Wauwatosa police: No charges, but school district 'failed to act' before FOX6 investigation

Wauwatosa police said there will be no criminal charges against a school administrator who encouraged a taxpayer-funded contract with the company paying her husband.  

While the police report says there was not enough evidence to prove a violation of Wisconsin Criminal Code, it says the school district ignored conflict of interest issues, violated its own policies, and "failed to act" until FOX6 investigated.

A spokesperson for Wauwatosa Police declined an on-camera interview, but a police source not authorized to go on camera said, "There may be no criminal charges, but that doesn't mean nobody did anything wrong."

FOX6 investigation

A FOX6 investigation including more than 500 pages of public record emails, invoices, contracts and voicemails, along with interviews with current and former district employees, revealed Wauwatosa School District Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Kristin Bowers spent years encouraging the district to contract with AVID.

AVID, which stands for "Advancement Via Individual Determination," is a college and career readiness program. While Bowers advocated for the district's adoption of AVID, the company was paying her husband, Brett Bowers, first as a part-time staff developer and eventually as a full-time employee.

Bowers was involved in talks with AVID representatives as her school district mulled, and eventually signed, a three-year $170,539 contract with the company. Even after the district received legal advice saying Bowers should stay out of AVID decision-making as her relationship was a "potential conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety," Bowers reviewed the AVID contract, called meetings about AVID expansion, approved a more-than $20,000 AVID expense, and worked behind the scenes to sell the school board and public on the program.

The school district employee in charge of AVID quality assurance reported directly to Bowers.

To date, FOX6 has spoken to 21 current and former school district employees who asked to remain anonymous to protect their jobs. Employees hesitant about the program say they felt they couldn't speak up, with one calling AVID "completely and disingenuously oversold."  

Wauwatosa Police investigation

Wauwatosa Police say their investigation began with FOX6's reporting. Their report says the district "ignored" the legal advice to keep Bowers out of AVID decision-making for more than two years. 

The police report documents retired school board member Mary Jo Randall's repeated attempts to alert the current board about concerns over Bowers' relationship with AVID, going back to June 2021. Around that time, current board member Mike Meier started publicly declaring his regret over voting for the AVID contract in February 2021, citing a violation of district policy.

The report makes note of a board meeting on June 28, 2021, in which Randall said she was disappointed in the lack of response from school board members, reminding them she sent several emails with concerns. Board president Steve Doman replied, "You did, and we've read it, and we've heard it."

But the Wauwatosa Police report says, "for months, the Board failed to act." It was not until FOX6 "began asking for records and appearing at meetings that any action was taken."

Public records show current superintendent Demond Means initially strategized with Bowers about defending her relationship. In October, after FOX6 started asking questions, Means invited Bowers and the district's communications coordinator to "contribute" to a public statement he drafted misrepresenting the 2019 legal opinion and bemoaning the focus on the Bowers' relationship as "not the real issue."

After the school board repeatedly ignored FOX6's interview requests, the station brought its questions to school board meetings. The school district subsequently put Bowers on leave, launched an internal investigation, and called the police.

Bowers eventually resigned, walking away with a six-figure payout. The school board voted to end its relationship with AVID.

Wauwatosa Police say there will be no criminal charges. The law prohibits "public officials" from using their positions to substantially financially benefit themselves, immediate family, or organizations with which they are associated. But the police report says they could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the Bowers family received "direct compensation" from Wauwatosa's contract with AVID; police reviewed a letter from an AVID representative insisting Brett Bowers' compensation does not change as a result of Wauwatosa's contract.

Kristin Bowers and Demond Means

The Wauwatosa Police investigation was based on public meetings and public records the school district provided, most of which came to light via Randall's and FOX6's open records requests. When FOX6 asked why police did not pursue additional documents, a source not authorized to speak on camera said there was "not enough evidence to support" those subpoenas, despite the belief there was "no doubt Bowers championed AVID."

The report blames former superintendent Phil Ertl and the school board, saying it seems they "wittingly ignored the conflict of interest issue." Police also found multiple policy violations, and noting Ertl "did not accurately relay the legal opinion, and it appears that the School Board didn't look into it further or review the legal opinion that had been obtained. Or if they did, it was ignored."

The police report cites Ertl's and some board members' support for AVID, saying "it seems that the WSD was going in the direction of implementing AVID regardless of K. BOWERS role." But five people who were involved in the school district's AVID talks at the time tell FOX6 they felt as though Kristin Bowers was the driving force behind AVID, saying they don't remember any discussions about the program before Bowers became involved.

"It was obvious Kristin was steering the ship," one employee said. "There's a reason [Phil Ertl] deferred to her when someone had a question [about AVID]." 

Kristin Bowers, Brett Bowers, and Phil Ertl did not respond to FOX6's requests for comment.

Although there are no charges, Wauwatosa Police referred the case to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Inspector General. The office identifies fraud, waste, abuse, and criminal activity with federal funds.

School leaders respond

FOX6 asked Wauwatosa superintendent Demond Means and each school board member to respond to the police report. A district spokesperson sent FOX6 a statement:

Board member Mike Meier answered FOX6's questions in an on-camera interview, emphasizing he could only speak for himself and not the rest of the board. Although Meier voiced his concerns about the violations of district policy shortly after Mary Jo Randall came to the board, he says he regrets approving the AVID contract in February 2021 without doing more digging.

"I have to change," Meier said. "I need to do the Ronald Reagan thing and trust but verify."

Wauwatosa School District

"The board has changed from an oversight room into, in effect, a rubber stamp room where board members are reluctant to talk about problems for fear it will make the district look bad," Meier said.  "We created the environment in which everything was done."

"The board needs to look at itself first and do better than what we’ve done," Meier added. "Myself included."

Meier says the public can expect to hear more discussion about changing internal controls and purchasing practices at future board meetings. 

"Had it not been for Mary Jo Randall and FOX6 News, the board wouldn’t have understood what was going on, and I wouldn’t have understood what was going on, and we all wouldn’t have been able to make things better," Meier said.

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