Shepherd’s Watch opening top story for 2023

Efforts to turn farm waste into renewable energy also ranks on Enterprise’s story list
NEW Media Staff

Although the western side of Shawano County tends to be quieter than neighbors further east, there were plenty of events that made headlines in the past year in Wittenberg, Birnamwood and other communities.

Mattoon’s revitalization of a former elementary school and the reopening of its doors as a learning institution made the top story of 2023 for the Wittenberg Enterprise and Birnamwood News. Coming up close behind was Matsche Farms working with DTE Vantage to turn farm waste into renewable natural gas.

A sex offender fugitive caught near Birnamwood, access to the Birnamwood Public Library and Wittenberg establishing a policy on profanity also made for some interesting news in the area.

Here’s a look at the top 10 stories for 2023:

1. Mattoon opens new Christian academy

Shepherd’s Watch Christian Academy opened its doors in fall 2023, taking up residence in a former elementary school that was part of the Antigo School District but closed due to budget issues several years earlier.

Gerald Schmidt was hired to lead the school. He came into the position with 40 years of teaching experience through the ministry and in school. Entering his 41st year in teaching, Schmidt had been a principal for 33 of those years.

“I have a desire to ‘Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it,’” said Schmidt, reciting Proverbs 22:6. “That has been my mindset, and I can honestly say that I gave that a thought when I was sitting in a classroom in sixth grade. When we discussed that chapter, for whatever reason that stuck with me. I feel that the parents in Mattoon have that desire also.”

Schmidt had estimated in February that the school would have 30 students when it opened in the fall, but it wound up with 17, which he attributed to the school not being in the state voucher program. He hopes to have that ironed out in 2024.

2. Biomass processing plant opens in Birnamwood

Since Feb. 16, Detroit-based DTE Energy’s DTE Vantage subsidiary and Matsche Farms, Inc. in Birnamwood have been processing waste from Matsche cattle into renewable natural gas.

The road to the initiative began before the COVID-19 pandemic, cost millions to see through and can only work with large-scale dairy farms to be economically feasible. Five thousand head is the floor; for Heather Matsche, it was a natural fit for an industry and the world looking at the next horizons.

“How are we saving the planet? We’re trying to be green and go green,” she said. “We feel better when we can improve and be sustainable in our industry. We’re looking at the environmental side of it as well; we’re just as concerned as everybody else … you have to do the small steps.”

The scientific process at the site with three employees and 75 contractors over the course of a year relies on what is known as anaerobic digestion to work. This places manure in a sealed reactor which then breaks down the non-essential components to produce the final fuel. The gas is then sent to California for use in vehicles, and the process does end up being carbon-neutral.

3. Fugitive caught at Birnamwood outskirts

The Marathon County Sheriff’s Office, in a joint effort with multiple law enforcement agencies, arrested Shawn D. Clark on July 11. The suspect previously featured on the Shawano County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page “Wanted Wednesday” series was found in a secluded hideout near County Road D and County Road OO in the Town of Norrie, near Birnamwood.

Clark was previously sought on an active felony warrant issued by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections for a sex offender registration violation. Upon apprehension, further investigations have led to Clark being referred to the Marathon County District Attorney’s office on multiple charges. These include felon in possession of a firearm, resisting arrest, possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and felon in possession of a concealed knife.

The Marathon County Sheriff’s Office reported in a press release that it was the community’s support that proved instrumental in identifying Clark’s hidden location. The clandestine fort was built on private property in an effort to evade arrest by law enforcement, according to the release.

According to court records, Clark pleaded no contest in Marathon County to a charge of first-degree child sex assault of someone under age 13 in 2018 and was in the middle of five years of probation.

4. Birnamwood library access debated

The Wittenberg-Birnamwood School Board voted unanimously June 26 to have the community access the Birnamwood Public Library, which is part of Birnamwood Elementary-Middle School, outside of school hours so there would not be an intermingling of adults and children during the school day.

The board learned that an option was presented to the Shawano County Library Board earlier this month that would put a wall up between the community section and the area where children would get their books. The library board rejected that option, according to Superintendent Garrett Rogowski.

“I think this is a big deal,” he said. “You don’t want to lose the community library. We’ve had some parent concerns that patrons of the Birnamwood Public Library, which is a joint school and public library, that the library is open most school days at 11ish, and that it produces a risk for our students.”

Patrons are able to walk in the library and not always be monitored due to the large size and L-shape of the facility, Rogowski said. Locking access from the school is out, he said, as it’s not wise to expect young children to have electronic access cards to enter the library. So that was where the idea of the wall came in, something that could be pulled away during non-school hours so that children who come in with their parents could access the children’s books.

5. Village board cracks down on profanity

The Wittenberg Village Board added profanity to its list of public nuisances after passing an ordinance Oct. 3 and banning it from any outdoor displays on residents’ property.

There had been a lot of chatter about the issue in previous meetings, most of it surrounding a flag in a yard near downtown that read: “Trump 2024: (Expletive deleted) Your Feelings.”

Profanity will now be listed under public nuisances offending morals and decency. Other items listed under the category include gambling devices, illegal drinking, unlicensed sale of liquor and beer, continuous violation of village ordinances and disorderly houses, meaning places to promote prostitution or gambling.

Violation of the profanity ordinance will result in a penalty of up to $500 per offense, plus the village’s costs to prosecute the offender. The village code allows for each day that a violation like the Trump flag occurs to be considered a separate offense.

6. Tech ed, ag programs in Bowler expand

The Bowler School District held ribbon-cutting ceremonies in August for two additions located behind the school for career and technical education, as well as agriculture. The project cost $3.4 million, with the district borrowing $3 million that will be paid back over 10 years, while the rest came from grants.

Career and technical education programs have been a big focus for schools in Shawano County, and the new 3,800-square-foot facility is expected to provide plenty of space for middle and high school students to learn about automotive technology, welding, machine tooling, fabrication and more.

The agriculture facility, totaling 4,500 square feet, includes a new greenhouse, along with facilities for aquaponics, an area for livestock animals and classrooms.

The Bowler School Board approved borrowing the money in 2022 after considering the rising costs of building materials and deciding that doing the buildings as a joint project rather than separately would be fiscally sound.

7. Woman charged with pointing gun at kids

A Wittenberg woman was arrested after allegedly pointing a firearm at a group of children on May 9 in Wittenberg.

Mindy S. Leeder, 35, was charged with one count of first-degree recklessly endangering safety and one misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct. According to the criminal complaint, Shawano County sheriff deputies were dispatched to 401 S. Mill St. in Wittenberg for a report of a weapons offense. The caller stated that a woman was at Pond Park and was pointing a firearm at multiple kids. When arriving on scene, one deputy was shown a video of Leeder as she allegedly pulled a gun from her waistband and pointed it at one of the children, who was recording the video.

When talking to the children who were at the park at the time, they told law enforcement that Leeder came to the park to yell at them because they were allegedly bullying her children. The children said that they were not bullying. They stated that Leeder was pointing the gun at them and waving it around in the air.

In an interview with Leeder, deputies claim she stated that she could hear her daughter yelling when the daughter was at Pond Park. Upon hearing the yelling, Leeder stated that she wanted to walk over to the park to see what was going on. She also stated that it is common for her to take a concealed firearm with her when leaving the residence, as she has a valid concealed carry permit. She also confirmed that the firearm was loaded. At this time, the case is headed for trial in 2024, with Leeder’s next hearing scheduled for Feb. 21.

8. Texas Jay’s wage lawsuit dismissed

A dancer has dismissed the lawsuit she brought against a strip club north of Birnamwood that she alleged denied her minimum wage pay in an unlawful attempt to classify her as an independent contractor.

Debra Weiss, who danced at Texas Jay’s North in 2018-19, filed suit with about 10 unnamed plaintiffs in federal court in 2021. The club and its owner/manager, John A. Urban, were the named defendants.

Weiss alleged that she was treated as an employee of the club because for the club’s financial benefit it controlled the days and shifts she worked; clothing she wore and her performance; forced her to pay fees for each shift worked; and the tips by requiring her to share them with club bartenders, bouncers and DJs.

According to her suit, Weiss performed for and entertained out-of-state customers, particularly those from the Chicago area. She wasn’t paid by the club, but danced on stage, on tables and entertained customers in VIP rooms for tips, all while semi-nude. Since her income was derived from tips, the club was subject to the provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act that applied to “tipped employees,” according to the complaint.

9. WBHS gets new principal for 2023-24

The Wittenberg-Birnamwood School Board approved the hiring of Megan Rothmeyer in April to be the principal of Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School after Stuart Russ was hired to be principal at Oconto Falls High School.

A University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate, Rothmeyer got her first teaching position at Wausau West High School, taking over the school’s journalism program. From there, Rothmeyer got certified in journalism from the University of South Florida and received her master’s degree in professional development from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. That led her to Horace Mann Middle School in Wausau.

“I have been with the Wausau School District, teaching some form of English, for the last 18 years,” said Rothmeyer. “Within the Wausau School District, I have taken on a lot of different leadership roles. Some of my leadership roles in Wausau include being the English Department chair, a sixth-grade team leader, a summer school principal for our fifth-to-sixth grade transition program and there are a lot of different committee-type leadership roles that I do, too.”

As a 2001 Witt-Birn graduate, Rothmeyer said that she is excited to get back to her roots in the area.

10. Wittenberg gets new fire chief

James Sterk, who has been a volunteer firefighter with the Wittenberg Fire Department, was named as the new fire chief after a vote from the fire department’s board, as well as the firefighters themselves on Jan. 7.

Sterk comes into the position with 15 years of experience with the department. In his time working in the department, Sterk started as a lieutenant, working his way up to captain, then to battalion chief before becoming the assistant chief.

“I moved here in the late-’90s,” said Sterk. “I am in the trucking industry as a driver trainer for Wausau Chemicals. I have been with our department since 2008. Our chief resigned and then the firefighters took a vote, and majority ruled on that one.”

In regard to the coverage area that Sterk is overseeing, he said that with the inclusion of Mutual Aid Box Alarm Systems, the Wittenberg Fire Department can be called to assist anywhere across the state. In immediate local areas, Sterk said that the coverage area includes both the village and Town of Wittenberg, Elderon and Franzen.