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Board replacement proves a surprise rush

It happened so quickly, Nicole Krisak didn’t even have a chance to react. While the official record will show that the Wrenshall school board voted unanimously to appoint a new person to its board Monday, Krisak could legitimately be considered a nonvote. She didn’t have a chance to say “yea” or “nay” as she swivelled her head in what looked to be astonishment.

Superintendent Kim Belcastro had barely finished offering her suggestions to the board on how to proceed with the appointment before Alice Kloepfer blurted out a motion to appoint Bill Dian. Deb Washenesky quickly seconded. The only pause came, and it wasn’t more than 5 seconds, after new chairman Jack Eudy asked if there was any discussion. He then went right to asking for a vote. The voice vote was said to be unanimous after someone in the audience asked for clarification.

This all came after chairwoman Michelle Blanchard officially became principal of the school moments before on a vote, leaving an opening on the board. The board had known about this turn of events for nearly three months and, apparently, members went out into the public to ask about interest in the board opening. Belcastro said the district received three letters of interest, from former member Janaki Fisher-Merritt, Ben Johnson and Dian.

Dian said he was “not surprised” by the appointment because before the meeting “they said I had four votes,” he said.

Eudy said it was Kloepfer who first approached Dian. The new chairman then had a few chats with Dian, deciding he would be a good fit for the board.

There has been no public discussion concerning the appointment. And there was no discussion Monday, which is customary on high-impact action items after a motion is seconded. Belcastro’s mention of those interested in the seat, and telling the board it could vote on a process to appoint, was the only appointment discussion Monday.

Meet the man

So, who is Bill Dian? He has lived in Wrenshall for about a year. He is a retiree with two grandchildren attending the Wrenshall school. He once worked at Potlatch and lived in Carlton for 15 years before retiring and living in the Brainerd Lakes area the past 13 years.

He said he’s interested in helping the district steer its curriculum in broadening its industrial tech opportunities. He said he likes the direction the board took in bonding for money to shore up the pole building on campus that will likely one day house tech classes.

He said tech opportunities help students who might not be enthusiastic about school “get excited” again.

Unprompted, Dian brought up an issue that irked the superintendent and some board members this summer — the question of whether or not the district is teaching “critical race theory.” Eudy brought the issue up and eventually steered the board to a vote last month confirming that the district taught history according to state-guided curriculum and the so-called “theory” wasn’t being taught.

Dian said he still isn’t convinced that teachers in Wrenshall aren’t teaching CRT. “Who knows?” he said. “I’d like to investigate it.”

He said “color shouldn’t mean anything” when it comes to history and teachers shouldn’t make one race feel ashamed for things done in the past.

Dian said he will focus on “educating kids properly” and that Wrenshall is a solid district with its recent upgrades to its spaces only enhancing the experience for students.

He said the recent failure to bring Carlton and Wrenshall districts together through consolidation was “terrible” and “ridiculous” but that Wrenshall will simply carry on. The district is on solid ground, he said. “I see nothing negative.”

Process failure?

Eudy said the sudden appointment was a surprise to him as well. He said he heard a motion and a second and just called for a vote. He said it was a reflex and if the process didn’t seem right, it was on him and his inexperience as the new chairman of the board.

“There was no particular science to it,” Eudy said of the steps that led to Dian’s appointment.

He said the district was acting on advice from the Minnesota School Boards Association that it could make an appointment however it chose, Eudy said. State statute has language that after a vacancy occurs on the school board, the district has 30 days to fill it with an appointment. Statute also says there should be a public hearing with residents allowed to discuss the merits of candidates interested in filling the seat.

State statute also allows district residents to petition for a recall of an appointee.

Belcastro said she was under the assumption that the board would interview those who expressed interest in the role. “I didn’t have any knowledge,” she said, calling the quick appointment a “calculated” ploy that is “not the way we do things in Wrenshall.”

She said Eudy had assured her that there would be interviews.

Eudy admits that’s what he indeed assumed, but said he just got caught up in the moment when Kloepfer made her motion.

“The goal was not to appoint anyone (on Monday),” Eudy said. When asked how the board could have already been leaning toward Dian, he said there had been talk back and forth among members “in passing.” At least two other members of the board had no knowledge of the plan to make the motion to appoint Dian, obviously the bewildered Krisak and Misty Bergman.

“It’s not OK what happened,” Belcastro said. “I’m not impressed.”

“As I was told, it was all legal,” Eudy said.

It doesn’t look great, he admitted, but he thinks the board and the district will be fine. He said the board has been under tremendous pressure recently due to questions about the appointment, the ongoing remodel work at the school, the CRT issue, and staff changes.

“New meat don’t hurt,” he said of Dian joining the board. “I have no problem with Bill.”

Dian made Carlton County news in early 2020 when he brought a speaker to an event in Cloquet to talk about the dangers of refugee resettlement. The meeting riled many people with an issue that cropped up because the administration of President Donald Trump was asking local governments to take a stand on allowing refugees into their jurisdictions.

Dian’s Facebook page is awash in pro-Trump, anti-vaccination, and anti-Democrats posts. That’s what was concerning to some in the audience Monday.

“We’re going to be fine,” Eudy said.

In other news from the Wrenshall school board meeting Monday:

• The board agreed to terminate the contract for Mike Smith, the director of building and grounds at the school. In short, Smith was fired, Belcastro said. “He was a good employee,” she said, but he was unable to work well with three of the four people on his staff, she said.

Smith was also warned for using security cameras to check on his employees, even from home after he was sent off campus to “cool off” after a dustup this summer.

The board will now seek a replacement.

• The board heard from two people in the audience Monday regarding masks, both saying it was important to have a mask requirement as school opens in September.

Belcastro brought up Covid-19 pandemic protocols in the superintendent’s report. She said Carlton County school officials are in contact with each other each week and the status is still wait-and-see but leaning only on strongly suggesting mask use.

Meeting 6 miles away on the same night, the Carlton school board decided it won’t make a final decision on Covid-19 protocols until Aug. 30. Esko and Cloquet made similar decisions last week.

“No one wants to have to mandate masks, but circumstances may force our hand,” Carlton superintendent John Engstrom said after the school board met in a regular meeting Monday. He said there were no speakers at the meeting regarding masks or other Covid-19 protocols.

The school in Wrenshall will be the site of a vaccination clinic on Sept. 1, including Covid-19 and flu shots.

• The Wrenshall board approved more bond money for fixing parking lots around the school. State tax abatement law allows the district to shift money for the project and bond without seeking taxpayer approval in a levy vote. The $430,000 will also be used for sidewalks and lighting. The project comes after just more than $3 million in bonding was approved to shore up the rec building for future use for technology and industrial arts classes.