Elk River’s superintendent continues to face criticism from school board members who believe he has undermined their ability to effectively represent their constituents.
The superintendent needs to behave like an employee, not like an elected school board member, according to John Anderson, who was elected to the board in 2022.
The changes implemented under Elk River Superintendent Dan Bittman’s tutelage are “hamstringing” the board’s power, including changes to the district’s oath of office, Anderson said.
Bittman has taken measures to bring the board under his control instead of the other way around, Anderson remarked.
“No one questions anything he does,” he said. “We’ve got to curtail his power to that of an employee and not the equivalent of an elected board member.”
In addition to vowing to support and defend the U.S. and state constitutions, Elk River school board members must also “pledge to follow all Board approved policies, including Policy 209, Code of Conduct, as well as state and federal statute,” according to a copy of the oath of office provided to Alpha News.
“Policy 209,” known as the code of ethics, binds school board members to “support the decision of the school board,” whether they agree with it or not, “work through the superintendent,” “give the superintendent authority commensurate with his or her responsibilities,” and “participate in school board action after considering the recommendation of the superintendent.”
Policy 209 also prohibits members from making “disparaging remarks, in or out of school board meetings, about other members of the school board or their opinions.”
The board leaned heavily on Policy 209 when it censured Anderson and board member Mindy Freiberg last month.
Anderson said he “blindly” signed Policy 209 and took the oath as a new board member.
“You don’t realize that the implication is that you’re hamstringing your First Amendment rights. And he (Bittman) wants you to sign it (Policy 209) every year. And we’re the only district that does that that I have found,” he said. He and Freiberg did not sign the document this year.
“We already take the main oath of office for all the districts which is to support the U.S. and the constitution of the state of Minnesota. Those are the two primary things that are in every oath,” he said.
Bittman was hired to work in the district in 2017. Anderson said the district’s oath was amended in 2018 with a reference to Policy 209. Bittman did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
“You start peeling back the onion, and you realize that he’s intentionally inhibited the communication so you really can’t do your job,” Anderson said.
Before he and Freiberg arrived on the board, Anderson said other board members had allowed Bittman to “run things.” In 2021, some parents were banned from school board meetings, but Anderson said Bittman rescinded the ban after the Upper Midwest Law Center got involved.
“They don’t have a problem with [the way he ran things]. And here I come along and say this is not correct,” he said. “And they’re kind of like, ‘Just let him do his job.’ I didn’t get elected to represent people and then I can’t represent them. That doesn’t make sense.”
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.