Board discord gets an airing
September 10, 2021
The strangest rain cloud scuttled from the northwest to southeast across northern Carlton County Wednesday night. A narrow squall poured rain, cuffed by ragged and then bloomy cloud formations. Then, on both sides, clear sky. Arching through all of it was a clear, full rainbow, large enough to cover the entire city of Wrenshall and its environs.
Under the bright red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet was the school, where about 50 people ended up gathering for a school board meeting.
To say matters surrounding the board lately have been stormy is understatement. For those looking for some light, a rainbow of hope around a community and a board coming together to rally the school, there was some.
The committee of the whole meeting, designed to allow board members to talk about issues without taking action, was not normal by any stretch. The commons area at the school was filled with people anxious about what might be coming next from a school board that has been through some difficult times in just the past few months. The agenda for the meeting had changed twice. First it included a discussion with the district’s attorney on the investigation of a board member for their conduct at a Covid-19 protocol special meeting Aug. 31.
That meeting has led to at least 16 students withdrawing from the district, mostly, people at this week’s meeting said, because of an ever-increasing exasperation with school board members.
Then the agenda changed. Nothing new in the investigation, so it was nixed. Added was an evaluation of superintendent Kim Belcastro. This set off alarm bells across the Wrenshall district in the 24 hours before the Wednesday meeting.
What did a sudden evaluation mean?
It turns out, board chairman Jack Eudy told the audience after a public comment period that included questions about the evaluation, everyone can relax. He said the pop-up evaluation came as a matter of course for the board, part of a months-long process that needed to get started in the summer or fall.
This came after several people vociferously backed the work of Belcastro and her commitment to the district, including staff, parents and even sometimes adversaries.
In the end, board member Debra Washenesky suggested the whole thing be tabled until there was a full board and things cooled down in the community regarding board, administration, staff and community relations. Others agreed, and the board is expected to start the usually laborious evaluation process next month.
It was an emotional night for many. There were mea culpas from school board members and pleas for the board and the community to get its act together and start advocating for students, providing them with a stable environment for learning.
There was fierce defending, some more rumors, a little bit of finger-pointing, and yet another “I’m not a doctor, but” medical opinion on masks.
Eudy started the meeting with an apology, saying he let the meeting last week get out of hand. It focussed on mask wearing and community members who spoke at the meeting felt badgered and berated by board member Misty Bergman. The result of that meeting was an optional rule on mask wearing and then the subsequent investigation into an unnamed board member’s actions at the meeting.
Couple all that with a community upset with the way the board handled an appointment to its board after former chairwoman Michelle Blanchard became principal of the school. Residents have petitioned that decision — which came with no public discussion and fears of backroom dealing — and since gathered enough signatures to rescind the appointment. The board, if the petition is valid, would need to make another appointment.
Eudy has seen all of this happen in just the one month he’s been leading the board.
“Our community is hurting right now,” he said. It’s time to “pull everyone together.”
Bergman also apologized for what she called her “passionate” approach to Covid-19 topics. She first talked about being a parent and grandparent and all the damage that’s been done to children since “Covid” entered the vocabulary. “I apologize that I was a little unruly,” Bergman said. She loves the community, she said, “I want your trust.” She hoped that everyone could get past the recent “bump in the road.”
There have been so many disputes and they have come so fast, some forget that the school is still dealing with Covid and the prospects of getting through the school year with in-person classes. In just the first two days, at least two students tested positive for Covid.
It’s all making staff especially on edge with the desire to get things normal again. That has made many people anxious, social studies teacher Denise North said. She is president of the local teachers union and spoke to the board on its behalf Wednesday. She said the sudden appearance of an evaluation brought up many questions from district staff with the hope the board doesn’t plan any major administration changes.
She said people need to remember what makes the Wrenshall district great, and that it requires “working together” because “it can cease in a heartbeat.”
She said staff is all for evaluations, they make for accountability and should make people better at their job, she said. But staff just wondered about the timing, whether it was a bit of retribution from a board feeling stung by public opinion in the past few months. “Tell us what’s going on before you start.”
All pull together
Board member Nicole Krisak had already talked about the timing at the beginning of the meeting. She said she had received a packet about how the board was to go about the evaluation just 24 hours before the meeting. She said the sudden nature of the evaluation does nothing to restore trust in the school board.
“We can’t continue to point fingers,” she Krisak said. “Let’s work together.”
Krisak stopped talking, too emotional to go on. The crowd offered the first of many rounds of applause of the night.
Superintendent Belcastro was able to speak up for herself while giving some of the regular updates on the first few days of school. Despite students being pulled from the district, there remains a comparatively healthy enrollment at the school: 382 students. That’s “a lot for us,” Belcastro said. She took the audience back to 2012, when she was hired after a turbulent time for the district. “It was broken,” she said of the system then. She said things have improved dramatically, but the past few weeks have reminded her how beaten staff felt nearly a decade ago. She echoed the theme of the night, saying the Wrenshall district only works when people “work together.”
“We’re actually thriving,” Belcastro said. She said she preaches teamwork because she’s seen it work in making a better learning environment for students. “I’m not making it up.”
Near the end of the public discussion, Krisak chimed in again, saying one person’s advice to read the board member oath was a good idea because it talks about supporting students, staff, the community and administration. “We need to work together,” she said. “We’re scaring the community.”
Outside the school after nearly two hours of talk, the sky had cleared, with only a few purplish clouds darting about. To the northwest, another ominous bank lurked.