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North Branch Schools

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September 22, 2021

7/23/2021 11:32:00 AM
Donovan resigns her post while fellow board member questions timing

After a three month absence from official board meetings, Chisago Lakes School Board member Melissa Donovan submitted her letter of resignation effective August 12.

Donovan, who was not at the board meeting Thursday, July 15, last appeared at the explosive and contentious April 20 special meeting which was attended by hundreds of community members both in person and virtually.

Since that night, she has worked on her committees, according to board chairman Mark Leigh, but she did not attend the regularly scheduled May 24 or June 17 meetings or  a special meeting on June 9.

The timing of the move was scrutinized by fellow board member Jeff Lindeman, who felt that the timeline was manipulated to be beyond 90 days of the November election so the district could avoid an open special election. He wanted to amend the motion to make her resignation effective that night, which would trigger a special election in early November.

“Board member Donovan hasn’t been at a board meeting for three months and I don’t see any reason to delay the resignation another month to not have someone fill her seat,” he said.

That’s when Leigh stated that Donovan had been working on her committees, including the St. Croix River Education District and will continue to do that through August 12. “I don’t know how we change someone’s letter of resignation.”

Lindeman said there was a way, but that he needed a second on his amendment making the resignation effective immeditately, which didn’t occur.

“The people chose that position and all that we’ve been through as a board, I find it a troubling decision that you want to give this person who has not been present for three months and allow them to not be present for one more month and not allow the people to decide who fills that position,” Lindeman said. “You need to give that choice back to the people. I think it’s critical to do that. I wish you’d leave it to the people instead of taking that choice out of their hands.”

Board member Brenda Carlson said she didn’t want to take it out of the people’s hands either, but that there are alternate ways rather than spending what would amount to $15-20,000 on a special election.

“I don’t think spending money on a  special election is a smart move because we have issues with our budget already,” she said. “There’s a way to get the people’s vote in and not have to spend money. I’m not ready to OK a $15-20,000 bill, not including the time and energy of our staff to run this election.”

Lindeman quickly shot back, asking Carlson why she knew how much a special election costs. “Was there discussion prior to this meeting?” he asked her.

Carlson said no, she’s a financial person who asked questions of Director of Business Services Robyn Vosberg-Torgerson about the costs. Vosberg-Torgerson chimed in, saying she had to make some assumptions on numbers, but the cost of election judges, mailing and ballots  would be nearing a $15-16,000  tab for the district and that does not include any of the staff labor that would be put into it.

Lindeman changed course from asking about the process. “I am going to ask a question... was this Melissa Donovan’s own decision? Was it solely her decision?” he asked.

Leigh said he encouraged Donovan to stay on the board and had reached out to Lindeman to work together on it.

“I knew what she was going through as a person and what was being spoken of out in social media. I was trying to help her work through that and suggest that she’s done a good job  and I’d like her to stay on the board. I don’t know what her decision process was,” Leigh said.
“Did you encourage her to stay on the board until August 12?” Lindeman asked Leigh frankly.

“I encouraged her to stay on the board,” Leigh said. “[Superintendent] Dean Jennissen, Lori  Berg and I had a discussion as to the next step and we looked into some things we were advised by the Minnesota School Board Association that it’d be best for our school district to have a resignation within the 90 day window so then we could appoint or wouldn’t be forced to do a special election.”

Lindeman pressed Leigh, asking if it was a strategic move to have Donovan resign within 90 days of a general election date. Leigh said no, it was strictly based on the MSBA recommendation.

“It didn’t have anything to do with her ability to serve on the board or extend her absence another month, it was more to do with that 90 day window, according to that representation you got from MSBA?” Lindeman asked, saying he was unaware of any discussion between board members and MSBA.

“Yes,” Leigh said. “Dean, Lori and I talked about going back to candidates from the prior election, but then we decided to talk to MSBA, and they came back to us with that recommendation.”

With that, the board unanimously voted to accept Donovan’s resignation effective August 12.

The board then discussed what their options for choosing Donovan’s replacement would be. Carlson suggested that the board reach out to only candidates who ran just nine months ago for the school board and guage their interest. “There’s people out there that ran who may still be willing and already did the steps,” she said. Board member Dani Strenke added, “They just ran nine months ago. It stands to reason they’d all be interested in serving this district for roughly 15 months.”

But, both Leigh and Lindeman felt that the process should be open to anyone who was interested, and neither Carlson or Strenke voiced a problem with that.

Carlson did take a moment, however, to address rumors on social media. “There was no integrity issues with this. People that are saying the board and superintendent already have someone picked out is wrong. It’s outright false and I’m going to say that now,” she said emphatically. “I’m tired of the integrity of our board and me personally getting questioned. There is none of that and it needs to stop and I’m going to voice it every time there is something out there that is false. I’m tired of people assuming they can’t trust us. It talks about my personality and integrity and I am not going to let someone question that.”

Lindeman responded, “In my letter to all of you, it appeared strategic that you did this. You confirmed that [tonight]. My question in there was do you have someone in mind? I didn’t receive a response from anyone from the board or Dean. So I don’t know where that [rumor] came from or who they thought the board had but my statement would be to just open it up to anybody who is interested.”

Leigh agreed, “I’m not against that and would prefer to open it up for the sake of allowing someone else to come forward if they want, but I think the process should be very simple to do.”

The board unanimously decided to open the position on their AppliTrack employment website. The process would include a letter of interest, a resume and three to six questions for candidates. The application window will open on Thursday, July 22 and run through Monday, August 9 at 5 p.m. and will be open to all qualified residents of the school district.

Depending on the number of applicants, the board tentatively scheduled a special school board meeting for Wednesday, August 18 to interview finalists. They could name Donovan’s replacement during the Thursday, August 19 regular meeting.

Because the position is being appointed, there would be a 30 day waiting period where the public can file a petition to reject the appointee. The board was hopeful the position could be seated and ready to work for the regular meeting on September 23.

In other news...
Vosberg-Torgerson had some good news to share with the district. In both the Community Service and Food Service funds, revenue is up and expenditures are down, which is mostly because of shifting back to normalcy after the pandemic, but was still a positive step.

She also mentioned the new formula allowance for schools that was passed by the state. The district had initially budgeted a one percent increase for next year, but added 1.5 percent to that, and then two percent the year after. She said it equates to about $330,000 more in funding this upcoming year and even more the year after.

Leigh immediately thought back to the cuts the district just had to make. “In terms of enhanced formula numbers related to what we budgeted, I wonder if we could get a report that would show where some of that money has already been committed,” he asked Vosberg-Torgerson. “It’s extra over our committments. We’re getting an extra $330,000. so what are some expenses going with that especially in relation to budget cuts we’ve made? I don’t know if there would be any recommendations at this time to restore anything, but it’s something that’s good to hear.”

Vosberg-Torgerson said she would have report for the board to look at.

Jennissen said he was “thankful” for the additional money on the formula, but he cautioned that some measures for extra funding in the legislative session did fall short from what the district was also hoping for.

The district continues to negotiate with principals. Carlson said that the two sides were very closed to an agreement.

The district received a $2,500 donation from local artists in the Minnesota Potter’s Association for the art department and two $500 donations for the food service fund, one from Lakes Free Church and one from Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church.

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