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Racine Unified
Unified Board may vote to support driver's licenses for the undocumented

RACINE — The Racine Unified School Board may vote later this month on whether to support a change in state law to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

The School Board’s legislative liaison, board member Jane Barbian, introduced a possible resolution in favor of the law change during Monday night’s meeting.

She, and other board members who support the resolution, believe that a law change would help to improve student attendance, which affects student performance and can affect the district’s score on the state report card.

“When the child of undocumented parents misses the school bus, it isn’t such a simple thing to get that child to school,” a document provided by resolution supporters states. “When the child of undocumented parents needs to go to the doctor, it isn’t such a simple thing to get that child there.”

Supporters also believe allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses would increase family engagement.

If the board votes in favor of the resolution, its supporters hope to bring it before the Wisconsin Association of School Boards for approval by that entity’s delegate assembly in January.

Differing opinions

School Board President Robert Wittke Jr. came out staunchly against the resolution.

“I will not be supporting this resolution for one reason,” he said. “I believe that it is beyond the scope of this board. We have other work that is more important to us that is related to student achievement. And I believe this is something that is best handled through federal and state legislation.”

Wittke, who is representative-elect for Wisconsin Assembly District 62, cautioned other board members that there could be unintended consequences if they support this resolution. He said if the board supports this issue, brought by what he called a special-interest group, other such groups may approach the board in the future to ask for support.

Board Vice President Mike Frontier disagreed with Wittke.

“Our kids are not special interests,” Frontier said. “That’s what we’re here for. I think this is germane.”

Frontier said he favored the resolution as one of its intentions is to help address absenteeism, a problem for the district. On its last state report card, Racine Unified had an absenteeism rate of 13.8 percent. If that rate increased to 14 percent, the district would have been docked five points from its score, putting it dangerously close to the state’s failing category for school districts.

“Even The Journal Times encouraged us to move forward on addressing attendance issues,” Frontier said.

The Journal Times published an editorial encouraging the district to deal with its absenteeism issues on Nov. 25.

Other board members were not clear about where they stood on the possible resolution. Julie McKenna said she needed more time to look over the document, as it was not provided to board members prior to the meeting as part of the meeting agenda documents.

Brian O’Connell said he was not keen on the district advocating for this on its own, without other districts being on board.

“It would leave us open to criticism that we are a fringe district,” he said.

Residents weigh in

During the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, three members of the public spoke in favor of the resolution.

Linda Boyle, president of the Racine Interfaith Coalition, said that about 20 Racine families have been affected by deportation or incarceration of undocumented loved ones based on immigration status since July. Because of this, she said local undocumented parents are afraid to drive.

Maria Morales, a local community activist, said sometimes children of undocumented immigrants don’t make it to school because their parents don’t have a car and can’t leave younger children home alone to walk with the older kids.

Parents also aren’t allowed into some school activities if they don’t have identification, she said. Morales said she knows one undocumented father who must drive his disabled child to school, but if he receives one more ticket for driving without a license, he may end up in jail and ultimately be deported.

The School Board did not vote on the issue Monday, as it was not listed on the meeting agenda. Barbian suggested that the board place the issue on the agenda for its next business meeting on Dec. 17.

“I will not be supporting this resolution for one reason. I believe that it is beyond the scope of this board.” Robert Wittke Jr., Racine Unified Board president


Festival Foods crash
'Harm beyond saving': Teen sentenced in Festival Foods hit-and-run


RACINE — Jeff Coopman, one of the victims of a hit-and-run crash that severely and permanently injured him and his wife last January, made his way to the microphone to address the court on Monday.

“I have to ask, Your Honor, have you ever woken up and thought about the fact that maybe if you and your wife had died, it might have been easier?”

The question hung in the air as Coopman recounted all the ways he and his wife, Cheryl, were affected after they were struck by an SUV driven by Isaiah DeGroot, 18, in the Festival Foods parking lot, 5740 Washington Ave., in Mount Pleasant, last January.

“The challenges, I could sit here and talk about forever,” Coopman said, as he listed the physical, financial, emotional and psychological ways he and his wife were affected by the incident.

Cheryl Coopman lost an arm and a leg, and part of her brain as a result of the crash. Jeff Coopman suffered multiple broken bones and ended up having his leg amputated.

“I want a strong conviction ... Nothing you could do could make me happy right now, but it would help,” Coopman said.

There were no empty seats in the courtroom Monday as both the family and friends of the Coopmans and DeGroot gathered to hear DeGroot’s fate during his sentencing hearing.

Racine County Circuit Court Judge Mark Nielsen sentenced DeGroot to 36½ years in prison and 26 years of probation. He will be on probation until he reaches age 80.

“In every way a person can be damaged, Mr. and Mrs. Coopman were damaged,” Nielsen said.

Teen nets charges

DeGroot was initially charged with two counts of hit-and-run, great bodily harm; two counts of knowingly operating a motor vehicle without a valid license, causing great bodily harm; two counts of first-degree causing reckless injury; operating a motor vehicle without owner’s consent; 18 counts of bail jumping; and possession with intent to deliver or manufacture THC. All 27 of the charges are felonies.

DeGroot accepted a plea deal right before he was slated to go to trial in October. He pleaded guilty to two counts of felony hit and run, four counts of felony bail jumping, and one count of misdemeanor possession of THC.

He entered a no-contest plea to two counts of first-degree recklessly causing injury and one count of receiving stolen property for a firearm that was found in DeGroot’s vehicle after he fled the scene.

The plea deal included swapping a felony possession of THC charge with the misdemeanor, and the dismissal of multiple felony bail jumping charges.

Under the deal, DeGroot faced up to 55 years and six months in prison plus another 60 years and six months of extended supervision.

State responds

Assistant District Attorney Brian Van Schyndel cited not only the millions of dollars in medical bills the Coopmans face, but the fact that they will no longer be able to adopt their granddaughter, something they wished to do following the death of their only child last year.

Schyndel also pointed out that DeGroot was out of bond for a shooting incident at the time of the crash, and said his poor choices led him to injure the Coopmans.

“The only accident, the only random chance, is who the defendant would hit. He hit the Coopmans and he destroyed two lives,” Schyndel said.

The state asked for the judge to consider a sentence of between 60 years and the maximum penalty for the charges.

After that, family and friends of the Coopmans addressed the courtroom, asking the judge to consider a harsh sentence for DeGroot. One of the most of emotional moments was when Chris Dustman, one of the people who was first on the scene to the crash, testified.

He said he experiences nightmares when he thinks of the moment he came upon the scene.

“Have you thought of the nightmares I experience when I go to bed at night? With the vision of Cheryl lying between my legs, reaching for her arm for a pulse and for it not to be there,” Dustman said. “I will not forgive you. And I hope Jeff and Cheryl never do, either.”

‘A fair sentence’

DeGroot’s attorney, Aneeq Ahmad, asked the judge to consider “a fair sentence, not a lenient sentence.” Ahmad cited DeGroot’s past, including his anxiety issues, ADHD, and the trauma of seeing his mother go through verbal and physical abuse as a child.

DeGroot’s family also took to the stand in support of Isaiah, calling him “polite,” “kind” and “caring,” and telling the Coopmans how sorry they are for DeGroot’s actions.

Shonda Hayes, DeGroot’s mother, tearfully addressed her son in court.

“I do not condone your behavior or your actions, but I also know you didn’t mean to hurt the Coopmans,” Hayes said, as she turned to the judge. “It’s embarrassing, but I beg and plead that you have mercy on my son.”

After his family and attorneys spoke, DeGroot addressed the packed courtroom. “What I did was terribly wrong, and I’m ashamed of my actions,” DeGroot said. “I wish I could take their place, because they (the Coopmans) never deserved to be part of my horrible decisions.”

Ahmad asked for a total of 9½ years in prison.

Nielsen went for a far more substantial sentence, citing the gravity of the offense.

“You are a human being, but you are a human being who acted in a monstrous fashion, and who committed monstrous harms, and that’s what I have to deal with,” Nielsen said.

State politics
Vos: 'We're not taking any powers'; Barca asks for session to be delayed

MOUNT PLEASANT — On the eve of an extraordinary special session in the state Legislature, state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, compared the session set to start today to a shotgun wedding and asked Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, to delay it.

However, Vos maintained that Republicans are “not taking (away) any powers” and stressed the need for the Legislature to have more control over the lawmaking process.

The comments were made at a Monday legislative breakfast event sponsored by Racine Area Manufacturers and Commerce that brought together Vos and state Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine; state Rep. Greta Neubauer, D-Racine; and Barca, D-Kenosha. State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, was invited but did not attend.

The event, which was held at Meadowbrook Country Club and also included discussion about Foxconn and other business concerns, was planned long before the legislative session was scheduled and the four legislators were able to attend before heading to Madison.

The special session has received a lot of attention with Democrats saying it is an attempt by state Republicans to restrict powers from the executive branch before Democratic governor-elect Tony Evers is sworn in to office.

Vos rebutted those criticisms.

“All we’re doing is saying if you want to change the law it shouldn’t be with an executive order or a stroke of the pen,” Vos said. “Come and talk to the Legislature and sit at the table and we’ll negotiate.”

Vos said he wants previous executive orders, signed under Gov. Scott Walker, to be put into law before Evers can undo them with his own executive order.

“We have voter ID; it was very hard fought over. It went to the (state) Supreme Court and it was found to be constitutional, it has been in effect for four years,” Vos said. “That was done by an executive order … the day that Tony Evers walks into office, as a foe of voter ID, he rescinds that executive order, voter ID is gone and none of the legislators here have a say in that whatsoever.”

Vos said he is also concerned that Evers might attempt to undo legislation, through executive order, that involved work requirements for those on welfare.

“I believe work requirements for welfare are what we should have because we want more people in our workforce,” Vos said. “That passed the Legislature, was signed by the governor and given approval by President Trump.”

Although Evers has not stated specifically what he plans to do as governor regarding work requirements for welfare recipients, Vos said if he wants to change it, “I think he should go through the Legislature to do that.”

Barca calls for delay

At the breakfast, Barca asked Vos to delay the session for at least another week.

“I really do firmly believe, Mr. Speaker, that we should delay this a week out of courtesy to the new governor to have a chance to renew this, to propose amendments,” Barca said. “The new administration is trying to hire cabinet secretaries and other people, and to get this on Friday and expect to respond by (Monday) when you don’t have a staff is really nothing short of outrageous.”

Likening the current political situation to a shotgun wedding, Barca said, “It’s almost like you’re on your way to the rehearsal dinner and one of the parties turns to the other and says ‘Here’s a 90-page summary of our prenup, take a look at it before we go to church tomorrow morning’ ... I really think you’re imposing something very difficult on a new administration that doesn’t have a staff yet. So I think, at a bare minimum, this should be delayed out of respect for our new governor.”

Neubauer encouraged those in attendance to watch the special session closely and “to hold us to higher standards.”

“We received the bills on Friday and we’re supposed to be voting on them (Tuesday),” Neubauer said. “I, like my colleagues, would love to have a relationship where we talk to each other more closely, but I don’t think that that’s the culture we’re in right now.”

Neubauer said there needs to be a change in the Legislature on how the parties work together.

“I am absolutely ready to work with my colleagues on behalf of this community,” Neubauer said. “There are critical issues that we can't wait on through four years of partisan bickering or even two years of partisan bickering.”

Wanggaard said this session is “going to be interesting,” and the omnibus bill legislators received on Friday “has got everything in it.”

“I think there’s going to be a lot of interesting things happening,” Wanggaard said.

2020 presidential primary

Wanggaard does agree that executive orders signed under Walker need to be codified but on issues such as moving the 2020 Wisconsin presidential primary to March, he needs to hear more information. Such a move would result in three elections being held in less than 90 days.

“I’m not really sure where I’m at with that yet until I hear a little bit more about some of the ramifications of moving it,” Wanggaard said. “Because there’s all kinds of issues that comes up with the amount of delegates Wisconsin gets … if it makes sense to do it, we should do it. But if it’s going to create more problems then I think we have to rethink what we’re doing.”

Republicans, Democrats split on primary date

MADISON — Before the new state Legislature, governor and lieutenant governor are sworn in, state Republicans are attempting to do a bit of house cleaning that has state Democrats upset.

Barca said he has talked with municipal clerks throughout Kenosha and Racine counties who have stated if the presidential primary were to be moved up from April to March, “it would be virtually impossible to implement” and if there’s a recount it “would throw everything into chaos.”

“There’s absolutely no reason that should be done,” Barca said.