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School Board wrestles over ethics issues

Last Wednesday's special New Richmond School Board meeting opened with a bit of fireworks.

Board member Bill Brennan objected to a scheduled closed session to discuss "board communication" at the beginning of the evening.

He said he had been advised that the discussion should not be held in closed session. Brennan warned that he would go to the county District Attorney's office with the intention of filing charges against the board if the closed session was held.

The rest of the board appeared ready to conduct the discussion in an open meeting, voting 6-0 to cancel the closed session.

Board President Judy Remington opened the discussion with a warning for board and audience members. She asked that everyone be polite and courteous during the agenda item.

She alluded to possible censure proceedings against an individual board member, but none ever materialized. Remington noted there is a separate procedure for such a major step.

Central to the discussion Wednesday was a statement released by Brennan to the local media days prior to the April 5 district referendum. The statement urged the district to postpone the $54 million question because too many questions remained unanswered.

In his statement, Brennan charged that information provided by the district about the possible use of the Fritz Friday land near the airport was inaccurate, "if not altogether false."

He further charged that the Communications Committee of the board had lost "the trust of the people of New Richmond."

On Wednesday, Brennan said he stood by his statement, although he said he didn't want to get into a "she said, he said" debate in public.

Several other board members said they were offended by the way Brennan released statements to the press.

Board member Chris Skoglund said individual members of the board should be careful when issuing public statements.

Too often, such statements can be viewed as an official communication from the entire board, she charged.

"It does not matter what faces appear on the board," she said. "The public sees us as the board, not as individuals."

If board members have concerns on issues, Skoglund said the topics should be brought to the other members before a statement is issued to the press.

Remington and Board member Bob Sievert hedged on the impact of such statements. They said board members are protected by the First Amendment and are allowed to voice their individual opinions.

"Certainly an individual board member has the right to speak out," Remington said.

Board member Lester Jones agreed that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but board members "need to be very clear" when they are not speaking for the majority.

Jones noted that Brennan's press statement included a reference to his official board membership.

"I think we need to be careful of how we represent ourself," he said.

Board member and Communications Committee Chairman Andy Lieffort said he was offended by the charges Brennan made.

He said the district had every reason to believe the Friday property would work for the school, because local and state officials were publically supporting the idea.

"Mike Demulling was confident that everything could be resolved," Lieffort said. "That was the information we shared with the public. I don't see where we made false statements."

Eleventh-hour involvement by the Federal Aviation Administration eventually stopped the plan to use the land.

Lieffort said the committee and district were upfront with the public through the entire process.

"There is nothing to support the allegation (of lying), yet we're supposed to accept that because of free speech," he said. "I, for one, do not appreciate being called a liar in a statement like that. I'm offended you would do that."

Brennan said a letter from the state aviation consultant, John Dorcey, outlining possible concerns with the land was not shared with the board or public in a timely fashion.

Jones countered by saying the release of the letter was a separate issue that needs to be dealt with.

Skoglund said the board needs to review its code of conduct policy which was adopted on a 7-0 vote.

"Is this policy what we agree we will abide by?" she asked. "I believe we do harm if we do not have basic rules we abide by."

She said the policy requires board members to share information gathered and to work with fellow members to build the public trust in the district.

If board members operate independently, going to the public to fight battles, Skoglund said it breeds a culture of distrust.

"If we as a board do not breed a culture of trust amongst ourselves, we send a message to all staff and all district residents not to trust anything we try to do," she said.

Skoglund also suggested that if a minority opinion is issued to the press, the majority should be given an opportunity to respond.

The guiding factor in all board business should be doing what's best for students, Skoglund said.

"We're not keeping our focus on what our job is," she said. "It's all about personal agendas, instead of the greater good of the community."

Superintendent Craig Hitchens used the opportunity to remind board members that they should not release confidential information to the public. He said individual members should not instigate private action that will compromise the board's business.

Jeff Holmquist
Jeff Holmquist has been managing editor of the New Richmond News since 2004. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and business administration from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has previously worked as editor in Wadena, Minn.; Detroit Lakes, Minn.; Hutchinson, Minn.; and Bloomington, Minn. He also was previously owner of the Osceola Sun, Stillwater Courier and Scandia Messenger along with his wife. Together they previously founded and published The Old Times newspaper for antiques and collectibles collectors; and Up!, a Christian magazine of hope and encouragement.
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