4/23/2021 11:13:00 AM Heated special meeting shows discord on CL school board
by JEFF NORTON
A Chisago Lakes School Board special meeting fraught with tension, bickering and accusations was on full display for the public to see on Tuesday, April 20.
School board chairman Mark Leigh attempted to arrange the meeting as part of the regular school board meeting on Thursday, April 15. Near the end of that night, board chairman Leigh moved to schedule a special closed board meeting for April 20 to “deal with some issues regarding someone that is under school board supervision.”
Before any vote or discussion took place, board member Jeff Lindeman objected and called a point of order, which draws attention to a rules violation in a meeting. Lindeman stated that the agenda item was not properly added in either the written or digital agenda.
Leigh responded, “It is not written. It is my understanding as we were checking through, and even checked with you, that we were going to do it.”
That’s when Lindeman objected and said that the item could not be voted on. Leigh agreed and the meeting was adjourned shortly after.
However, per Minnesota law, a special meeting can be called by the board chairman as long as there is three days advance notice, and that is the route Leigh took to set the Tuesday gathering.
At the time, Superintendent Dean Jennissen said, “The School Board is meeting to give preliminary consideration to allegations against an individual subject to the Board’s authority. The consideration of allegations will take place in closed session unless the subject of the allegations requests that the discussion occur in open session.”
The subject of those allegations was Lindeman, and he elected for the meeting to be open to the public. Word got out on social media about the meeting, with many incorrectly speculating that Lindeman may be censured or removed from the board.
Hundreds of supporters for Lindeman showed up to the district office for meeting. Most were relegated to the overflow seating in the media center with limited space available in the board room due to COVID protocols.
The agenda featured only four items: Call to order, accept agenda, discuss preliminary consideration of allegations against an individual subject to the board’s authority and adjourn.
Instantly after the call to order, Lindeman made a motion for there for action to be taken at the end of the meeting, which did not receive a second and failed. With that, he asked for a motion to accept the agenda as presented, which Lindeman made and board member Lori Berg accepted.
Lindeman immediately raised a point of order and Leigh said no. Lindeman persisted and said, “You can’t deny me a chance to speak in an open meeting like this.”
His point of order had to do with closing a meeting and told Leigh it was his second offense of a closed meeting violation in addition to last weeks and there is a civil penalty for intentional violation. “As a person who’s been a school board member and chair for a number of years, you should know the rules.”
Chisago Lakes’ attorney Mick Waldspurger explained that it was not a proper point of order and an argument between Leigh and Lindeman ensued as Lindeman explained three rule violations could result in removal of a board member. Leigh said, “Judge me any way you want Jeff. Let’s move forward.
Leigh began by saying, “Mr. Lindeman, it was never the intent of this school board to have any kind of a vote at all at this meeting. The intent of this was to discuss some allegations and to work through it as a school board.”
At the root of the problem, the district alleges, is that Lindeman has violated multiple code of ethics that school board members are held to.
Chisago Lakes attorney Mick Waldspurger listed the three main topics Lindeman was alleged to have violated: failure to follow chain of command and undermine the superintendent and staff, exceeding his authority as a board member, and misusing his position as a board member. Lindeman insisted he did nothing wrong in each case.
The attorney then laid out four of the cases against Lindeman.
He claimed Lindeman involved himself in a student situation at Chisago Lakes High School. He said that Lindeman interviewed a student, spoke with a non-custodial parent about the issue, contacted a high school staff member and that eventually that staff member contacted the superintendent and was uncomfortable with the situation. Waldspurger then claimed Lindeman argued for the district to take a different approach with the student.
Lindeman refuted that, saying he did not investigate and the the student and the parent reached out to him and that their conversations were just about life. “I can’t talk to parents or students?” Lindeman asked. “It’s just a conversation with a student. There was no investigation to be done, it’s not a violation to talk to students.”
“You get lost in the rhetoric,” board member Brenda Carlson snapped. “It doesn’t matter who initiated the conversation. You as an adult need to know when you have to hand it off.”
“Part of being a board member is not getting all of that information because you are a part of a process that might lead back to you for a final decision on something,” Jennissen said. Berg added, “You can’t talk to a non-custodial parent about a kid. That’s where we can be liable.”
Lindeman acknowledged that, but remained steadfast that he was simply having conversations and not doing anything out of line. “This board talks about trust, and you need to trust me that I’m doing the right thing,” he said.
Waldspurger also said Lindeman argued to Jennissen and Director of Human Resources Darci Krueger-Peckman that the district should get a vaccine for a particular employee and the district wasn’t treating said employee properly. Waldspurger said an e-mail makes its clear that Lindeman investigated the situation.
Because Waldspurger laid out all the alleged occurences before Lindeman could respond, this issue was not talked about in depth as the meeting went on.
In between those two issues and the next two, the board was provided training by Waldspurger on the code of ethics and what they can and cannot do regarding the chain of command.
In the third case, Waldspurger alleged that very recently, Lindeman personally injected himself into multiple personnel issues. He said after Krueger-Peckman completed a thorough investigation of a staff issue, Lindeman was unsatisfied with the result and invesitgated on his own and called for an independent investigation of Krueger-Peckman and her investigation.
Jennissen explained that there were three people involved in the incident and that there was a recorded interview with one of them and that the two others provided written statements. However, Lindeman didn’t like that the two who provided written statements weren’t also interviewed. Jennissen claimed that the victim exonerated the perpetrator four times within an hour and 16 minute recorded conversation and that the alleged victim said it was a kneejerk reaction and wanted to apologize to the person accused.
Lindeman said he tried to provide more information to Jennissen at the meeting, but that he wasn’t allowed. Jennissen said that Lindeman can provide a written report at any time to him with the new information Lindeman claimed to have.
Waldspurger also alleged that Lindeman inserted himself into the unionization of the district’s custodial group.
Lindeman was disappointed the school board didn’t get the right to accept the union cards and recognize the union and vote that way. He said he only called the Bureau of Mediation Services, which Waldspurger claimed was invesitgating, to find out what ways a union can be recognized. Lindeman said it was fact finding. “I did not talk about how we should do it, I just asked if they could tell me the ways that BMS recognizes a union. I didn’t interject. All I did was find out the truth of the process, and that’s how I found out Dean took away our right to vote.” There’s two ways a union can be recognized and one of them is the board can recognize the signed cards by the union and can voluntarily accept their unionization.
Waldspurger said that theoretically, they can, but the unionization was something that typically falls under the day-to-day managerial duties. “I don’t care which option we chose. Dean took the opportunity of the school board to make that choice. We didn’t get the chance to decide that. We are a decision making board, and that’s an option that you took away. I want to be neutral. My problem is that when they called Waldspurger, that made it not neutral. All I wanted was a neutral thing and if we had a chance to do that, why didn’t the school board do that?”
Lindeman, who was endorsed by the AFL-CIO and was the teacher’s union president for 13 years, said that the district does not come across as neutral to the local unions.
Waldspurger informed Lindeman that the School Service Employee Union Local #284 was given the option to go to the board for a vote, but they declined due to the involved timeline, something that Lindeman said he was not aware of. Lindeman claimed that there were other reasons they didn’t bring it to the board, but he wasn’t at liberty to discuss.
Other accusations were made on the night as well. Jennissen alleged that Lindeman had told someone that he only ran to get rid of Jennissen as the superintendent, which Lindeman said was not true and that he would take a lie detector test to prove it. Lindeman claimed that Jennissen tried to get his teaching license pulled and have Lindeman criminally charged for a prior issue in his last year of teaching. Jennissen also claimed that Lindeman asked him to pull a letter of reprimand from his file, an assertion that Lindeman vehemently denied and alleged that Jennissen broke data privacy talking about that.
When speaking of trust issues within the board and between Jennissen and Lindeman, Berg claimed that Lindeman called her at one point and told her he had “something” on another board member. Lindeman didn’t argue that he made that claim, but said it was in the board room, and not through a phone call.
Lindeman claimed the issues were on the other end. “I never had a greivance for eight years prior to [Jennissen] coming. I never had a greivance all those years before Mick [Waldspurger] came on board,” Lindeman said. “There’s a different tone around here, a different feel and I think you guys live in a bubble and you’re not listening to the constituents that are out here.”
Board member Melissa Donovan suggested that the board commit to a self evaluation tool provided by the Minnesota School Board Association to help them identify issues and move forward as one.
Lindeman finished up the three-hour plus meeting by saying, “You did bring up a lot of allegations and I didn’t get to address them all along the same line, but there is some things that still need to be discussed. People are upset out there. They don’t feel like there is transparency whether you think there is or not. I hope we can build a way then to have them see that we are a little more transparent. There’s a lot of things I don’t know, but there’s a lot of things you don’t know how you’re perceived from the other side that I think you need to improve on. Mr. Jennissen, I’m not going to hold you accountable, but as a board, there is some items that we need to talk about in a closed meeting that do need to be addressed that the staff and community have. I’d like to have them addressed and dealt with.”
“We know that people are very upset with the school board, but to call us non-transparent isn’t fair,” Leigh said. “We don’t do anything that isn’t in a public setting. Everything we’ve done is transparent. This is a time of reconciliation and healing. This is a difficult night for everyone. Not only us, but you, the community and we’ve learned some things, but this is just a start of where we are going to go. Jeff, you can be an extremely valuable board member. We would love to be able to use you to become a better school board.”
With that, the chairman wrapped up the night by saying they’ll schedule another meeting — no decision was made on it being open or closed, but both seemed to be on the table — to further the discussion and continue to work through their issues.