It is still not known publicly why each member of Willmar School Board was subject to allegations
WILLMAR — The West Central Tribune’s efforts to shed light on unspecified allegations leveled against every single member of the Willmar School Board have hit a roadblock.
The School District, through its attorney, has denied several requests for information regarding a Nov. 12 private meeting during which board members discussed the allegations, concluded an investigation and decided against any discipline.
After the meeting, one board member, Dan Croonquist, submitted his resignation for personal reasons, effective immediately. Other board members are Chairman Nathan Streed, Vice Chairwoman Linda Mathiasen, Treasurer Mike Carlson, Jackie Saulsbury, Liz VanDerBill and Mike Reynolds.
Streed has refused since Nov. 12 to say whether the meeting and Croonquist’s resignation are connected, even though they occurred in quick succession. “It is what it is,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“I’m not saying there’s a connection.” Croonquist has not returned messages left for him in the past week.
The Tribune had asked for more specific information about the reasoning for closing the meeting, for access to the audiotape of the meeting and for information about the allegations included in personnel files of current board members and Croonquist.
“Serving in our community watchdog role, we asked for this information because the public has a right to know what is going on at the Willmar School Board,” Tribune Editor Kelly Boldan said Wednesday.
“In summary, allegations were made against each Willmar School Board member, the School Board investigated itself in a closed meeting, the School Board decided in a closed meeting there was no need to discipline anyone, then a School Board member resigned for personal reasons, and no one will say whether the resignation is or is not related to the allegations,” he said. “The board apparently believes that is all the public has a right to know.”
Streed’s motion to close the Nov. 12 meeting referred only to “an individual who is subject to the board’s authority.” After the meeting, he read a statement saying the allegations had been against the entire school board. He went on to say that the board had investigated the allegations, and there would be no disciplinary action.
“Specific allegations were made against all members of the School Board,” Minneapolis attorney Michael Waldspurger wrote in a letter to the Tribune on Wednesday.
And, because the School District treats its board members as employees, information about allegations against them is considered private data, even though they are elected officials.
The district did provide some personnel data on the School Board members as required by law, but provided no information about the status of allegations. “Because no final disposition of disciplinary action has occurred, the nature of the allegations is private,” Waldspurger wrote.
The district also denied access to a recording of the meeting for the same reasons.
The Minnesota Open Meeting Law does allow closed meetings to discuss allegations against employees. However, a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision is clear that the identity of the person facing allegations is to be stated at the time the meeting is to be closed, according to Mark Anfinson, who advises Minnesota newspapers on the Open Meeting Law.
He said it is still clear to him that the board violated the law when it closed the meeting to talk about “an individual” when the allegations were actually against all board members.
The meeting, which lasted nearly two hours, would indicate “that all members were accused of something fairly serious,” Anfinson said.
“I’ve never seen or heard something like this before,” he said.
“These are elected officials,” he added. “I think it begs for some explanation … It just reeks.”
Streed said Wednesday that he has received mostly positive comments about the board’s actions and was not concerned that public perception of the board would be harmed.
“I don’t know that the perception overrules personnel data,” he said.
Voters have placed their trust in board members by electing them, he said, and he believes they will understand that some matters need to be discussed in private.
“We’re going by what the recommendations are from our attorney and what we as a board agreed to do,” he said.
A video of the board meeting up to the point of the closed meeting can be found at http://bit.ly/17NZtTD. The motion to close the board meeting comes at about 1:01:50 in the recording. The remainder of the meeting, after the closed meeting, was not recorded.