin Bowers stay out of AVID decision-making. It specifically says she should not have involvement in the AVID contract. 

It is not clear from the text of the legal opinion whether the attorney who wrote it was aware AVID had been paying Brett Bowers for years prior to the district's initial contract with AVID, or that Wauwatosa School District had paid Brett Bowers directly for consulting work.

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Public records show Kristin Bowers continued to give input on AVID decisions in the months and years following that legal opinion. She reviewed the AVID contract, telling the assistant superintendent of business services "there is a need to purchase everything listed." Bowers agreed to meet with AVID representatives about the district's contract, approved AVID expenses, called meetings about AVID expansion, and worked behind the scenes on presentations selling a three-year, $170,000-plus AVID contract to the board and to the public

The superintendent at the time, Phil Ertl, did not respond to FOX6's request for comment; neither did AVID representatives.

Emails show Demond Means became aware of concerns about the Bowers' relationship shortly after he stepped into the superintendent role in summer 2021. However, he did not take action until months later, when school board members learned what FOX6 uncovered.

‘I think I have a plan’

In August 2021, former board member Mary Jo Randall emailed Means with questions about AVID and the Bowers' relationship. Means forwarded the email to Bowers, who the same day sent Means a copy of the 2019 legal opinion about her relationship.

At that point, Bowers' emails show no direction from Means to step away from AVID, nor any effort to investigate Bowers' involvement in the district's contract.

After FOX6 filed open records requests, and Randall continued to email Means about her concerns, Means emailed, "I think I have a plan to how to respond to the additional questions," inviting Bowers and her direct-report, Nicole Marble, to a meeting to "discuss strategy."

Even as the district started to walk back its commitment to the AVID contract, Means invited Bowers to weigh in on the future of her husband's employer with the district, and work behind the scenes on materials defending AVID. 

Emails show she gave input on staff presentations in the fall that, in part, highlighted AVID's benefits to the school board and explained why the program was chosen for the district. Board members say they were not aware Bowers was involved in putting together the presentations.

Emails list Bowers as the organizer of a meeting with Means and an AVID representative in September. Means sent Bowers an invitation to edit an AVID FAQ defending the program's efficacy and origins in the district. Bowers also made edits to a document outlining the district's AVID goals and promises.

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In September, Means asked Bowers to "weigh in" on his responses to Randall's continued AVID questions.

In a public meeting on Oct. 11, 2021, Means said, "The future of AVID is something that Dr. Marble, Mrs. Bowers, and building principals and I will continue to discuss."

After FOX6 started asking questions, Means originally agreed to answer questions in an on-camera interview. However, emails show he declined after discussing the request with Bowers and the district's communications coordinator.

Kristin Bowers and Demond Means

Following FOX6's questions, records show Means strategized with Bowers about how the district should defend her husband, writing, "It should be underscored that he has a national reach, not just local."

In October, Means invited Bowers and the district's communications coordinator to "contribute" to a public statement he drafted about AVID and her relationship. The statement originally defended AVID's efficacy and blamed the program's challenges on "unforeseen circumstances." The statement cited the pandemic, called the district's violation of its own polices "self-inflicted procedural challenges," and called the focus on the Bowers' relationship "not the real issue."

The statement also misrepresented a legal opinion the public was never supposed to see.

‘Privileged’

When Means drafted his original statement about AVID in October, the 2019 legal opinion about Kristin Bowers' relationship was still protected by attorney-client privilege. He did not know school board members Shawn Rolland and Mike Meier would learn what FOX6 found and call for the legal opinion to be made public; board members voted in November to waive attorney-client privilege.

The legal opinion calls the Bowers' relationship a "potential conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety," warning, "at the very least, we believe Mrs. Bowers involvement would create the appearance of a conflict."

Although emails show both Means and Bowers knew the contents of the legal opinion, Means' October draft statement misrepresented the letter, claiming it "refutes" the "inaccurate allegations of an appearance of conflict of interest."

The district sent a more apologetic statement to Wauwatosa families after FOX6 showed up at a board meeting asking questions.

Means did not respond to FOX6's request for comment. 

Means has known Kristin and Brett Bowers for years from work in previous districts, such as Means' time as Brett Bowers' boss in Mequon-Thiensville School District.

Means also has his own history with AVID. When he worked as a superintendent in Georgia, someone filed an ethics complaint alleging Means plagiarized and accepted gifts. The complaint said Means' district adopted AVID after the program paid him to teach AVID courses.

Multiple Clarke County school board members defended Means, but the board later placed him on leave in a split decision. Means entered into a separation settlement that gave him more than $637,000 in exchange for his agreement not to sue the district.

Wauwatosa School District

Wauwatosa School District did not start investigating AVID or Kristin Bowers, nor did it put Bowers on paid leave, until after FOX6 showed up at a meeting with questions and school board members Mike Meier and Shawn Rolland learned what FOX6 found. 

Means was copied on all the emails releasing public records to FOX6, yet school board members say they were unaware of the emails detailing Bowers' involvement in the AVID contract until FOX6 brought it to their attention.

More than one month later, the district's internal and external investigations into Kristin Bowers are still ongoing, Bowers is still collecting her more-than $140,000 salary, and the district has yet to fulfill its public records promise to Wauwatosa families.

Where are the records?

The day before FOX6 aired its November investigation, Wauwatosa families received a message from the school district promising to post public records "related to this potential conflict" to its website "in the coming days."

More than one month later, no records have been posted.

In an email to FOX6, Demond Means said the records have been organized and compiled into Google Drive folders. He said he expects the records to be posted by December 10, after Kristin Bowers has "an opportunity to augment the records being released with her own statement or records."

Even though the district sent its promise to post records out on November 13, Means said Bowers only received her "notification" on Dec. 2.

Demond Means

Means cited Wisconsin's open records law, statute 19.356(9), as a basis for allowing Bowers to review the records before they are posted to the district's website. That portion of the law applies to an "officer or employee of the authority holding a local public office." 

The records the district is planning on posting have already been released to various requesters; in some cases, the records were released months ago.

Open records attorneys tell FOX6 there is no legal reason for the district to delay posting these kinds of public records on its website.

School board members Shawn Rolland and Mike Meier said they can't comment on personnel issues when FOX6 asked questions about Kristin Bowers and Demond Means. Meier and Rolland both made a point to say district employees are working hard, but they expressed displeasure that the public records are not on the website. 

"They should have been there a long time ago," Rolland said. "And I don’t have a lot of great answers, unfortunately, from others as to why they’re not there."

"We lost our cutting edge on accountability and urgency," Meier said.

Wauwatosa School District

Rolland and Meier say doing a thorough investigation takes time, but they are confident the public will have answers soon. 

"We don’t want to accelerate anything too quickly and miss a step," Rolland said. "I think that’s kind of how we got here."

Rolland says the president of the board, Steve Doman, is overseeing the internal investigation with the assistance of Demond Means. When FOX6 asked how the board will ensure a fair internal investigation, given Means' own role in the situation, Rolland and Meier said they could not comment on personnel matters.

"The board needs to be embracing more of a healthy skepticism and oversight role - more than what we have been," Meier said, noting that he was speaking generally. "I think we need more watchdog on the board than what we’ve had. And part of that is me doing my job better."

Board member Leigh Anne Fraley emailed: "As the investigation continues, and new information surfaces, I will continue to ask questions of Dr. Means and our legal counsel but do not plan on making any public statements."

Rolland says he wants the public to know Means inherited a difficult situation.

"Based on everything that I have read and heard thus far, I have 110% confidence in Dr. Means," Rolland said. "Big picture, I think Dr. Means is doing the right things for our school district, for our families, to bring this to a conclusion."

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