Student search controversy leads top 10 Oconto County stories of 2022

DA office woes, town board recall, new middle school also among year’s news highlights
Warren Bluhm

Every year has its share of triumphs and tribulations, and 2022 was no different for Oconto County, as reflected in the top 10 news stories of the year as selected by NEW Media staff.

The tribulations early in the year for the Suring Area School District were chosen as the top story of the year. Close behind was Oconto County’s empty district attorney’s office, which helped lead to a backlog of trials that is finally clearing up as the new year begins, and the turmoil that led to the recall of two of the three members of the Morgan Town Board.

The rest of the top 10 includes: prospects for a new middle school in Oconto Falls; a hellacious night of rain that led to the rescue of a sheriff’s deputy as county roads were washed out; and a positive outlook for expanding a Northwoods library.

1. Superintendent charged, acquitted, resigns

After a group of Suring students were caught vaping in January, Superintendent Kelly Casper searched them to retrieve the devices, and the search included having them strip to their underwear in front of Casper and a school nurse.

More than three dozen parents came to the Feb. 9 school board meeting to object to the searches, and a larger crowd attended a special meeting March 2 when, after an hour of emotional statements and a closed session, Casper was placed on administrative leave.

She was charged with six felony counts of false imprisonment, but Judge Marc Hammer dismissed those charges June 21. He said he was unable to find evidence in the criminal complaint that the students objected to their confinement or that Casper knew she had no authority to confine them, two key elements to finding probable cause to level charges.

The Suring School Board approved a resignation/separation agreement with Casper, effective June 30, following a closed session June 8. In August, the board hired Paul Orlich, who had been superintendent in Mishicot.

Through it all, Suring teachers and students kept doing what they do best. When the state Department of Public Instruction released its annual school report cards in the fall, Suring High School was rated a five-star school with a score of 84.2, best among the 27 high schools in CESA 8.

2. Stress on the county court system

Oconto County Circuit Court began 2022 struggling to overcome the effects of decisions made to suspend most jury trials during the pandemic, and then the system sustained two personnel blows.

First, Assistant District Attorney Lisa Rowe was offered a position in the Dane County District Attorney’s Office, and she left the county in April. Rowe does plan to continue working on several of her more complicated Oconto County cases through trial.

A couple of months later, District Attorney Ed Burke experienced a serious health issue and went on medical leave, and the Oconto office was left without a full-time attorney. Assistant district attorneys, mostly from Brown County, helped keep the system afloat, but major trials were again put on hold.

Burke, 63, was on his way to recovery but decided it was time to retire from office, effective Sept. 1. In mid-October Gov. Tony Evers tabbed Hannah Schuchart, an ADA from Brown County, to fill Burke’s unexpired term through the end of 2024.

Rowe’s former position, however, remains unfilled as the new year approaches. In fact, more than 40 openings currently exist for ADAs across Wisconsin’s 72 counties. The Oconto County Board on Oct. 20 passed a resolution asking the state to increase the entry-level wage for assistant district attorneys.

3. Morgan Town Board recall

As 2021 was drawing to a close, emotions were building between the Morgan Town Board and opponents of a proposed solar farm.

A company called NextEra Energy announced in 2021 that it plans to seek regulatory approval for a 150-megawatt solar array that would tie into an existing substation along CCC Road near County C in Morgan. The town board told concerned residents in October that this is a state issue and out of their control.

That stance led to several rancorous meetings through the winter, and petitions circulated in March and April gathered signatures seeking the recall of Supervisor Leonard Wahl and Town Chairman Fran Wranosky.

When the recall election was held July 12, Wranosky and Leonard Wahl were defeated by Rob Berg and Jeffrey Folts, respectively. Clerk Julie Belongia and Treasurer Cindy Smith had announced their resignations the night before, saying they no longer felt they had their neighbors’ trust.

4. Oconto Falls approves new middle school

Parts of Washington Middle School in Oconto Falls are more than a century old, dating to when it was the high school, and a large area was rebuilt after a devastating 1957 fire. The community seemed to agree it was long past time to replace the old building.

There was some disagreement, however, about what other projects the district needed to address. In April, voters rejected a $49.9 million referendum question that included a $31 million middle school and several other building and maintenance issues.

The district tried again in November. Inflation had increased the new school’s cost to nearly $35 million, but the list of other projects was pared back, and the $37.6 million referendum passed easily.

A planning process has begun, starting with arranging the financing and assembling a design team that is expected to finalize plans for the new middle school across County Road I from Oconto Falls High School. The goal is to open the new facility for the 2025-26 school year.

5. Little Suamico man charged in double homicide

A horrifying discovery was made Oct. 2 when deputies were called to 1251 Melissa Blvd. in Little Suamico and found the bodies of Paul R. Brennan, 75, and his wife, Lori (Steinmetz) Brennan, 55, outside their mobile home with multiple gunshot wounds.

Lori Brennan’s son, David Steinmetz, was identified as a person of interest a short time later, and he was apprehended in the parking lot of Thompson’s County Market in Oconto not long after that.

Steinmetz, 27, was charged with two counts of first-degree intentional homicide and one count of possession of a firearm by a person convicted of a felony. During a brief initial court appearance Oct. 21, Judge Jay N. Conley set bail at $1 million cash.

His next court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 12.

6. Bonfire explosion sends dozens to hospital

It’s still not entirely clear how many people were injured when a Pulaski High School homecoming bonfire went horribly wrong the night of Oct. 14. Not long after midnight, the Brown County Emergency Dispatch Center reported to Shawano County that hospitals were reporting a rash of burn victims.

One of the victims told hospital officials that the injuries were from a bonfire explosion at a home on Cedar Drive in the Town of Maple Grove. It appeared that an accelerant was applied to the fire, which caused it to expand out of control.

The sheriff’s department reported that at least 17 victims had been located, but several sources said more than 30 students and alumni in the Pulaski Community School District were injured. Further, it was reported that six were burned badly enough to need treatment at St. Mary’s Hospital’s burn center in Milwaukee.

Sheriff-elect George Lenzner said in a Nov. 14 press release that the Shawano County Sheriff’s Department was forwarding charges against a 17-year-old Green Bay boy and a 16-year-old Pulaski boy for review, including second-degree reckless injury and injury by negligent handling of fire. The department also forwarded charges against the homeowner, who was present during the incident.

7. Mother Nature’s fury strikes

Severe thunderstorms and high winds struck northern Oconto County around sunset May 12, with up to 3 inches of rain that caused flash flooding in several areas.

An Oconto County sheriff’s deputy escaped injury at the height of the storm when the pavement collapsed under his squad car on County Road A east of Erickson Road in the Town of Maple Valley.

Sgt. Chad Angus was in the car with K-9 officers Riggs and Barron in the back. After Angus got out, Chris Burg, Highway Department patrol superintendent, arrived and worked with the sergeant to rescue the dogs before the water washed the disabled vehicle into the woods next to the highway.

It took until June 23, after a new culvert arrived to replace the one that washed out in the storm, before that stretch of County Road A reopened. A similar washout on County Road B was fixed a few weeks later.

8. School board president defeated

In addition to defeating a school referendum in April, voters swept longtime Oconto Falls School Board president Ron Leja out of office after 33 years, instead choosing recently appointed board member Sarah Schindel and newcomer Chad Earley.

At his final board meeting April 11, Leja remembered a similar night.

“About 30 years ago, I did get voted off when we ran another referendum for about $13 million,” Leja said. “We ended up doing less 10 years later for $28 million. So when taxpayers think they’re going to save some money, they more than doubled their burden at that time.”

9. New city administrator hired

Peter Wills’ career in economic development and municipal management brought him home.

Wills started his new job as Oconto Falls city administrator on July 11, succeeding Vicki Roberts, who resigned earlier in the year. A native of Abrams, he is a proud member of the Oconto Falls High School Class of 1992.

“I’m certainly familiar with the area,” he said, having worked for Senn Landscaping as a teenager. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay with a degree in business and political science and worked first in the banking industry and later economic development. Most recently, he was city administrator in Brillion.

Wills also was executive director for several years for Progress Lakeshore in Manitowoc County.

10. Library expansion advances

Lakes Country Public Library in Lakewood is in the midst of an initiative to renovate and expand.

With an increased need for the library’s services, it is looking to expand to nearly double its current size. That would include a teen area with books and activities, expanded office space, expanded floor space for additional books and materials and a couple of extra meeting rooms to meet the demand of community organizations looking for a place to gather.

As the year ends, the campaign is entering a new phase, with the library board asking architect Jeff Musson to find a general contractor for the project.

Other 2022 news stories that didn’t quite make the top 10:

• Bug Tussel and Oconto County agreed to partner on a $16.5 million project to expand broadband access across the county.

• The Gillett School District also lost a referendum question in April and came back to pass an initiative in November.

• HSHS St. Clare Hospital in Oconto Falls celebrated its 100th anniversary with a special visit by Green Bay Catholic Bishop David Ricken

• Philip and Laura Fingers, who were selected as Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmers a year earlier, were named National Outstanding Young Farmers for 2022.

• An ongoing bus driver shortage led the Oconto Falls School District to stop busing students who live within a mile of school.