Exclusive interview: Wausau superintendent speaks about music co - WAOW - Newsline 9, Wausau News, Weather, Sports

Exclusive interview: Wausau superintendent speaks about music controversy

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WAUSAU (WAOW) -

Wausau's school superintendent is speaking out for the first time about a heated debate over limiting religious music.

It's an exclusive interview you'll only find on Newsline 9 and WAOW.com. The ordeal has gained national attention.

It all started last week, when the Wausau School District proposed guidelines that would limit the number of religious holiday songs the high school choir could perform in December.

The director of the Wausau West High School choir said he was told he'd have to dramatically change his concert program.

So instead, he disbanded the choir temporarily.

The Wausau School District has announced a special board meeting that will happen Thursday to talk about this issue.

Now, the superintendent said the district is trying to follow the law and avoid pushing one religion on all students.

Superintendent Kathleen Williams said there are multiple issues at hand, including frustrated, teachers and community members.

Now, administrators are discussing the possibility of a lawsuit.

Wausau's superintendent said the decision to limit religious music in school sparked a firestorm.

"I've received a lot of e-mails, some more egregious than others, I think the major concern is the change of a tradition that they love," said Kathleen Williams, Wausau School District Superintendent.

Kathleen Williams tells Newsline 9 the issues comes down to the law. She said that means not endorsing one religion.

Now, the district's Music Committee is reviewing songs.

We wanted to know, what prompted this musical change of heart?

"This is all part of the establishment clause, nothing has to trigger it really, this is what music in public schools or any teaching in public schools needs to follow," said Williams.

Williams said there was never a set ratio for the number of secular and religious songs that could be performed in a concert.

But the proposal pushed Wausau West's Master Singers Choir to disband.

The choir's director, Phil Buch, said the district instructed him not to speak on camera, but he told Newsline 9 his concert program would dramatically change.

Buch said the group was scheduled to perform religious Christmas carols at 15 places in Wausau this December.

That's something Williams said could be a problem.

"A public school advancing Christmas caroling, which is specifically associated with Christmas, which is a religious holiday, which could be interpreted as endorsing a religion," said Williams.

Some frustrated parents said avoiding religion could mean students miss out on some of history's most influential works.

"Schools should not establish religion, should not promote it, but should not inhibit it," said Eric Penniman, Wausau West parent.

"The goal is to make sure that students do not feel co-erced into performing songs that make them very uncomfortable," said Williams.

Some school board members also voiced their anger about being left out of the discussion.

"What precipitated this change, were there complaints? If so, from whom, how many? When did it happen? What kind of documentation do we have for them? It really is that particular question, Why did this have to happen," said Pat McKee, Wausau School Board member.

"They have a policy regarding student principles, which I shared with the media, but they don't have a specific policy that guides selections with regard to music," said Williams.

Williams said she wants to find a resolution for everyone including the Master Singers, but she said the district may now also face a lawsuit.

Williams wouldn't elaborate.

The Wausau School District has announced a special board meeting will take place Thursday to discuss the heated Christmas music debate.

According to a meeting agenda, the school board plans to meet in closed session at 5:30 p.m. Thursday to discuss a potential lawsuit surrounding its music curriculum.

At 6:30 p.m. the board is scheduled to discuss the issue publicly.

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The Wausau School District Superintendent is speaking out about the heated Christmas music debate.

In an exclusive interview with Newsline 9, Superintendent Kathleen Williams says she wants to find a resolution for everyone.

"The goal is to make sure that students do not feel coerced into performing songs that make them feel very uncomfortable," said Williams. "The other goal is to not endorse any religion, so to speak, within that concert frame; and additionally, to be religious neutral in terms of what we're promoting."

The Wausau School District has announced a special board meeting will take place Thursday to discuss the heated Christmas music debate.

According to a meeting agenda, the school board plans to meet in closed session at 5:30 p.m. Thursday to discuss a potential lawsuit surrounding its music curriculum.

At 6:30 p.m. the board is scheduled to discuss the issue publicly.

This is the latest step in this heated debate about the Wausau School District limiting religious music. What sparked the decision? And why were board members left out of it?

This all started last week when the Wausau School District proposed guidelines that would limit the number of religious holiday songs the high school choir could perform in December. Phil Buch, director of the Wausau West High School choir, says he was told he'd have to dramatically change his concert program. So instead, he disbanded the choir temporarily.

Wausau school officials say the group can still perform. But under a new proposal, the concert would have to include no religious songs or have a different theme, even perhaps adding four secular songs for each religious one.

But some Wausau School Board members are upset, telling Newsline 9 they've been left in the dark.

"The ire of many folks is what precipitated this change?" said board member Pat McKee. "Were there complaints? If so, how many and from whom? When did it happen? What kind of documentation do we have? It really is that particular question, why did this have to happen?"

Newsline 9 reached out to the Wausau West choir director Tuesday. He said he was given strict orders not to speak with any member of the media.

In addition to all this, we recently learned all elementary schools in the Wausau School District have postponed their December concerts until spring. But the district superintendent said it had nothing to do with religion, and that teachers needed more class time to prepare students for testing.

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