by Dennis Dalman
by Dennis Dalman
The Sartell-St. Stephen School Board got a good talking-to during a public meeting Oct. 15, with speaker after speaker sharply criticizing board members for their divisive behavior. Many speakers said the board should not renew the superintendent’s contract until a new board (with four new members) is in place after the Nov. 6 election. That request proved futile, however, as the board voted to renew Joe Hill’s contract about an hour after the public hearing. (See related story.)
In criticizing the school board, many of the 16 speakers used words such as “immature,” “bullies,” “disrespectful” and “dysfunctional” to describe board members.
Some speakers urged the board to learn how to communicate, to become respectful of others’ opinions, to start using civil discourse and to focus completely on what counts most – school children.
About 200 people gathered for the open meeting in the gymnasium of the School District Building.
Judging by the applause given the speakers, there seemed to be a consensus the school board should wait until newly elected school-board members take their seats before deciding on whether or not to renew Superintendent Joe Hill’s contract. Four school-board seats will be determined in the Nov. 6 election.
According to the speakers, there appears to be two divisive factions on the school board – those who support Hill and the job he does and those who do not. Two speakers praised Hill for his leadership and criticized board members not willing to work with him.
Another speaker, however, was former board member Julie Zupfer Anderson, who resigned a few months ago from the board. She read a statement accusing the board members and Hill of violating the state’s open-meeting law on at least six occasions. Those communications, which Zupfer Anderson said should have been conducted in public, include chairman Dan Riordan allegedly directing board members Christopher Gross and Gary Schnellert to begin negotiations with the superintendent. Another allegation is Schnellert and Hill had met to discuss Hill’s contract. Such private meetings, without other board members present, violate the Open-Meeting Law if they can be proven.
“Because of these serious accusations of collusion and probable illegal activity,” said Zupfer Anderson, I’m appealing to this board to recuse itself from any and all decision-making regarding the superintendent’s contract. Approving this contract will bring to bear a level of public scrutiny not yet experienced by this current school board and Superintendent Hill.”
Others at the meeting gave the same opinion – that all contract negotiations should cease until a new school board is elected. The contract controversy, however, is merely the latest feud on what has been for many months a divisive, contentious school board.
Dissension and bitterness occurred last spring when the board announced it had decided to end spring break, starting in 2013. That decision also divided the Sartell community, making many parents and students angry. Not only were many angry about the decision, they were also disgusted by how the decision was made, with just minimal input.
A deep factionalism then began causing fractures in board cohesion. Several resignations followed: Zupfer Anderson (disagreements with the board’s leadership, vision and direction) and Patrick Jacobson-Schulte (who moved from the district). Another controversy arose about how the board planned to make appointments for the vacant positions, at first without an open-application process and again with little or no public input. The board finally did open the application process, partly because of public pressure. But factionalism and bitterness again followed.
Those particular issues were not explicitly named in the Oct. 15 public meeting, but speakers critical of the board clearly had them in mind.
Troy Molitor, the father of two Sartell students, said he had become increasingly concerned about what he’d heard about the board. When he attended a Friday, Oct. 12 meeting of the board, he was stunned. Molitor said he had never witnessed anything that dysfunctional. Some board members, he said, seemed to be “working behind the scenes” without regard for the rest of the board. Molitor said he disagreed with the decision by the chairman to appoint only two board members to work on negotiations for Hill’s work contract. That contract, he said, should not be considered or renewed until a new board is in place.
Lisa Maurer, a member of the Sartell Economic Development Commission, said “great education means great business” and that schools attract new residents and new businesses. She warned the board their divisive behavior could negatively impact the reputation of Sartell and its school district as one of the best in the state and the nation.
John Ellis, the father of three students, said the board has been beset by gossip, rumors and threats – not a good example for children who are learning how bad it is to bully, he added. There is no evidence Hill has done anything wrong, Ellis said, adding Hill’s contract should be renewed provisionally at least, perhaps for one year.
Nancy Henderson, a former board member, said it was irresponsible to appoint the two newly appointed board members (Gross, Schnellert) to deal with issues regarding Hill’s contract renewal bid when those members had only been on the board since last July.
“Shame on you for appointing Gross and Schnellert,” she told the board. “Shame on Gross . . . And shame on you (the school board) for airing your dirty linen in public and shame on you for bringing shame to this school district.”
One speaker suggested board members might benefit from taking a communications class. Another suggested they might need a professional mediator. She urged the board to stop its bickering and fighting.
A senior high-school student, Brady Anderson, simply told the board they should listen to the people. His brief statement drew thunderous applause from the audience.
All of the current school board members were at the meeting: Chairman Riordan, Gross, Schnellert, Gary Asfeld, Lesa Kramer and Mary McCabe. Superintendent Hill was also present.
After the public hearing, which lasted from 5-6 p.m., the board held its regular meeting.
During the public hearing, board members did not comment or answer the criticisms during the hearing because the meeting had been called only to hear the public’s concerns. And they heard plenty.