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West Fargo School Board decides to hire new newspaper adviser

Mary DeJong, right, future editor of The Packer newspaper and her sister Emma, middle, show their support for Jeremy Murphy at the news conference held by members of the West Fargo teachers union. (Sayward Honer/The Forum)

WEST FARGO - West Fargo High School students were emotional Monday after learning that teacher Jeremy Murphy won't get his job back as the student newspaper adviser.

About 75 students, teachers, parents and union officials attended the School Board meeting with hopes of convincing the board to reinstate Murphy. The 28-year-old was removed from advising The Packer last month due to a "difference in philosophy" with administrators.

Instead, the board unanimously approved hiring a teacher to fill his position.

"It was a crushing blow to us," former Packer editor Molly English said after wiping away tears. "It's hard to let go. It's hard to walk away."

Students packing the board room wore black T-shirts that read "Save Murphy, Save The Packer" and applauded after former editors Emma DeJong and Abby Hammes addressed the board.

"The Packer has always been a student-run newspaper, which puts the decisions about content of the publication in the hands of the staff," Hammes said. "We, as members of The Packer, simply want our program to be treated with the respect that a professional publication such as our newspaper deserves."

After they spoke, West Fargo Education Association President Joan Connor read a letter from her son, also a former editor.

"The adviser serves as a mentor," she read. "But the final call does lie with the editors - essentially the CEOs of the business - similar to how you, the School Board, make final decisions for the district and community even if having received slightly conflicting advice from the superintendent."

Board President Tom Gentzkow responded that administrators have to make decisions that sometimes have "tough conclusions."

"When we, as a board, do not agree with the WFEA or staff or administration or the media, we are portrayed as bullies and unsupportive," he said. "The fact is, we need to say no. We say no because we have reviewed the facts, asked varying degrees of questions and want to protect individuals who are still on staff within this organization."

While he didn't mention Murphy by name per the district's policy not to discuss personnel issues publicly, he acknowledged the students in attendance.

"This issue has never been about what was written," he said. "I feel the students demonstrated world-class knowledge on the material that was printed and I applaud them on their efforts."

Former Moorhead teacher Angela Cassidy was hired Monday to advise the newspaper this fall. Murphy will continue advising the school's yearbook.

After the meeting, Gentzkow called the past few weeks "trying." It may have been the one thing both sides could agree on.

Connor, wiping away tears, said the already tense relationship between teachers and school officials will be more strained after Monday's meeting.

That appears to be the case with the public, too.

"The School Board is the boss of the superintendent," said parent Lisa Erickson, whose daughter is on the school's yearbook. "I don't think they're listening to who elected them to the board."

Students and the state teachers union have vowed to continue to fight for Murphy.

"We will pursue every avenue at our disposal to either restore Jeremy's position or to resolve it favorably for Jeremy," said Deanna Paulson, the West Fargo representative for the North Dakota Education Association, adding about potential litigation: "That's a possibility."