Public school board listed ‘Christian values’ among desires for superintendent

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of religion

A screenshot of a message from the Board of Education to postpone an event inviting the public to meet the finalist for the district’s new superintendent. Screenshot taken from cbgrockets.com

School board members in a Sheboygan County district listed “Christian values” and “conservative politics” as desired characteristics in a posting for a superintendent position at a public school. 

The original post for the Cedar Grove-Belgium School District job was amended after potential candidates raised questions. 

Retired St. Francis Superintendent Carol Topinka became aware of the posting on Tuesday when a friend, applying for the job, brought it to her attention. 

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She immediately emailed Mike Richie with Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. The Arlington Heights, Illinois-based firm was hired by the district to lead the search.

“Help me understand how a public school district can legally limit its hiring to people who are Christians?” Topinka wrote in an email obtained by WPR. “My mentee is not a Christian and is frankly gobsmacked that a public school district can blatantly and prejudicially flout the law.”

Richie responded within a half hour.

“Thanks for your email. That was a comment made during the focus groups and you are correct that should not have been in the report. It will be removed. Thanks,” according to his email.

WPR contacted Richie, his partner, Scott Winch, and Cedar Grove-Belgium School Board President Chad Hoopman for comments. 

In an email to WPR, Hoopman said as part of the process of hiring the superintendent focus groups met and “any characteristic mentioned by any participant in attendance is recorded and appears on the list of traits for that particular focus group for complete transparency to any potential candidates to review.”

Hoopman said there was a disclaimer made that comments should be “considered personal opinions of the individual making the comments regarding the Cedar Grove-Belgium School District.”

Hoopman told WPR he realizes publicly listing “Christian” as a desirable characteristic by school board members would give candidates the impression they would not be considered if they weren’t that religion.

“That is why the search firm chose to remove that comment,” Hoopman said.

Hoopman said there are no recordings of the focus groups. WPR has also filed an open records request for all correspondence related to the superintendent search. 

Posting lists hopes from school board, community, teachers

Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates held 12 focus groups with students, teachers, community members and school board members and put together a “Leadership Profile Report.”

The original report, released on March 13, 2024, included a section of “Desired Characteristics of the next Cedar Grove-Belgium Superintendent as identified by the school board.” One of the points listed was: “must match the make-up of our community (conservative, Christian values).”

The original posting for Cedar Grove-Belgium Superintendent. This was later removed. Screenshot of original post

Making religious beliefs a desired job characteristic is illegal, said Ryan Cox, legal director with ACLU of Wisconsin. 

“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of religion, including in the recruitment phase,” Cox said. “The ACLU of Wisconsin is extremely concerned that a public body might be attempting to apply a religious test as a condition of employment, or even as a preferred ‘qualification.’ 

Cox added that the ACLU plans to investigate further, including past actions taken by the board and will “take appropriate action to enforce the law as the facts require.”

Search for superintendent re-opened

On Monday, the Cedar Grove-Belgium School District announced there was a “shift in the timeline” in its superintendent search. The search was reopened by Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. 

According to a Facebook post from the Ozaukee Press, “The first round of candidates didn’t closely enough match the profile determined by the district, thus Monday’s meeting to meet the finalists has been canceled.” 

The Cedar Grove-Belgium School District is located in the southern most portion of Sheboygan County. 

The district serves about 900 students who are 83 percent white and 12 percent Hispanic. According to state report cards, the district “significantly exceeds expectations.” 

Topinka said her colleague was excited about the possibility of working in the district. But when she saw the listing, she decided not to apply for the position because she’s not a Christian. 

“I can’t imagine why the Board generated these characteristics, if that is not the type of superintendent they are looking for,” Topinka said. “It’s troubling from my perspective.”