Board reverses itself at illegal meeting

Accepts principal resignation that was rejected just days earlier

Tom Klein

REGIONAL – St. Louis County School Board members accepted the resignation of Principal Rachael Lehman at a hastily-called and illegal special meeting at Cherry on Friday.

Meanwhile, the superintendent has already offered principal positions for three schools to other candidates with little input from the board. Board members have to approve the new hires.

Frustration with the superintendent has prompted board member Nancy Wall Glowaski to seek action. She plans to introduce a resolution at next week’s school board meeting to put Teresa Knife Chief, who is leaving the district at the end of the school year, on administrative leave immediately. The meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Tuesday at the Cherry School.

“She should probably be fired, but that’s a long and expensive process,” said Glowaski. “I just want her out.”

Friday’s meeting was convened at the request of Superintendent Knife Chief, who failed to provide the required three days notice of the special meeting. In an email to the Timberjay, Knife Chief acknowledged that the meeting was not posted until late Tuesday. Jeanne Sopp, the superintendent’s secretary, said the notice was emailed to schools after 5 p.m. and acknowledged that some schools may not have posted the notice until Wednesday morning.

Mark Anfinson, an attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, said state law requires a minimum of three days posted notice before a special meeting. The district is also required to notify its official newspaper and other parties that filed written requests to be notified of meetings. But no emails alerting the district’s official newspaper or other media were sent, according to Sopp. Sopp said Knife Chief may have called the Cook News-Herald, but she was uncertain.

The Timberjay was not notified of the meeting because there was no written request, which must be submitted annually, on file, Knife Chief said. But the district’s policy also states that parties must be notified within 60 days when their annual notice is due. The Timberjay received no such notice, according to publisher Marshall Helmberger, so the district should have continued to notify the paper of all meetings.

Board member Chet Larson said he raised the issue of a lack of proper notice for the special meeting, “but nobody seemed to care.”

He pins the blame on Knife Chief, noting that she had told Sopp that she was going to notify everybody personally about the meeting. “She just keeps breaking the rules and the board does nothing about it,” he said.

Glowaski said Knife Chief called her Tuesday but never mentioned the special meeting on Friday. “She was upset that we had rejected Lehman’s resignation and told me that she was going to recommend her contract not be renewed anyway because she had already hired three new principals,” recalled Glowaski. “I told her the board hires principals.”

Knife Chief contends that all board members were notified on Tuesday via phone about the special meeting. “In fact, we did not post the meeting until late Tuesday so I could speak to each member personally,” she stated in her email.

“All I know is I wasn’t contacted,” said Glowaski. “I was left out of the process and I feel like it was on purpose. It’s so underhanded and dirty on Teresa’s part; I think the other board members should be upset. “

Board Chairman Robert Larson acknowledged the differing accounts on whether Glowaski was told of the meeting. “I’m concerned about how the whole situation was handled,” he said. “But I don’t want to dwell on it.”

But Chet Larson said the board should have never met on Friday. He cast the lone vote opposing the acceptance of Lehman’s resignation and said the chairman should have objected to the meeting, as well.

“And I believe Nancy when she said she wasn’t informed of the meeting,” he said.

New hires

Lehman’s resignation caught several board members by surprise and they questioned why Knife Chief would not renew her contract.

“I really do feel she is a top-notch principal,” said Glowaski of Lehman.

Chet Larson agrees. “Enrollment was up at both Northeast Range and Cherry under Rachael,” he said. “And she had done evaluations on all the teaching staff. What more can you ask of a principal?”

Chet Larson, Glowaski, Troy Swanson and Gary Rantala voted not to accept Lehman’s resignation at Monday’s meeting, but Swanson and Rantala both voted to accept Lehman’s resignation at Friday’s special meeting.

Knife Chief said the board could have waited until the next regular meeting on May 27 and had until June 30 to act on Lehman’s resignation. But she pushed for Friday’s special meeting “as a matter of respect for the principal” and to give her more time to find a new job.

Board member Lynette Zupetz said she was upset when other board members refused to accept Lehman’s resignation on Monday. Although she appreciated Lehman’s contributions, she said credit should also go to the deans at Cherry and Northeast Range. Kelly Engman, who served as dean at Northeast Range, is being recommended as the new principal at Northeast Range while Kristin Cooper, who served as dean at Cherry, was passed over in favor of Scott Hall, who currently works in the Leroy-Ostrander Public School District under ISD 2142’s new Superintendent Steve Salle.

Salle, who recommended Hall for the job, raised some red flags among some board members, who wanted the new superintendent involved in the principal selection, but didn’t envision him bringing a candidate with him from his previous district.

“It’s a concern,” said Glowaski, who said the board didn’t have enough representation on the interview committee. Only one board member, Swanson, took part in the interviews. Board member Jody Feist was supposed to serve on the interview committee, but was unable to get off work to attend the interviews.

Other members of the committee included Knife Chief, DaNeil Sirjord, Kristi Berlin, John Metsa and Sallee. Interviews were conducted on May 7.

Bob Larson conceded that if he had a chance to start fresh, he would want more board members involved in the interviews. He also said the board, not the superintendent, should have selected which board members would serve on the interview committee.

“Teresa has disregarded us,” said Glowaski. “There are so much shenanigans going on.”

In a letter to board members, Salle stated that Hall, Engman and Andrew Benard were his top three choices for the open slots at Cherry, Northeast Range and South Ridge.

“Each one of the candidates has different strengths that I believe will blend extremely well together as a team,” wrote Salle. “I went back and did some reference checking and this confirmed that we have three quality people that I believe will step in and do a great job.”

Knife Chief also praised the candidates recommended for the principal slots.

“Mrs. Engman has developed a love and passion for NER for a number of years,” said Knife Chief. “We look forward to watching NER continue to thrive under her direction.”

Knife Chief said Benard, who has been principal at the Northland Learning Center for six years, is “very excited for this opportunity and looks forward to working at South Ridge.”

Hall has experience in a variety of leadership roles, including chairman of discipline and staff development committees, and coordinator of student data, Knife Chief added.

But Chet Larson said he’s heard from district residents upset about the upheaval in the administrative ranks and there’s even talk of a petition to retain Lehman. He’s not sure how much good it will do, but he understands their frustration.

“We’re going on our fourth principal at South Ridge in a little over a year,” he said, noting that previous principals included Kristi Berlin, Liz Deen and Erin Cox. Deen left shortly after being hired because she found herself in conflict with Knife Chief and Berlin, according to Larson. Cox was appointed interim principal and will return to a teaching position next year.

“It’s no way to build stability in a district,” Larson said.


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