Detroit Lakes teacher contract non-renewal under scrutiny

More than 130 people attended the monthly school board meeting on Monday, March 27.

SB crowd.jpg
About 130 people attended the Detroit Lakes School Board meeting on Monday, March 27. After the meeting concluded some people in attendance were dissatisfied with not being able to address the school board.
Barbie Porter / Detroit Lakes Tribune

DETROIT LAKES —When the Detroit Lakes School Board entertained a motion to adjourn its monthly meeting on Monday, March 27, several attendees had something to say.

More than 130 people attended the school board meeting, but none were on the agenda to speak during the open forum. A few meeting attendees were approached after the meeting, and others contacted days after the meeting. While some declined to talk on the record, others didn’t return phone calls to the newspaper, and others stated they intended to speak at the next school board meeting.

Posters circulated on social media encouraging people to attend the school board meeting on behalf of a woman that spoke at a recent Town Hall meeting. During the Town Hall meeting that was held March 19, a woman stepped to the microphone and stated she was a teacher and a veteran. She then shared her views on education, and what is being taught in the classroom in Detroit Lakes. She indicated that she was reprimanded for teaching material that was not approved by the district.

Sen. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids, Rep. Steve Green, R-Fosston, Becker County Commissioner Richard Vareberg, Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander, Rep. Jim Joy, R-Hawley, and Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, were at the Town Hall meeting, and Detroit Lakes School Board member Mickey Okeson was in the audience. Okeson, and some representatives, encouraged attendees to go to the school board meeting.

When the school board meeting came around, Okeson suggested those attending the school board meeting were curious as to why all of the teachers on the non-renewal list were being let go. It appeared that the topic of non-renewals would not be addressed. When the vote came to the table, Okeson tried to initiate discussion on why six special education teachers and 12 probationary teacher contracts would not be renewed.


The teachers on the non-renewal list included: Samantha Salathe, Gene Snetsinger, Laura Hunt, Melissa Ostlie, Heather Malon, Valerie Teiken, Alicia Sabers, Joshua Erhardt, Sadie Skrove, Shelby Laymon, Samuel Bergren, Amy Moors, Hope Schmitz, Madyson Webber, Erica Ratz, Brandon Johnson, Dylan Surface and Zachary Paustian.

The Detroit Lakes School Board voted 5-1 to end 18 teaching contracts. Board member Mickey Okeson opposed.
Barbie Porter / Detroit Lakes Tribune

No board members responded, and the vote was put before the board. The motion to terminate the contracts passed 5-1, with Okeson opposing.

Later in the meeting, the Director of Finance and Operations Jason Kuehn presented the revised budget to the board. As he concluded his presentation, Okeson tried again to open dialogue on the district decision to end certain teaching contracts.

“I don’t know if I’m out of line to ask the question, but part of it is, I'm still learning the procedures,” Okeson said. “The question I had wanted to ask is actually for the benefit of all of our guests.”

She said, while the board members may understand why cuts were made, those attending may not.

“Because, maybe, that is why the crowd is here, to some extent, so maybe if they understood a little bit more why, ” she added.

Superintendent Mark Jenson obliged and explained the reasons for the cuts came down to three things: enrollment, performance or licensure.

Minimal details regarding those three items were explained during the meeting. Jenson was contacted after the meeting for a more in-depth discussion.


It should be noted that discussing specific employees could lead to lawsuits for the district, as the school must abide by Data Practices Act rules. The types of data governed by the state can be found on the Minnesota Department of Administration website.

Jenson said, while 18 teaching contracts were ending, he estimates that between three and five teachers will not have opportunities to work in the district next year. The reason many contracts were not renewed came down to teaching licensure, he said.

“So, I may have a general ed teacher covering a special ed class,” he said. “They are called OFP, out-of-field permissions.”

The next school board meeting is set for Monday, April 24, at 5:30 p.m. in Room C-101 at M State, Detroit Lakes. Attendees wanting to speak during the school board open forum were encouraged to sign up for the April meeting.
Barbie Porter / Detroit Lakes Tribune

Jenson said the district is required to non-renew those teaching contracts, as teachers with credentials are preferred. If a teacher with specialized credentials doesn’t apply for the position, the district could rehire the teacher that filled that position during the current school year.

While not mentioned at the board meeting, Jenson said tenure can also play a role in teacher contracts. At times, tenured teachers work in other capacities for the district, he said. When the teacher returns to the classroom, the instructor may take over duties from a probationary teacher, thus creating a non-renewal situation.

Regarding enrollment, Jenson explained the district saw its student population decline by about 100 students following the pandemic. A decline in student population may require budgetary reductions in staffing. Jenson said the district "never recouped" the 100 pupils that left the district a few years ago.

While school districts waited to see if the enrollment scales would balance, they received temporary COVID-related funding from the government.

“We wanted to spend our money on staff, not stuff,” Jenson said.


But that supplemental funding source is ending. That means the Detroit Lakes School District, along with many other school districts, is reviewing staff positions those funds paid for, and whether or not there are funds available to continue offering the position.

“There are a lot of bills out there that can impact our budget,” he said, adding the district has traditionally been fiscally conservative, and aims to continue that practice.

Jenson also said that while up to five teachers may not return to the district next year, parents should not expect class sizes to increase.

"There should be no impact on class sizes," he emphasized.

The in-depth explanation for the contract non-renewal was not afforded to those attending the school board meeting, as a whole.

When the board adjourned the monthly meeting, a woman in the crowd asked for “about three minutes” to ask a question.

The woman was informed the meeting had closed, but board members would be open to chatting individually. The offer was met by several people in the crowd disagreeing at once.

Board Chair John Steffl cited board policy 206 , which recognizes the importance of public input, as well as orderly discussions. He encouraged those in attendance to make prior arrangements to speak at the next board meeting.


Audience members replied by noting they “paid their wages.” One man suggested he would stop paying that portion of his tax bill.

As the board members stood to gather their items and exit the meeting room at M State, several audience members accused them of “running away.”

Steffl reiterated that those wanting to make comments or ask questions could get on the next month’s board agenda (by visiting the district office, 702 Lake Ave.).

More yelling ensued, and some called the board members “cowards” that should “be ashamed” as they exited the room.

Steffl, again, offered to remain and talk, one-on-one.

“When I talk, I talk in public, not behind closed doors,” a man yelled in response.

The next school board meeting is set for Monday, April 24, at 5:30 p.m. in Room C-101 at M State, Detroit Lakes.

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