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Wrenshall principal contract OK'd; the rest is mystery

John Edison isn’t a Wrenshall school board member, but for all practical purposes on Tuesday night, he was. The attorney representing the school district was on hand for public discussion on the fate of principal Michelle Blanchard and also for two closed sessions on “allegations” against two employees of the district.

The board approved another one-year contract for Blanchard, on the advice of Edison, who provided the board a “confidential legal analysis” on how it might proceed with the principal.

“I’ll make that motion,” member Jack Eudy said without expressing what the motion was. Superintendent Kim Belcastro clarified, saying the motion was for the board to approve another one-year contract for Blanchard with negotiations to go through the superintendent, board chairwoman Misty Bergman, and business manager Angela Anderson. That contract will be reviewed by Edison and put to a vote by the board.

Bergman said the discussion Tuesday, and delay in approving a contract after a public evaluation last month, wasn’t about Blanchard, who has received mostly rave reviews about her first school year on the job. Wrenshall moved last year from a superintendent and dean administration to having a part-time superintendent and full-time principal.

Bergman told the board Tuesday that it was difficult to decipher how the new arrangement was working, considering the unusual circumstances at the school as it returned to in-person instruction after mostly online classes during the pandemic.

Other board members reiterated the praise for Blanchard, only to be shut down by Bergman, saying the discussion was about the position and not the employee.

It was difficult to follow just what the purpose of the meeting was. The board met last month for an evaluation of Blanchard, with similar glowing remarks, but board members then voted to delay the decision on a contract. The agenda stated that the special meeting Tuesday was for “discussion regarding future of principal position and status of principal contract.”

The district, according to Belcastro, saved about $10,000 by doing away with the dean position, adding a principal and cutting the superintendent position by nearly half.

The board members went back and forth talking about Blanchard and the position during the open portion of Tuesday’s meeting. But there was no discerning discussion about how members felt about the new administrative arrangement.

Edison brought things back into focus by saying there were three options regarding Blanchard. No action would indicate an automatic renewal of the contract. The board could also choose to not renew, which it would have to do before the July 1 end of the school year. The third option, which the board seemingly agreed to adopt, was to renew and negotiate.

Closed session

After voting unanimously to renew and negotiate, the board went into two closed meetings “for preliminary consideration of allegations” made against two employees. The first, according to people in the district with knowledge of the situation, was about a threat made by an employee regarding superintendent Belcastro. The second non-public discussion was about allegations made by that employee about Belcastro.

Board members discussed the allegations for more than two hours with Edison, the district attorney. When it came back into open session, a motion was made to “proceed” according to what was discussed in the closed meeting. There was no explanation and Edison, contacted after the meeting on Wednesday, refused to elaborate on the motion. “There was a motion to proceed, and that’s all I’m going to say,” he said.

The official motion, offered Wednesday by the district’s official notetaker, after vetting by Bergman, states it was a “motion to proceed as discussed in closed session 1 and 2.”

Bergman, who is now considered the sole media contact for the district, echoed the same phrasing from Edison and the meeting notes and did not elaborate.

The board voted unanimously in favor of the

unexplained motion following the closed meetings.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney who represents newspapers through the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said “adopting a motion without any discussion that describes the basic content and character of the motion constitutes a pretty brazen affront to the Open Meeting Law.”

That’s the Minnesota law that guides public bodies on how to conduct public meetings and the exceptions: closed meetings. “Whether the board’s behavior violated the (law) depends on whether it decided to impose some form of discipline on either of the employees discussed in the closed meeting,” Anfinson said.

It isn’t clear what the board decided, as the motion was to simply “proceed” as apparently outlined by Edison in the closed session.

“If the board did decide to impose some kind of discipline, then it’s evident that the discussion in the closed meeting went way beyond preliminary consideration, because the board would have had to conclude that discipline of some kind may be warranted and, according to the statute, at that point, further meetings were required to be open,” Anfinson said.

In any case, he said, the board was “obligated to describe the substance or character of the motion when it went back into open session.”

ADDITION: On Thursday, after the print version of the Pine Knot News was published, Bergman stated in an email to the newspaper that "The board did not decide to impose disciplinary action on any employee during the two closed sessions. Any suggestion to the contrary is false."