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WDC board files answer in Kupfer case

The Wadena-Deer Creek School Board has filed its legal answer to a lawsuit brought by Karla Kupfer, former assistant to the superintendent.

The answer -- a legal filing denying claims made in Kupfer's suit -- claims Kupfer's contract was simply allowed to expire, that no public meetings were necessary to facilitate that, and therefore no Open Meeting Law violations were present.

"The school board has tried to do the right thing every step of the way," said Sue Torgerson, attorney for the defendants, Judy Taves, Mark Stone, Ann Pate, Kathy Yelle, Wayne Perkins and John Moenkedick.

Kupfer's attorney, Lori Beck, disagreed with the assertion that no public meetings were necessary. Furthermore, she said she believes the board did take action, so the argument that it didn't legally have to act is moot.

"The fact is, there was board action," Beck said.

The board's attorney said in the answer filed Dec. 17 in Wadena County District Court that she believes Kupfer's complaint, which alleged a pattern of gender preference and bullying by the superintendent, Jerry Enget, was "immaterial, impertinent and scandalous."

"[Kupfer] behaves as though she would like to embarrass everyone," Torgerson said. "Obviously, that's a leverage tactic she's using."

Torgerson said she believes Kupfer is trying to "exploit the public spotlight" in the case by detailing her version of the inner workings of the district administrative office.

The plantiff's attorney said the level of detail in the original complaint, which alleged a string of vulgarities and misogyny by the superintendent, were necessary to show Kupfer's working conditions, the reason why she sought the board's help, the climate of the relationships between her and her employers, and the background for her firing.

"It shows the context of the violations of the Open Meeting Law," Beck said.

Kupfer said it's ridiculous to assert she was trying to attract media attention with her claims. First, she said, she remained quiet between her June firing until after the levy referendum campaign concluded. Second, she said, she was very apprehensive about bearing her soul in print.

"I thought it would be really, really hard for it to come out in the paper for me," Kupfer said, adding the response from the public and the school district staff has been positive and comforting. "I'm willing to put it out on the table and tell it like it is."

Torgerson said the board cannot speak as freely as it would like due to the litigation and data privacy rules.

"The school is bound by privacy laws," she said. "Very often it may feel to interested parties that we're stonewalling. That's not the case."

The school board's legal pleading also asserts Kupfer doesn't have legal standing to bring an Open Meeting Law claim.

Kupfer's suit alleges three Open Meeting Law violations per school board member, plus a violation of the Minnesota Data Practices Act for allegedly withholding Kupfer's personnel file far beyond what the law allows. Beck also said two letters of recommendation, which were favorable to Kupfer's claim, were omitted when copies of the file were provided to her. The school board is the named defendant in each of those claims.

Kupfer is also awaiting a ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is examining her claim of gender-based preference. That claim could name the current superintendent if a lawsuit comes out of the EEOC's ruling.

Already, an element of that separate case has been brought up in this case. The board's answer contains an allegation that Kupfer demanded money from the board or she planned to go public with embarrassing details from the EEOC complaint.

"Several weeks before filing this suit, the Plantiff told the District she would make allegations about the use of vulgar language unless she was paid $400,000 before the elections," the legal answer said.

Torgerson was asked if she was alleging Kupfer was trying to blackmail the district.

"I would not use the term 'blackmail,'" Torgerson said. "Clearly it was a leverage issue for her. That's what she and her attorneys did."

Torgerson said the demand "creates an additional issue as to credibility of the allegations."

Kupfer said characterizing that dollar figure as a demand or blackmail is laughable. She said when an EEOC claim is filed, a mediator tries to bring both sides together to settle the suit before it progresses. That mediator, Kupfer said, asked her to come into the room with a dollar figure that she was seeking so the negotiations had a number to start with. The $400,000, Kupfer said, represented her actual loss in wages from losing the job -- calculated by figuring out what she would earn between now and retirement had she not been fired, and subtracting what she expected to make in the job she got after she was fired.

"We had to come in with a number," Kupfer said.

She added that the $400,000 is by no means a demand -- she said she was more than willing to settle the lawsuit for far less money.

"I never asked for a settlement," Kupfer said. "They came to me for a settlement."

Another glaring difference between Kupfer's filing and the board's answer is the characterization of a June 21 meeting with School Board Members Judy Taves and Mark Stone that led to Kupfer's dismissal.

"[Kupfer] became hostile and abusive to them, insisting that unless her supervisor was fired, she would not be satisfied," stated the board's legal filing.

Kupfer denies that claim outright. She said she never wanted Enget fired -- that all she ever asked for was a professional relationship.

"Why did I -- the secretary -- have to plead for a professional relationship?" Kupfer asked. "He was my supervisor. He was the man in charge. He was our human rights officer. Why did I have to beg for that to happen? It's just beyond me."

The answer says Kupfer's demeanor during the June 21 meeting was "very hostile and uncooperative" and that she "verbally attacked the School Board members."

Kupfer said she has a witness who can testify that during that meeting, a voice was raised only once, and it was clearly Stone's voice.

Kupfer said she's baffled by the board's characterization of that June 21 meeting.

She said she never raised her voice. She said she never used vulgar language.

"I cried, but I didn't cry long," Kupfer said. "I was just in such shock."

She said she's upset she's being portrayed as the aggressor in the board's legal filing.

"For the life of me, I can't understand how Judy and Mark can sleep nights," Kupfer said.

The board also alleged "serious acts of insubordination" against Kupfer in its filing, "which ultimately resulted in the expiration of her employment contract on June 30, 2007." The filing also says, "The District was in the process of making dramatic budget cuts and there were numerous areas of budget reduction."

However, the district's budget cuts were made in April 2007 due to teaching staff contracts, months before Kupfer's release in June, when the budget cutting was long since over, she said.

A hearing will be held to determine the timetable for the suit to proceed. Beck said she plans to depose members of the school board to speak under oath about the incidents leading to Kupfer losing her job, which could start as soon as this month.