New board wants more oversight
On Monday night, the Frazee-Vergas School Board held a special meeting, discussing expectations for the board and administration.
The three and a half hour meeting was mildly heated at times, and argumentative at others.
"The back and forth of this, mixed messages -- do you want us to succeed or fail?" asked Superintendent Deron Stender.
He pointed out that a few weeks ago the board reversed a motion to air board meetings on channel 14 and yet wants more open communications.
He said board members want more time to review their board packets before a meeting, and yet the board doesn't want to move its meeting day to Tuesday rather than Monday.
With a list of 24 expectations to be discussed, board members many times said "someone" had complained about something and asked that it be looked into or changed. In many instances, Stender said he didn't know about the issues so he couldn't help.
"You hear things, it needs to be redirected," he said. "We've never been approached by people or board members (on many of the topics). We have the same expectations, that communication needs to go both ways."
Here's a look at many of the discussed topics:
Board member Matt Bauer asked that more description be given to the board on checks in and out of the district. Not that a dollar amount should be set, but that if there are any payments that stand out, those should be explained courtesy of the business office.
Bauer also questioned the number of grants that are applied for.
"I think we need to dive into this a lot more," he said.
Stender said that criteria is strict on most grants, and since Frazee-Vergas is a stable district with less free and reduced qualifying students than most metro schools, it's not in the running for a lot of grants.
"The ones we know we have a fighting chance for, we apply for it," he said.
"A lot of people don't want to work with us," Stender continued.
Asked later to clarify, he said he doesn't know the reason, but Perham and Detroit Lakes don't ask to partner with Frazee, but go to other neighboring districts instead.
Stender agreed that he would provide a list of grants the district qualifies for and is applying for.
Bauer also brought up Stender's e-cast that was once on the school site, but has since been taken off the superintendent's page. Bauer said it seemed like a sounding board and didn't think it was acceptable.
"I don't share your opinion," board member Dana Laine said, adding that it was more to clarify items that might have been misrepresented about the district.
Jepson said he has no problem with the e-casts as long as the topic is approved before Stender broadcasts it.
Stender said, though, that if it's going to be edited by seven people (members of the board), "I'd rather not do it at all."
Board member Rich Ziegler said that as long as the message Stender is putting out is "as positive as it can be to the masses," he had no problem with the e-casts.
The board agreed to allow Stender to do the e-casts, which he hadn't done in about a year anyway, as long as they are positive for the district.
Bauer requested that approval for step and lane changes for teachers be approved or denied by a committee, not just the superintendent.
Board members said they had heard grumblings from teachers who were denied the opportunity to take classes to advance their own education, and therefore advance their pay.
Stender said he denies requests if they aren't specific to their teaching focus.
In a written opinion from Minnesota School Board Association Deputy Executive Director John Sylvester, he said that the superintendent needs to be involved with the process.
"We want to work in conjunction with the superintendent," Ziegler said. "I'm not looking at board against Deron. I'm looking at board with Deron."
In the past, there was a staff development committee, and school board members suggested getting that started again. Stender said that's possible, but a foundation needs to be built and updated because the committee hasn't met in six years.
Along with the staff development committee, there were funds to pay for those requests from teachers. Since that hasn't been in commission for six years, Stender said money has come from the general fund instead.
As board members started to talk about giving lane and step changes, or even amending existing contracts to include them, Stender said that's more of a bargaining tool when it comes time for contract negotiations.
"Don't lay your cards out on the table right now," he said.
The board agreed to start up the staff development committee again.
Trying to stay consistent and fair, Stender said the district charges everyone 25 cents per paper copy, including requests from the Frazee Forum.
A board member suggested that since the Frazee Forum is the designated official paper for the district, it should get a break. Stender pointed out that being the official paper simply means notices and minutes are published in that paper, which the district pays for. It doesn't mean it should receive any special treatment.
Board member Ken Fett said he'd like to see a better relationship with the newspaper, though, regardless of charging for copies or not.
Stender said he had requested a media task force be set up, which Ziegler had talked to the Frazee Forum about, but the newspaper declined.
"The paper needs to work with us, too," board member Keith Janu said.
Stender said he'd like to try for the task force again, and Ziegler agreed to contact the Frazee Forum again.
Stender was asked to limit his calls to the district's attorney because of the cost to the district. Jepson said it's understandable when there's an emergency, otherwise, he'd like to be notified -- as chair -- before calls are made to the attorney.
"It ties your superintendent's hands if I have to make a call every time" before making a call to the lawyer, Stender said.
Letters of reprimand should also come before the board, they said.
If there is an issue with a teacher, the board needs to be aware of it. Ziegler said he has had people approaching him on the street and he doesn't know what they are talking about because the board hasn't been made aware of issues.
Attorney fees are also coming from grievances.
"We have an enormous amount of grievances filed (against us) -- more than usual (in a district)," Stender said.
Janu said there have been fewer than 10 grievances filed against the district, but Stender said that's more than some districts see in many years.
"I will keep you informed," Stender agreed.
He also agreed to keep the board informed of his actions through a weekly superintendent itinerary, which he has done in the past.
Stand and be heard
Allowing the public to speak at a public meeting -- it's a policy that may change. A past board approved a policy that citizens have to fill out a request to speak a week or two before the school board meeting, none can be taken the night of the meeting, and the board doesn't have to answer any questions until a later date if information needs to be gathered.
"No one is denied the chance to speak -- there's just a process," Stender said. "They have no right (to speak) unless you give it to them."
He added that the public isn't allowed to go down to the state senate and just start talking during a hearing, but rather they have to request to be heard.
"It will foster the district," Bauer argued.
The board allowed input from the public on several different subjects throughout the three and a half hour meeting.
The policy committee agreed to look at the policy and bring a new policy to the board for vote later.
The board asked that a uniformed police officer only be present at the board meetings if the board invites him.
A Frazee police officer has attended several board meetings throughout the last couple years, and Stender said he has invited him several times.
When the district was asking for a referendum vote a few years ago, there was an incident when members of the audience called Stender Hitler and stood to salute, one audience member walking out of the meeting as well. Since then, Stender has invited the police officer when there are controversial topics on the agenda.
He was present at Monday's meeting.
Stender added that in light of school shootings and the other public shootings, it's good to have a police officer present, and that the board could be held negligent if a shooting did occur and the board had said no uniformed officer should be at the meeting.
"I don't think you should start dictating what people should wear," Janu said. "I don't understand the problem."
Jepson, a state trooper himself, said that it's a matter of intimidation and people are afraid to speak up at school meetings out of fear.
He added that arguments to have an officer present because of school shootings is weak because there is no officer present during school hours, just at random board meetings.
Audience member and former board member Don Thorp countered that when Jepson comes from work and parks his squad car in the parking lot, he gets questions as to what's going on at the school. Does that mean Jepson shouldn't come watch his sons wrestle if he is in uniform or driving his squad car, he asked.
Thorp added that the board is "walking on thin ice" if it denies a citizen the right to come to the board meetings, depending on what he is wearing.
Laine added that it's a big assumption that people are too afraid to speak in front of a uniformed officer.
Jepson said he'd like a courtesy call if Stender is requesting an officer at a board meeting.