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Editorial: Willmar School Board has hurt itself

The Willmar School Board has not been forthcoming with the public about its Nov. 12 closed meeting. The lack of transparency by the School Board is disappointing and citizens of the district have questions.

The facts are these:

* On Nov. 12, the School Board closed its meeting for “preliminary consideration of allegations against a person under the board’s authority.” Note their statement inferred a single person. However, the School Board failed to specify whom the allegations were against at that time, which the law very clearly requires.

* The School Board returned from its Nov. 12 closed meeting and Board Chairman Nathan Streed issued a statement “The meeting was closed for preliminary consideration of allegations against the school board. The investigation is closed, and no disciplinary actions will be taken.” Here the statement was different from the beginning of the meeting stating the allegations “against the School Board” and not clearly stating who the allegations were against. Was it the School Board itself for official action or were the allegations against individual members?

* Then Streed concluded his statement by stating “At this time, board member Dan Croonquist has decided to resign for personal reasons.”

* After the West Central Tribune filed a Open Meeting Law request, the School Board’s attorney responded on Nov. 20 that “allegations existed against all seven (School) Board members.”

* Since his resignation, Croonquist has not returned phone calls to the West Central Tribune.

* Streed has declined to say whether Croonquist’s resignation was or was not connected to the allegations investigated.

In summary, the allegations were against all seven School Board members, the School Board investigated themselves, the School Board then closed the investigation without taking any disciplinary action against any School Board members. Then Croonquist resigned for personal reasons.

That’s all the public knows at this point as the School Board has not been transparent.

The public does not know if the investigation was about a financial allegation, about conflict of interest allegations, about a harassment allegation or some other concern.

Maybe the allegations were about the fact that someone anonymously mailed a copy of the official report of Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard’s recent evaluation to the West Central Tribune earlier this fall. The report contained nothing significantly different from the School Board’s news release about the superintendent’s evaluation.

The primary individuals normally having access to the superintendent's evaluation summary would be individual School Board members and Kjergaard.

Disclosing a copy of a personnel evaluation without the superintendent’s permission would be a violation of the superintendent’s employee privacy under the Minnesota Data Practices Act and could put the school district at risk from a legal standpoint.

But the public, including this newspaper, does not know if this is what the allegations were about.

Under the Minnesota Data Practices Act, each individual School Board member is allowed to release the nature of any allegation against hiimself or herself. The School Board members have not done so to this point.

The School Board, by its actions, has now left an unfavorable impression with the public and raised trust concerns for each of the remaining board members.

It is even more disappointing that the Willmar School District treats its School Board members as employees; rather than as public officials — which they are. Then the School Board could not hide behind the Minnesota Data Practices Act and prevent the public from knowing what is really going on the next time it investigates itself or individually elected School Board members.