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Details scarce about Willmar School Board's closed meeting

WILLMAR — The Willmar School District has so far not said what allegations against the School Board led to a closed meeting Tuesday night. Board member Dan Croonquist resigned after the closed meeting.

According to Mark Anfinson, a Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney, the board’s procedure for closing the meeting to the public violated state law and improperly led to a lengthy private discussion among elected officials about allegations against them.

The West Central Tribune made several formal requests Friday afternoon, seeking more information about the situation. The Tribune is asking for more specific information about the reasoning for closing the meeting on Tuesday, for access to the audio tape of the meeting and for information from the personnel files of current board members and Croonquist. Personnel files include some public data, including information about the status of allegations against employees.

Croonquist’s resignation, said to be for personal reasons, was effective immediately. Croonquist left the meeting without commenting Tuesday, and he has not responded to messages left for him since the meeting.

Board Chairman Nathan Streed said Friday that he wouldn’t answer questions about whether the closed meeting and the resignation were related. He did say that Croonquist had not submitted his resignation prior to the closed meeting.

Streed said the board followed the advice of its attorney, Trevor Helmers of Minneapolis, in closing the meeting and in issuing a three-sentence statement Streed read before the board adjourned for the night.

In an email sent after the meeting, Helmers said that “Specifically, the board closed the meeting for preliminary consideration of allegations that were made against members of the school board.” He also took issue with some of Anfinson’s comments about the closing.

When the meeting was closed Tuesday, Anfinson said the board had not followed the Minnesota Open Meeting Law in closing the meeting.

The Open Meeting Law presumes that all meetings of public bodies are open to the public. The law allows meetings to be closed only in limited circumstances.

The motion on Tuesday cited “preliminary consideration of allegations against an individual who is subject to the board’s authority.”

Meetings may be closed for that reason, but the board didn’t do it right, Anfinson said.

The board did not name the person who was the subject of the meeting when closing the meeting. A Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling and state administrative opinions make it clear that the identity of the person must be stated when closing the meeting, Anfinson said.

Only at the end of the meeting was the entire board identified as the target of unspecified allegations. Saying that after the private meeting had already been held did not meet the requirements of the law, he said.

After the meeting, Streed read a statement that mentioned allegations against the board but provided no details.

The statement said only that the investigation was closed, and there would be no disciplinary action.

He then announced Croonquist’s resignation.

Also on Tuesday, Anfinson said he did not believe the statute could be used because board members are all elected officials and are not subject to discipline.

Helmers said that there is a statute that allows a majority of a school board to remove a member for cause.

Anfinson said later that he is not as familiar with school law as he is with laws governing open meetings. He agreed the statute does say that board members may be removed but he stuck to his main contention.

“The underlying, more fundamental issue is that they didn’t have cause to close the meeting,” Anfinson said. “They’re playing fast and loose with the Open Meeting Law.”

The meeting on Tuesday differed from the norm in several ways.

A government entity’s top administrator is usually present during such a meeting. Since the person facing allegations is ordinarily an employee, the employee’s supervisor may also be present, along with a human resources officer. The person facing allegations is also usually in the meeting.

On Tuesday, everyone was told to leave the room except board members and Helmers. Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard and Human Resources Director Liz Fischer were among those told to leave. The meeting lasted from 5:30 p.m. to about 7:15 p.m.

Kjergaard said on Thursday that he had not made any allegations against the board and did not know who had. Neither did he know what the allegations were. “There was an investigation that resulted in the meeting Tuesday,” he said, but he was not told of the nature of the investigation.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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