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Mahnomen principal fired

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news Detroit Lakes, 56501
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

MAHNOMEN, Minn. - The Mahnomen School Board fired first-year high school Principal Susan Ninham - to angry charges of racism from some 100 community members who flocked to support her at an open evaluation meeting Monday.

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The meeting came on the heels of a news conference earlier this month when Ninham drew attention to several teacher complaints, mostly about how she handled conflicts with students, which she suggested might be racially motivated.

School officials countered that Ninham improperly injected race into the issue of teacher complaints, which they say strictly concern her communication and management style.

At a Monday meeting fraught with references to race, Superintendent Jon Kringen recommended that the district grant a 2008-2009 contract to Ninham, an Ojibwe who took over the high school in August. But board members raised pointed questions about her rapport with teachers, and drops in the school's attendance and projected graduation rate.

The 5-1 vote to deny Ninham a new contract elicited a strong reaction from community members present. They argued with board members, hugged Ninham and aired stories of what they feel is persistent racial insensitivity at the high school, where almost 65 percent of students and none of the teachers are American Indian.

"Our kids are psychologically terrorized here," said Karen Wadena, the grandmother of a student. "It's a hidden racism."

Ninham elected to open her evaluation to the public - the first time an employee waived the right to a closed review in Kringen's 13 years as top administrator here and in North Dakota.

"I don't have anything to hide," she said before the meeting. "It's a way for me to connect with the community."

Several community members praised Ninham at the start of the meeting, casting her as a "strong Indian woman who's a strong advocate for our children," in the words of parent Lisa Brunner.

Parents spoke of a cultural gap between students and teachers at the high school, a gap that they said Ninham has worked hard to bridge.

Brunner, who has five children in the district, said Ninham had handled with finesse a complaint of racial insensitivity Brunner's daughter made against a teacher. She brought all parties together in a constructive meeting that Brunner said spawned an ongoing communication between her and the teacher.

Residents also commended Ninham's efforts to keep native students in school and instill pride in their heritage.

"I think her coming to the school is the best thing that ever happened here," said Shaunee Smith, a paraprofessional at Mahnomen's elementary school.

In Ninham's monthly report, which she kicked off with a thank-you speech in Ojibwe to the community members gathered on her behalf, she noted academic and discipline gains under her watch. She said about 90 of the school's 340 students earned from one to four F's on the latest round of midterms, down from almost 150 who got from one to seven midterm F's at the start of the school year. She also reported a significant decrease in discipline notices - a reduction she credited to teaching and trusting students to manage their own behavior.

She said she hoped to return next year and continue working with school staff.

"We have our mistakes that we made - we all do - but we're working on correcting them and moving forward," Ninham said.

Board members disagreed with her take on her performance. Board Chairman Jim DeVries said he had heard complaints from several staff members who described her management style as "dictatorial." He pointed out that attendance numbers dropped over the course of the year and the high school projects its first dip below the 80-percent mark in graduation in at least six years.

Ninham defended her performance, stressing that it's unreasonable to expect her to overhaul staff morale and student achievement in seven months.

The vote to deny Ninham a contract in the next school year set off complaints from residents that board members ignored them and threats to pull children from the school district. Community members embraced and shook hands with Ninham, who appealed for calm.

At the meeting, board members also approved about $390,000 in budget cuts and considered the possibility of switching to a single principal for the district's two schools if one of the current positions becomes vacant.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529

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