Wednesday, February 25, 2015

School Board Censure is Infectious

Cartoon from
Was school board member Katy McElwee-Stevens censured because she requested a line-item budget? Perhaps those who believe in the service level  matrix will do anything to defend it. Getting nosy and doing your job isn't without risk when you serve on a school board in Minnesota.

South Washington County Schools will soon be asking voters to fork over $180 million, yet wastes money to have a law firm “investigate” and strong arm school board members.  This is happening in our school district and in Duluth and Farmington.  Censure of school board members may be at epidemic levels around the state.  Take a look at this article from the Duluth Lincoln Democrat, the official voice of the Welty for School Board Campaign:

Censure is infectious


January 11th, 2015

Our Attorney, Kevin Rupp, belongs to a law firm that has become expert in the sanctioning wayward school board members. They were behind what ended up being a failed attempt to remove the Farmington board member in 2010 that got Judy Seliga-Punyko so excited as she contemplated removing Gary Glass.

They’ve been in the news over the weekend for advising the South Washington County School Board which just censured one of its own. Here’s one of several summaries in the news.

Unlike my censure this one involved data relating to an employee. The board member in question passed on information which she came by in the course of being around the schools. However, this info was also given to board members by the attorneys in data private confidence. The majority chose to believe that this widely rumored private data had come from the legal counsel. Unlike Art or me the South Washington County Board member who was censured seems quite stricken and pledges to mend her ways.

As it happens a Fox News station made a public data request that makes the whole issue of private data highly suspect because they were given a 99 page file on the employee whose privacy the Board was intent on preserving. That’s a third longer than Mary Rice’s report on Art Johnston and the alleged misdeeds far exceed anything leveled against Art. The actions of this School Board support my contention that one of the chief functions of data privacy laws is to cover up misdeeds. The primary protection accrues to bad guys and bureaucracies that make use of the privacy to quietly leverage embarrassing information to get rid of bad actors.

Its clear from the report, should it be true, that few school districts would want such a fellow to become a principal. But keeping this damaging information under wraps is almost as good as a positive reference. This Board member who got the information in an entirely predictable manner now faces the prospect of removal if she ever lets any more cats out of the bag. I’m inclined to think this action shameful rather than think of it as being law abiding. Some laws are very flawed and so it seems to me is this use of data privacy.

My offense thus far – the one I was censured for – did not involve any personnel’s private data. My mistake was to report the sale price of our District’s Central property which could have put the sale in jeopardy. Like the South Washington board member I am much abashed – about this justification for my censure. I feel no shame for handing over our attorney’s advice on how to deal with Art Johnston which was also among the reasons the majority of my board voted to censure me. You see we too have a bad actor. I blame this one for an overzealous campaign to harass Art Johnston and boy did it ever bear fruit – nine months of hell to put another notch on Kevin Rupp’s gun belt.

This explains why I feel no shame for handing over the legal advice relating to Art to the press. I believe our attorney is actively protecting a bad penny to help the Board majority remove Art. And now Mr. Rupp may have an entirely more personal reason for removing my only ally from the School Board. I’ve made no secret that I believe the new school board will lean far more closely to my views on the District’s sorry finances and management. I think Mr. Rupp would love to put his finger into the Duluth school board election by helping remove a Board member who has more reason than ever to question our hiring a generously paid character assassin.

Of course, that’s not the only service Mr. Rupp has provided our District. Among his other triumphs is helping negotiate one of the richest teacher’s contracts in Minnesota. Last year Duluth was about 15th out of 300 school districts in terms of teacher’s salary and that was for one of the poorest districts in the state. That’s not the best way to go about hiring more teachers and reduce our horrendous class sizes but it is a good way to assure teacher burn out.

Should a law firm have the authority to remove wayward board members who refuse to toe the line?  Fear of censure or the embarrassment of removal should not be a consequence for disagreeing with the administration. These political witch-hunts are often ordered by the school administration and majorities on school boards who wish to purge trouble makers. 

It is no coincidence that the attorney for the Duluth School District is a partner in the same law firm on contract to represent District 833. How much are taxpayers forking over to this law firm to censure board members?

Serving on a school board is becoming risky business.  It is imperative that school board members be allowed to communicate with their constituents, request information from the administration and voice opinions contrary to the school board majority.  Voters become disenfranchised and the democratic process undermined when law firms rather than voters control our school districts.  Take a look at these articles from the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press regarding a Farmington school board member before you decide to throw your hat in the ring and run for South Washington County School Board.

Farmington school official won't face a felony case

Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis, MN) - Friday, December 31, 2010


The Dakota County attorney's office will not pursue charges against a Farmington school board member accused of violating state law, saying that there's no evidence he committed a felony. 

The school board censured Tim Burke earlier this month after an attorney for the board said an investigation showed evidence that Burke illegally disclosed private personnel data and information discussed in closed board meetings. 

The board asked the county attorney to consider criminal charges against Burke, but the offenses described in a report on the investigation fall short of felonies, said Phil Prokopowicz, chief deputy Dakota County attorney. The county attorney's office doesn't usually prosecute misdemeanors, so the report was handed off to Farmington's city attorney this week, Prokopowicz said. 

The city attorney could not be reached for comment Thursday. 

The board ordered the investigation after months of mounting tension between Burke and other members. Several members say that Burke has persistently bullied district administrators and burdened them with unnecessary data requests. Burke has said that administrators have dragged their feet in providing public information. 

Burke's attorney, Fred Finch, said that Burke hasn't broken any laws and that legal advice given to the school board was based on a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the state's open meeting and data practices laws. 


Edition: METRO

School board tables discussion of budget cuts - But reason for delay unclear; 2 members lack information

St. Paul Pioneer Press (MN) - Thursday, January 27, 2011

Author: Mila Koumpilova

Farmington school officials have a plan to close a $1.8 million budget gap for next school year -- but the school board won't hear it just yet. 

At a meeting earlier this week, four board members voted to take the budget-cuts proposal off the agenda. Disclosing the reason would violate data-privacy laws, they said, vowing to inform the other two members during a later closed session. 

"Hopefully, it doesn't turn out to be anything serious," said board member Brian Treakle, who moved to delay the budget discussion. "But it's serious enough that we had to do this." 

Board member Julie Singewald said Wednesday that she remains in the dark and voiced concern about delaying an important discussion about balancing the budget. 

"I am frustrated because as board members, we should all have the same information going into a meeting," said Singewald, who, along with member Julie McKnight, argued in favor of hearing the budget proposal. 

Data-privacy issues are a sensitive topic in Farmington, where last month the board voted to censure member Tim Burke for allegedly violating data-privacy laws by calling out employees publicly. Burke had repeatedly charged administrators with a lack of transparency. 

Three new members -- Treakle, Tera Lee and Melissa Sauser -- have since joined the board, changing its dynamic. This week, Burke joined the trio to vote for pulling the budget discussion. 

District finance director Jeff Priess said he also does not know why the board wanted to hold off on reviewing his proposal. He said his recommendations were partly informed by an October report by Madison, Wis., consulting firm Baker Tilly, which suggested various ways to reduce district costs by as much as $1.1 million. Those suggestions included requiring employees to contribute toward their health coverage, sharing human-resources professionals with neighboring districts and eliminating the director of administrative services. 

Priess said he would not be comfortable discussing the proposal in detail before sharing it with the board. 

On Monday, Treakle made the motion, seconded by Burke, to pull the budget item from the agenda. Treakle later said he heard about some of the administration's recommendations last week and made the decision to pull the item after consulting the Minnesota School Board Association and a district attorney. 

"I have grave concerns about delaying any potential savings that we have in this district for reasons that aren't touching our kids," Singewald said at the meeting, pointing out that the board could hear the presentation without acting on it that night. 

Still, board members argued for holding off until after a closed session. Lee, the board chair, said she would schedule such a session shortly. 

"Why this information is being withheld, I don't know," Singewald said in an interview, adding, "This is coming from people who were touting transparency in the district." 

At the Monday meeting, Singewald expressed concern that some board members might be conducting board business outside of scheduled meetings in violation of Minnesota's open-meeting law. The members who pushed to delay the budget discussion seemed to have decided on that move beforehand, she said. 

Treakle and Lee strongly denied that suggestion. 

"The law does allow people to talk and exchange information," Treakle said, "as long as they are not building consensus."

Edition: Dakota County
Section: Local
Page: B1
Dateline: Farmington

School board members are threatened with censure when they step out of line; but look at what happens when the average citizen wants information. We have submitted multiple data requests to District 833 and have been asked to pay up to $1,500.  What are they trying to hide?  Whatever it is, it's more than two stay-at-home moms can afford.

No comments:

Post a Comment