‘Scammed’: Sartell district cuts ties with equity group 

The decision was made just hours after a group of local parents said they were prepared to sue the district in federal court.

Left: Parents and community members from "Kids Over Politics" gathered for a school board meeting last month. Right: Student Haylee Yasgar discusses her experience taking Equity Alliance Minnesota's survey.

The Sartell-St. Stephen School Board agreed to cut ties with Equity Alliance Minnesota at a special meeting Monday night amid the threat of a federal lawsuit.

At the recommendation of Superintendent Jeff Ridlehoover, the school board unanimously agreed to “amicably part ways” with the equity consultants, who were paid $80,000 in COVID-19 relief funds to conduct an equity audit and related work.

“While I still had fairly limited interactions with the personnel there, I do believe they value students and are committed to their work. That said, this board as well as members of the community have struggled to make sense of the equity audit presented, and the frustrations that have ensued have only been compounded by the inability of Equity Alliance Minnesota to provide answers to this board and residents of the school community in a timely manner,” said Ridlehoover, according to a video of the meeting posted online by parents.

“This noise, as I call it, has distracted us from our most important work, and instead of us focusing on kids and getting ready to start school, we’ve been caught in this quagmire that now needs to end,” he added.

Ridlehoover said the district is in talks with Equity Alliance Minnesota to recover payments for items in the contract that weren’t completed.

He also recommended the creation of a “Community, Equity and Student Experience Committee composed of staff, parents, community members, and most importantly students.”

The central Minnesota school district made national headlines last month after student Haylee Yasgar said she was told not to discuss a survey administered by Equity Alliance with her parents.

Parents have also raised concerns about Equity Alliance’s presentation of the data it gathered during the audit and its lack of transparency. As of Monday, the board still hadn’t been provided with the list of questions students were asked during the audit. Patrick Marushin, a member of the board, said he has “some concerns about methodology and analysis of the data that have gone unanswered to this point.”

“We got scammed by an organization that failed to do their work properly, legally, and ethically. They made promises that they didn’t keep and they didn’t give us the finished product that we were expecting,” added school board member Amanda Byrd.

The special meeting was held just hours after Kids Over Politics 748, a nonprofit composed of local parents, announced that it would sue the district in federal court if it didn’t agree to “never again force students to take a survey like this without first giving parents a copy and obtaining their written consent.”

“Parents have a fundamental constitutional right to raise their kids as they see fit, and First Amendment rights do not stop at the schoolhouse gates. Our clients simply want the district to take responsibility for its actions and give them assurances that their kids won’t be subjected to this kind of illegal intrusion. If they don’t, our clients are ready to enforce their rights in Court,” said James Dickey, senior trial counsel for the Upper Midwest Law Center, which is representing the parent group.

In a letter to the district, Dickey explained how school leaders violated federal and state “constitutional and statutory rights of parents and students, and even the district’s own policy, which it systematically ignored.”