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Wrenshall employees union fires back at board

 

July 15, 2022

Mike Creger

More than 70 people attended Monday's Wrenshall School Board meeting and 24 of them spoke during the meeting.

After two recent bulk mailings sent out to Wrenshall school district residents suggested that complaints about school board member comments in the past 13 months were unfounded, a union group representing district employees delivered the goods on Monday.

More than 70 people attended Monday's meeting in Holyoke, where union members read a lengthy statement. In total, there were 24 speakers in a public forum that lasted 90 minutes inside the township hall.

Several Education Minnesota-Wrenshall union members responded to and corrected a spate of complaints outlined in a bulk letter sent by resident Tony Sheda, and eventually the portion that asked for proof of board members making "racist or homophobic" comments in the past.

Another bulk mailing, ostensibly sent by board members Cindy Bourn, Jack Eudy and Deb Washenesky (see accompanying story "Letter brings questions") also challenged the veracity of the claims about statements made by board members. "If these speakers were serious about these accusations, they would take proper steps rather than making vague statements."

There was nothing vague about what union members presented Monday. It recited four incidents from four board members to illustrate their claims.

Proof

Here is the portion of the statement that talks about what board members have said in the past. (Editor's note: The full statement can be read at the bottom of this story.)

"The letter challenged 'those who said such hateful stuff to provide proof: Who, What, Where, When?' We will share some recordings and examples of comments from board members that are racist, homophobic, inappropriate and unprofessional. We will not provide the who in this public forum (but we do have that documented). We have only included comments made in front of groups, as those made in conversation or out in the community were not always witnessed by others. All of these examples were witnessed by at least three people, if not more.

"During the principal interviews on May 13, 2021, Michelle Blanchard introduced herself and gave many reasons, including the experience and diversity she would bring to the school that would make her the right person for the job. After the interviews, when the board and hiring committee were discussing candidates, one of the board members said in reference to that answer by Mrs. Blanchard, 'how Michelle introduced herself? African-American woman. She's a woman.' This statement was then followed by a long discussion about not seeing color, where another board member stated that she thinks Michelle said what she said because she is proud of herself and went on to say 'because she is so light colored.' These are racist statements. This recording of this meeting was put up on the school website but was removed the next day.

"At the June 16, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting, the Gay Straight Alliance Club was discussed. During the discussion, a board member stated, 'I'll never forget what a teacher told me one time when I was in school. Stuck with me my whole life. He told me all boys before puberty are homosexuals. That's why they spend so much time in the showers.' The same board member also stated that they support the club, but then asked the members of the club to not be flamboyant like those famous people and 'go around wearing dog collars.' The LGBTQ+ community was also referred to as 'you people' several times throughout the meeting.

"At the August 11 Committee of the Whole meeting the board discussed using abatement bonds to redo the parking lot. A board member asked, 'What if they dig up bones?' to which another board member replied, 'I have a plan for that. Fence it off and bring in all the dogs from the dog pound. There won't be any bones left.' This comment was in reference to the excavation in Fond Du Lac.

"It was at the August 31 Special Board Meeting regarding the mask mandate when a board member repeatedly disrespected and mocked a parent. When concerns were brought up during this meeting regarding students and family members with pre-existing conditions, the same board member said that Covid is meant to take out the weak but the strong will survive.

"Taken individually, you may think that some of these comments aren't that bad or were taken out of context. But we can't take them individually when it keeps happening again and again. It is not just one board member making these comments. These comments came from four different board members on several different occasions. We can't even imagine being a member of one of these marginalized groups and hearing a representative of our school dehumanize us in this way."

There was no response from school board members, who cited open forum policy at the beginning of the meeting that people get to speak for four minutes with no comment from the board. Despite that admonition, board members did respond to comments made by other speakers during the forum.

Other comments

Those comments were mostly supportive of the board getting past the divisiveness in the community about its actions. As in past forums, board members were urged to do a better job of communicating and reminded that they serve the public but especially the students in the district.

Before the meeting, Tony Sheda recited the gist of the bulk letter he sent out, greeting those in attendance before the 6 p.m. meeting started in Holyoke.

A large portion of Sheda's commentary was devoted to perceived slights of board members and the school district in the pages of the Pine Knot and Pine Journal. One of the first items board chairwoman Cindy Bourn talked about was in the consent agenda and the billings for May. She questioned the use of the Pine Knot as the district's legal newspaper, which the board approved in January.

There was a decision early on to move the public forum to the top of the meeting and to add to the agenda a discussion about how the forum should be conducted. The rules in place meant that 24 people who signed up could speak, taking up 90 minutes.

The comments started out in support of the board and the urging for people to be "respectful to each other."

Mary Carlson said she chooses to live inside the district and her children attend Wrenshall schools. She said she has a 4-year-old who is taught what those on both sides in the current atmosphere should practice: "Active listening," she said. "We need to start listening."

Union members then spoke, saying they have been "silent for too long," when it comes to the comments from the board members.

Union president Denise North said providing the actual words used by board members did not come lightly.

"We believe in redemption," she said. "We are not throwing the board out." She and others just want them to "do better." North said the letters sent to residents was classic "gaslighting," deflecting blame, and board members and Sheda need to "just stop."

Teacher Ted Conover is the advisor for the Genders and Sexualities Alliance and said despite the board comments last year and its not allowing a seminar on the group's issues, things have changed inside the school. He said he's proud as a teacher in Wrenshall, where in the classroom you find an "accepting and loving" space.

He urged the crowd to read the words of Sage Fernquist, the Class of 2022 valedictorian who wrote a commentary that appeared in the Pine Knot on June 24.

"The first step toward empathy is to inquire with the intent to understand," Fernquist wrote and Conover repeated on Monday.

The rest of the speakers went back and forth. Some urged board support and felt the continuing discord needed to stop on the board side and the public. Others talked about their love for the school and the fear they have about perceptions of the district.

Chairwoman Misty Bergman said a thank -you after the comments and "we can become better for this."

Superintendent Kim Belcastro said she is reminded every day about why she stays on in the district. "I hope we can bring things together," she said. Referring to pressing district issues outside of the rancor, she said it all can be worked on "when we get done with all this crap" and "do what's best for students."

In other matters

There was a regular meeting to get to, in what became a more-than-four-hour meeting in Holyoke. Items discussed by the board included:

- Belcastro said enrollment is a concern, with 342 confirmed students right now. Last year, the school hovered near the 370 mark.

- The board discussed and will likely pass in August a 5-cent raise in lunch and breakfast meals for all grades and adults. In the past two pandemic school years, meals have been free as part of federal pandemic response funding. This year returns to paid meals. Meal costs are already higher compared to those in other districts, Belcastro said, but many of them are raising costs by 10 cents. Board members agreed that 5 cents would be a good middle ground and urged district families to fill out forms for free and reduced-cost meals.

- There seems to have been a bit of a breakdown in talks with the Carlton school district and sharing more sports programs and other activities. Nicole Krisak and Deb Washenesky are on the committee with Carlton board members to discuss cooperative programs. Both districts are on board to approve a framework for approaching the subject in the future but no changes are imminent for the coming year.

Krisak said baseball had once been on the table but Carlton board members gave an "all or nothing" proposal they couldn't accept. She said each agreement needs to be made slowly and as needs arise to fill out teams when enrollments rollercoaster.

Carlton school board members haven't spoken much about the talks, except about a voting in a manual next week that will frame any future cooperative talks. It is based on the agreement between the Willow River and Moose Lake school districts.

Activities that the schools will share include robotics, plays, Knowledge Bowl, math league, science fair, Business Professionals of America, and the Genders and Sexualities Alliance group.

- There was a discussion about the format of the public forum portion of meetings in the future. Board members seemed to be in agreement in keeping the forum at the start of meetings, as it experimented with on Monday. In the past, it has been placed after staff reports and other presentations.

Editor's note: This story was corrected after presstime to reflect the fact that Mary Carlson lives inside the Wrenshall School District.

ONLINE EXCLUSIVE

The following is the statement as read Monday night by Education Minnesota Wrenshall union members:

“We are here to speak about a letter recently sent to district residents by a community member. There are several inaccuracies in that letter that need to be addressed. The opening sentence reads “what I can only describe as a ‘MOB’ descended on the commons of our school.” When you hear the word mob, what do you picture? We guess whatever comes to mind is very different from the group of community members, staff, students, and parents that were sitting around, chatting and catching up before the meeting started.

The letter went on to say “I did not recognize the majority of them and I believe a lot of them were teachers and others who do not live in our district.” We recognized every single one of the people at that meeting. We could tell you how each of them is connected to our school and why they have a right and/or duty to be there. At least 24 of those in attendance live in the district and approximately five live out of district but have children who attend our school. There were 10 or so of our students and about seven additional staff members who do not live in the district but have worked at this school for a combined 100-plus years.

In the letter, the author mentioned repeatedly that people who attended the meeting and/or spoke during the open forum do not live in the district. It is insinuated in this letter, and has been by board members in the past, that unless you live in the district, you have no right to question or have a say in what is happening in our school. Over $2 million dollars followed our out-of-district students to Wrenshall this past year. We would not have a school without our out-of-district families. We would not have a school without our out-of-district employees. All of the stakeholders in our district have a right to have a voice and this continued attack on those of us who don’t live here does nothing but hurt our students, school and community.

The letter then stated “it was obvious they were there to crucify the board.” The author of the letter left before open forum even started that night and did not listen to any of the concerned citizens who addressed the board, but if they had stayed they would have heard eight people speak. Two in-district residents and two teachers shared concerns about board conduct. Three people spoke in support of combining all sports with Carlton and the EMW president discussed the open forum the union will be hosting for all school board candidates in September.

The letter stated as fact that “our teachers are the 2nd highest paid in our area.” That is not true. When looking at the six closest districts in our area — including Wrenshall, Carlton, Cromwell, Moose Lake, Barnum, and Willow River — for the 2022-23 school year, on the low end of our salary schedule Wrenshall ranks sixth on the list and on the high end of the salary schedule it ranks fourth. The author also states that “staff pay and benefits account for 88% of our school budget.” That is also not true. The actual amount is 81% of the school budget goes towards the salary of all school employees. It’s hard to understand what that percentage even means but here is a statistic published in December of 2021 to put it into perspective: “The United States spent almost $657.5 billion on K-12 public schools in 2018-19, with 81 percent of that money going toward education employee salaries and benefits, according to figures published by the National Center for Education Statistics.” So it looks like Wrenshall is right on the national average.

The letter then asks “Why are teachers entitled to raises every year? Do you get raises every year?” Here are a few more statistics regarding public sector employee raises. Over the last 53 years, the average pay raise for federal employees is 3.59 percent and in only fiveof those years was there (no) pay increase. The pay raise for Minnesota state employees is generally around 2.5 percent per year, with variations both above and below. If you take the time to research a little, you will find that the vast majority of both public and private sector employees do receive a raise and/or a cost of living adjustment every year. For the 2021-22 school year, Wrenshall teachers received a $500 raise, which is less than a 1-percent salary increase on average and for the coming school year, a $1200 raise, which averages to around a 1.7-percent salary increase. Our (Education Support Professionals) unit, which includes our paraprofessionals and office staff, are still waiting to negotiate.

The author then goes on to state that maybe a reason for the teachers speaking out is because of “the crap they and the administration want to force on our kids.” This is in reference to the Outfront presentation for students that was canceled. The purpose of this presentation was to provide critical knowledge about the LTGBQ+ community that is age and situation-appropriate. We disagree that providing education and resources so all of our students can feel welcome and safe in our school community is “crap.”

The letter urged recipients to “ask about a survey students were uncomfortable with.” This is in reference to the Minnesota Student Survey from the Department of Education, which has been discussed at two previous board meetings but for those who weren’t there, all of the following information and more about this survey can be found on their website. This is one of the longest running youth surveys in the nation, beginning in 1989. It is an optional, anonymous survey given every three years to certain grade levels to gain insights into the world of students and their experiences. This survey is important because it is the primary source of comprehensive data on the health and well being of youth at the state, county, and local level.

All school districts are invited to participate in the survey but are not required. The survey asks students about their activities, opinions, behaviors and experiences including questions about school climate, bullying, out-of-school activities, healthy eating, emotional health, substance use and connections with school and family. Questions about sexual behaviors are asked only of high school students.

Parents may opt their child out and the students themselves can decide to not take the survey and even stop taking it once they have started if they choose. Prior to administering the survey, information is posted on the school website as well as sent home with students. Locally, survey results are used by school districts, public health agencies, and community nonprofits to plan programs and obtain grant funding to meet the needs of area youth. This includes the ability of our school to benefit from programs utilizing outside mental health and social worker resources that have been extremely beneficial to our students in the past.

The next question posed was if all this is because we are “mad about 3 failed referendums and that ALL of us wanted to demolish the rec building with the blessing of the previous board.” There is a whole lot of speculation here about what “ALL” of us wanted and we all know that going down the past referendum rabbit hole would keep us here all night. We would like to remind everyone that much of the planning and approval process for the improvements which have been taking place over the last year and a half, that the author of the letter approves of, were completed by the previous board. We do appreciate the work of our current board members to continue their vision and see the process through to fruition.

And, finally, the letter challenged “those who said such hateful stuff to provide proof: Who, What, Where, When?” We will share some recordings and examples of comments from board members that are racist, homophobic, inappropriate and unprofessional. We will not provide the who in this public forum (but we do have that documented). We have only included comments made in front of groups as those made in conversation or out in the community were not always witnessed by others. All of these examples were witnessed by at least three people, if not more.

During the principal interviews on May 13, 2021, Michelle Blanchard introduced herself and gave many reasons, including the experience and diversity she would bring to the school that would make her the right person for the job. After the interviews, when the board and hiring committee were discussing candidates, one of the board members said in reference to that answer by Mrs. Blanchard, “how Michelle introduced herself? African-American woman. She’s a woman.” This statement was then followed by a long discussion about not seeing color. Where another board member stated that she thinks Michelle said what she said because she is proud of herself and went on to say “because she is so light colored.” These are racist statements. This recording of this meeting was put up on the school website but was removed the next day.

At the June 16, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting, the Gay Straight Alliance Club was discussed. During the discussion, a board member stated, “I’ll never forget what a teacher told me one time when I was in school. Stuck with me my whole life. He told me all boys before puberty are homosexuals. That’s why they spend so much time in the showers.” The same board member also stated that they support the club, but then asked the members of the club to not be flamboyant like those famous people and “go around wearing dog collars.” The LGBTQ+ community was also referred to as “you people'' several times throughout the meeting.

At the August 11 Committee of the Whole meeting the board discussed using abatement bonds to redo the parking lot. A board member asked, “What if they dig up bones?” to which another board member replied, “I have a plan for that. Fence it off and bring in all the dogs from the dog pound. There won’t be any bones left.” This comment was in reference to the excavation in Fond Du Lac.

Mike Creger

Wrenshall activist Tony Sheda addresses the crowd before Monday's board meeting. Sheda and his wife recently sent a letter to Wrenshall area residents.

It was at the August 31 Special Board Meeting regarding the mask mandate when a board member repeatedly disrespected and mocked a parent. When concerns were brought up during this meeting regarding students and family members with pre-existing conditions, the same board member said that Covid is meant to take out the weak but the strong will survive.

Taken individually, you may think that some of these comments aren’t that bad or were taken out of context. But we can’t take them individually when it keeps happening again and again. It is not just one board member making these comments. These comments came from four different board members on several different occasions. We can’t even imagine being a member of one of these marginalized groups and hearing a representative of our school dehumanize us in this way.

We are not standing up because we are bitter about not getting what we wanted as the letter insinuates. We are standing up because these statements, beliefs, and accusations hurt our students, school and community. We are standing up because it is the right thing to do. We are standing up because if we don’t, nothing will change.”

 
 

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