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West Fargo teachers, students back student newspaper adviser

English teacher and school newspaper adviser Jeremy Murphy was removed as newspaper adviser two weeks ago.

WEST FARGO - Dozens of West Fargo teachers and students plan to attend a July 13 School Board meeting, hoping to convince officials to rethink removing the district's high school newspaper adviser.

But School Board President Tom Gentzkow says the board will stand by the administration's decision to remove Jeremy Murphy, a West Fargo High School English teacher, from advising the student newspaper due to a "difference in philosophy."

In an e-mail sent Monday night to all West Fargo Education Association members, incoming teachers union President Joan Connor urged them to show up to support their colleague.

"This is the time for us to support one of our own," she wrote to the 450 members. "We need to fill the building and outside."

But they may not be able to sway the board.

"As board members, we don't get involved with the daily grind and politics of what happens in each particular school, so we have to respect and support those (administrative) decisions," Gentzkow said. "Administration and principals are hired to make tough decisions, and this is one of them."

Gentzkow, Principal Gary Clark, Assistant Principal Karen Olson and Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace have declined to comment on the specifics of the situation, saying it's a personnel issue.

"There's more to the story that I'm not at liberty to discuss as to our rationale," Clark said. "Our reasons are not to stifle articles or criticism of the administration."

While there is nothing in state law that prohibits schools from talking publicly about personnel issues such as job performance, Clark and Gentzkow said it's a district policy.

That's why, Gentzkow said, the board won't allow anyone from the public to comment on Murphy's job during the July 13 meeting. He said he told students they could talk about the journalism class, but not the adviser position.

"We've explained our position that we don't allow public comment on personnel issues," he said. "If they're compelled to show up, then so be it."

Murphy, who is seeking legal advice from the North Dakota Education Association and won't be at the July 13 meeting, also declined to comment.

Last week, though, he said administrators weren't happy about student columns and articles in the student paper, The Packer, which questioned administrators' decisions and were deemed too "negative."

According to performance evaluations and personnel records reviewed by The Forum, Murphy had glowing evaluations in his three years in the district - until his latest evaluation, dated March 2009.

In it, administrators touched on the "controversial" publications he advised.

"I am concerned about the many issues that have occurred this year in both the newspaper and yearbook classes," Olson wrote. "Publication students have dealt with controversial issues all year. My hope is that the focus in the future will turn back to better learning experiences and better morale issues for all students."

On his evaluation, Murphy countered that there were only two incidents involving student publications.

"These issues have been learning experiences for students and allow them to develop in a real-world atmosphere," he wrote. "Publications students have not dealt with controversial issues all year; it was only these two and these were resolved by the students and administrators involved."

It's unclear what articles or columns were at issue because administrators and Murphy didn't discuss that with The Forum.

But The Packer's assistant editor, Molly English, said this week that disputed content was harmless.

"In absolutely no way did we cross a journalistic line," said English, who wrote a feature article she said administrators questioned, discussing why school was held during spring flooding.

"I tried to do both sides of stories the best I could," she said about including comments from students criticizing the district's decision to hold school. "I heard the school didn't think I had the right to ask those questions. (But) that's the media's job."

Board member Ben Koppelman met with Editor Meagan McDougall this week to go over Murphy's evaluations. He said he also told her anecdotal evidence he got from administrators about Murphy not advising students well enough on writing balanced articles.

"I think the main thing has always been ... just to make sure the kids understand balanced journalism," he said.

But Deanna Paulson, the state union representative for West Fargo, said Murphy hasn't done anything wrong.

"As far as I know, he followed his job description," she said. "We believe he is doing exactly as he should as an adviser. The district disagrees with that. The stories weren't simply positive enough from the district's perspective."

Paulson said litigation isn't being discussed at this point, although if the School Board doesn't give back his advising role, then Murphy "has to make a decision to drop it or take some other action," she said.

English teacher and former newspaper adviser Toni Nelson also will be at the July 13 meeting to support Murphy, who she said "gave his all to the newspaper and students."

When she found out Murphy was removed from the role, she said she was surprised because, she, too, had disagreements with the district during her time as adviser.

"I think that's probably an issue every high school adviser has to deal with," she said. "Though I don't know the reason (why he was removed), I am distressed by it."