Wauwatosa school board member sues his own board after it approved new gender identity curriculum

Mike Meier alleges the board violated open meeting policies

Sandra Collins reads a book to campers at the Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp
In this Wednesday, July 12, 2017 photo, Sandra Collins, executive director and founder of enGender, reads a book to campers at the Bay Area Rainbow Day Camp in El Cerrito, Calif. Jeff Chiu/AP Photo

A Wauwatosa school board member who hopes to rescind the district’s updated human growth and development curriculum is now suing the school board he serves on, alleging the board broke open meeting laws while working on adoption of the curriculum.

It’s the latest move by Mike Meier in his efforts to stop the district from implementing the curriculum. He was the only school board member to vote against the update in August.

A statement from Wauwatosa school board president Eric Jessup-Anger said a prior verified complaint from Meier has already been reviewed by Milwaukee County’s Corporation Counsel, which determined the board “did not violate Wisconsin law regarding the open meetings at issue.”

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Changes to the curriculum in the Wauwatosa School District include teaching kids in kindergarten about gender roles, and lessons on gender identity for kids in the second grade. Some residents and groups pushed back against the plan, but the school board ultimately voted to approve the changes.

The dispute is yet another example of an ongoing culture war nationwide regarding what children are taught in schools when it comes to gender and sexuality, as many conservatives have pushed for legislation to restrict what educators can and cannot teach.

Demond Means, the district’s superintendent, said the curriculum was guided by the National Sex Education Standards. He also said the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has identified those standards as the foundation for school districts developing human growth and development curriculum, including teachings about gender identity.

The lawsuit asks that the changes to the curriculum be rescinded because it alleges members of the board made changes to the policy on a shared Google account and not in a public meeting before the final vote on the curriculum. The lawsuit alleges this violated open meeting laws because the board made public decisions in a closed setting. The lawsuit also names past board president Steve Doman as a defendant.

Attorney Ben Cross from Cross Law Firm is representing Meier in the lawsuit. Cross said Meier decided not to make changes on the Google account because he believed he would’ve violated open meeting laws.

“While it is true that Mr. Meier could have participated in the Google document, he believes that the participation in the Google document would have been a violation of the open meetings law,” Cross said.

The district and school board confirmed they’ve retained legal counsel to represent themselves in the matter.

“When updates become available, they will be provided by legal counsel in open session at public School Board meetings,” the statement from Jessup-Anger read.

During a special meeting to discuss the lawsuit on Monday, Lori Lubinsky, an attorney for the district, said the move by Meier to sue his own school board was “unusual.”

“I believe this is the first time in my 25-year legal career that I have been providing … legal advice to a board when my adversary is in the room,” Lubinsky said.

But Lubinsky added she believes a judge will dismiss the lawsuit.

“I’ve reviewed the facts and circumstances of the events that are at issue in this lawsuit and I feel very good about the board and Mr. Doman’s likelihood of prevailing in this lawsuit,” she added.

Why did the district change its curriculum?

A district document said that curriculum must be reviewed every three years per a school board policy. In 2021, the district learned that it had not been reviewed in 10 years, so they decided to initiate a new review process.

The update addresses anatomy, as students will learn how bodies “change and grow.”

“Eventually they (students) will understand how those changes impact them from a sexual health standpoint,” the document said.

“The goal of teaching body science is to destigmatize the narrative about bodies and create a space for open and honest conversations,” the document adds.

The district said the percentage of instructional time students will be taught the curriculum will range from 1 percent for high school students, to 0.2 percent for kindergarten students.

Wisconsin law says a district can decide itself whether to provide instruction related to human growth and development. State law also says parents can opt their child out of that instruction.

Similar curriculum has also been discussed and debated by other Wisconsin communities. In August, the Superior School Board voted to uphold a decision rejecting a complaint from about 30 parents challenging a lesson plan that teaches gender identity to fifth grade students.

Last year, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Legislature introduced multiple bills that centered on LGBTQ youth. One bill that was introduced would require schools to inform parents and guardians when they provide a program related to gender, gender expression, gender identity or sexual orientation. The legislation failed to pass in the last session.

The Wauwatosa School Board has come under some scrutiny in recent months after an internal investigation found that a former Wauwatosa school district administrator had violated the board’s conflict of interest policy. That’s when concerns around open meeting laws were brought forward by Meier and past board member Mary Jo Randall, centered around open records requests related to that incident.

Doman resigned in May because he said he received a threat against him and his family. That came after some community members called for his resignation because of how the board handled the conflict of interest situation.

In the lawsuit, Meier claims the board is controlled by a “faction.”

“The faction makes political decisions in secret and retaliates against anyone who challenges them by silencing the public and their elected representatives,” the lawsuit said.