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Willmar School Board chooses Laura Warne for vacant seat

WILLMAR — The Willmar School Board chose Laura Warne of Pennock as its new member Monday.

Warne was one of two people who expressed interest in the seat left vacant by the resignation of board member Dan Croonquist. He resigned for personal reasons at the end of the Nov. 12 meeting.

The board held its regular meeting after the annual Truth in Taxation hearing Monday.

No one from the public attended the hearing, at which the board adopted a $4.93 million tax levy for 2104, a 27 percent decrease from the levy paid this year. Money from the levy will be used to fund the 2014-15 school year.

A large reason for the decrease was a drop in the amount levied for payment of debt. The district is nearing the end of a 20-year bond issue to pay for construction of Willmar Senior High, which opened in 1994.

Warne, president of Home State Bank in Willmar, will take her seat in January and serve a term that expires at the end of 2014. Don Thorpe of Kandiyohi was the other person who applied for the seat.

In her letter of interest for the board, Warne wrote, “I feel due to my personal and professional background, I would be able to provide input and guidance to the school board to continue high levels of education, opportunities for all types of students and yet remain fiscally sound.”

Warne and her husband, Dion, have four children. She is a 1983 graduate of Willmar High School. Dion Warne was a member of the School Board from 2002 to 2010.

The School Board discussed but did not vote on a resolution that would change the legal status of board members in some circumstances. Action on the resolution was tabled until January, as some board members wanted more information.

If the resolution is passed, board members would not be considered employees of the district under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, which outlines what information is public and private about public employees.

Board members also discussed a proposed conflict of interest policy that would not allow board members to work for the district. State law allows board members to work for their school district as long as they make less than $8,000 a year.

The discussions dovetailed in some ways, with board members asking questions about the potential conflicts in the two resolutions. Both were introduced by board Chairman Nathan Streed.

The first resolution would mean the board could not use the Data Practices Act to keep personnel information about board members private.

In November, the board held a private meeting about unspecified allegations said to be against all members of the board. No information about the type of allegations, the investigation into them or who leveled them has been available to the public.

Board members have said they are following legal advice and have cited the Data Practices Act in refusing to provide information about the nature of the allegations. Board members are considered legal employees of the district since they receive W-2 tax forms from the district for their board stipends.

However, the conflict of interest resolution reads, “No school board member may be employed by the school district in any capacity while serving as a school board member.”

After the meeting, Streed said he wasn’t sure how to resolve the differences between the resolutions. It could be a moot point, because the conflict of interest resolution did not garner much support from the board, and Streed told the board it may be set aside.

The Data Practices Act resolution raised other questions. Streed said he asked for the resolution to address issues raised by the November private meeting.

Board members defended the meeting, saying they have told people in the community that they were following legal advice.

“People need to know that transparency is of the utmost important to us,” Carlson said, but he said he didn’t want to go against legal advice.

If the board adopted the resolution, it would affect all future board members, he added, and he wanted more information about its implications for the future.

Other board members said they wanted more information, too.

Board member Mike Reynolds, the longest-serving member, said the board has never closed a meeting to investigate members before, and he wanted more information before changing the status of board members.

Board member Liz VanDerBill asked how the resolution would apply to board members who might be considered employees in some cases and not in others. Human Resources Director Liz Fischer said it could be “a situational thing” with some gray areas.

Streed acknowledged that some people could feel that board members were put in their positions by the voters, and their constituents have the right to know what’s going on.

However, the legal advice and investigation into the allegations were done to protect the district, not board members, he said.

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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