Two Elk River school board members who were elected on a pro-parent platform say they are being intimidated by their colleagues after the board voted to censure them for misconduct Monday night.
A standing-room only crowd listened as school board attorney Michael Waldspurger read the allegations against newly elected board members John Anderson and Mindy Freiberg before presenting a censure resolution, which the board voted on and approved. Anderson and Freiberg were elected to the ISD 728 board in 2022.
“They want us off the board, but they aren’t going to get rid of me that easy,” Freiberg said.
Allegations of misconduct included being late or unprepared for meetings, speaking to legislators or constituents without authority, inquiring about curriculum, and failing to communicate with Superintendent Dan Bittman, the board’s employee, in a timely manner.
In addition, Anderson was accused of making inappropriate comments in the workplace, interfering with the work of the superintendent, and disparaging the superintendent to community members, whom Waldspurger failed to identify.
Although the community members were not identified, Waldspurger said investigators had no reason to believe their stories were “fabricated.”
After presenting the findings, Waldspurger presented the board with four options: do nothing, issue a verbal warning, censure, which is a written warning, or removal. He prepared the censure resolution in advance.
Anderson and Freiberg said they have done nothing outside of the scope of their duties as board members.
“If I asked questions during the board meeting, they said I was unprepared,” Freiberg said. “It’s my job as a board member to ask questions. I ask questions during the meeting so the public hears, but the other board members would get annoyed. Without questions, you never get real discussion on policies.”
Both Anderson and Freiberg said they have been intimidated by the superintendent and board members since they assumed their posts and were unaware of the specific findings against them until Monday’s school board meeting, leaving them unable to prepare a defense.
“Mindy took out a 12-year school board veteran, business owner by a pretty big margin,” Anderson said. “He’s (the superintendent) been after us from day one. I’m realizing that he keeps a list of every transgression.”
Bittman said none of the members were aware of the findings or had a copy of the report prior to Monday’s meeting, which was a decision made by the board’s attorney.
“The Board members were aware of the allegations, participated in the investigation with independent counsel, had met with both the Superintendent and Board Chair about the concerns on numerous occasions, and had been provided specific training and counsel from the School Board’s attorney related to the violations,” Bittman said in an emailed comment.
According to Bittman, the censure resolution “puts individuals on notice that continued violations could result in additional action taken by the School Board.”
“It is our hope that the Board can return to a focus on the District’s core mission and values: doing what is best for our students. This is a goal we all share in our community,” he said.
‘You better get in line’
The message is very clear, according to Minnesota Rep. Walter Hudson, R-Albertville. Members who don’t fall in line may find themselves on the “wrong side of aggressive action,” he said.
“This was the first step in removing these members from the board. There is a disconnect between the political will of these communities and the school districts that are supposed to serve them,” Hudson said. “This is a huge story. This deserves national attention.”
The school board, as a self-policing organization, and under Minnesota statutes, can remove members from the board and then fill the vacancy. The board chair has special powers to open investigations and initiate a vote for removal. There is no appeals process.
“From the moment they got on the board as conservative members, they’ve had an antagonistic relationship with the five other school board members, the superintendent, and staff in the school district,” Hudson said. “It all came to a head at Monday’s meeting.”
Board Chair Holly Thompson ordered an investigation into alleged violations of protocol, procedure, and policy in August. Hudson said the threat of removal at Monday’s meeting was thinly veiled.
“You better not talk to staff. You better not talk to your own constituents. You better not ask questions after noon on a Friday. You better not rock the boat. You better not vote no without telling somebody first,” he said. “You better get in line. You better start deferring and telling us how awesome we are. You’d better start doing that or you’re going to be off this body.”
According to Hudson, self-government implies that a community’s values should be reflected in how policy is set and implemented. Hudson said the community votes 65-35 conservative but has a school board that votes for progressive policies.
“Our community is very deep red, yet you go to the school districts or school board meetings and it sounds like you’re listening to dissertations from Berkeley,” he said. “The reason for that is because the teachers union is an unofficial outgrowth of the Democratic Party. It has a virtual monopoly on the electoral workings that result in who is on the school board. They organize and box out any potential opposition.”
Waldspurger frequently referenced district policy 209, which outlines the requirements of how school board members are to conduct themselves. Bittman said the board’s “independent counsel” confirmed the violations of the policy, which in many cases were “acknowledged by the individuals in question.”
But Hudson believes the censure resolution was an exercise in “character assassination” and an abuse of the district’s policy.
“It was very clear in the way that they presented it that their idea of preparation for meetings means that you have no questions. If you’re prepared, that means you understand what’s going to happen and you approve of it,” Hudson said. “If you don’t approve or if you’re going to vote against something, you will have a problem. That’s indicative of the fact that you weren’t prepared to deal with it. Any questions you have should have been asked prior to the meeting and should have been resolved between you and the superintendent before the meeting. So if you’re questioning or antagonistic or critical of any policy or curriculum or anything that’s taking place in the district, that’s an indication that you weren’t prepared to come to the meeting.”
District leaders are hiding behind policy 209 to shield themselves from criticism, according to Hudson.
“They have abused the policy in order to insulate the school staff and the superintendent from any meaningful scrutiny of how policy is being implemented,” he said. “If you don’t trust what you’re being told by the superintendent, you can’t go over his head or around him and actually engage directly with staff and ask them any questions. You have to just trust that what the superintendent is telling you is true and accurate and complete. Because they refuse to do that, both Mindy and John — because they’re actually interested in digging into the details and understanding the on-the-ground reality of what’s happening in the school district — that’s considered a violation of protocol and policy.”
After Waldspurger read the allegations, Anderson and Freiberg were allowed to comment before the vote. Anderson called the investigation a “sham.”
“This interview, the interrogation was just kind of looking for a crime, looking for something. I just think it’s terrible what’s going on here. I have no shame for what I’ve done,” Anderson said.
Freiberg agreed, saying the district “threw stuff at a wall to see if anything would stick.”
“As a school board member, I did things like asked questions at school board meetings, held public meetings for constituents to express their opinions and concerns, asked for curriculum information — that is school board work,” she said. “It’s a sad day when our valuable tax dollars are wasted in an attempt to find something wrong. I work for the people. This is a sham of an investigation. And this won’t stop me from talking to people. It didn’t work. I am focused on bettering the lives of our students, teachers, and faculty, and I will continue advocating for parental involvement, academics, and freedom in ISD 728.”
Sheila Qualls is an award-winning journalist and former civilian editor of an Army newspaper. Prior to joining Alpha News, she was a Christian Marriage and Family columnist at Patheos.com and a personal coach. Her work has been published in The Upper Room, the MOPS blog, Grown and Flown, and The Christian Post. She speaks nationally on issues involving faith and family.