Questions continue surrounding the departures of Executive Director Cliff Skagen and Director of Online Learning Stacy Bender from Crosslake Community School.

Skagen resigned from his position Friday, March 12, and Bender was terminated from her position. The reason for their departures reportedly stems from a conflict of interest regarding Bender hiring Skagen’s wife for marketing and communication services, which violates the school’s anti-nepotism policy.

The Lakes Area Kids Enrichment Foundation, the nonprofit group that owns the school building, sent a letter to the board - addressed specifically to board chair Cinda Jensen - with concerns regarding Skagen's and Bender’s departures, asking the board to clarify its decisions to both former employees, the school staff and the public.

Stacy Bender
Stacy BenderFile photo

The letter said Bender notified the board of the issue once she realized it was a violation and cooperated with the school’s attorney. The LAKE Foundation's opinion was that the punishment did not seem proportionate to the error made.

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"The LAKE Foundation is concerned about CCS’s lack of open and transparent communication to both employees involved, the staff and the public about the situation, and we are concerned about the lack of due process the CCS Board afforded both employees," the letter reads.

The LAKE Foundation was able to raise funds to build the new school building because of Bender's success in growing the online program, the letter said.

The LAKE Foundation asked the board to reconsider its decision regarding the actions of Bender’s departure, saying the board overreacted since Bender reported her own mistake and acknowledged her error with honesty. The letter said the board “did not follow the proper process for terminating an employee,” including not giving her access to certain investigative data.

Cliff Skagen joined Crosslake Community School as its director in January, just five weeks before the coronavirus pandemic struck the area. Submitte PHoto
Cliff Skagen joined Crosslake Community School as its director in January, just five weeks before the coronavirus pandemic struck the area. Submitte PHoto

A letter from attorney Jennifer Early of Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, P.A. - representing the school - argued that the investigation included a “great deal of data classified” regarding individuals other than Bender and Skagen, and therefore could not be shared.

Also, because Bender was an at-will employee and not a public employee, which means she did not have “any right to continued employment, prior notice of termination or even the obligation on the part of CCS to have cause for termination” and did not have a contractual right to appeal her termination.

In a statement submitted to the Northland Press, Bender said she was offered a cash settlement in exchange for her resignation. She declined, requesting the board take corrective action in the form of an unpaid leave, reduction of duties or decrease in pay.

“Charter school law does not carry penalties when they are broken,” Bender said in her statement. “The intent is that schools take corrective action to ensure that the same mistake does not happen again. Mistakes were made, but my request seemed reasonable.

“I am shocked that this is how the situation was handled, and I am very sad that this is how my service to the Crosslake Community School family has ended.”

The LAKE Foundation letter also said the board approved a separate resolution to accept Skagen’s resignation, and "the board’s action should have explicitly stated that fact, along with approval of what we presume was a settlement amount given to Mr. Skagen. The lack of awareness on the part of the CCS Board to provide the public with accurate information is very concerning."

Annette Klang
Annette KlangSubmitted

The board approved an interim leadership plan in a special meeting Thursday, March 18, giving leadership duties to online school counselor Holly Amaya, director of seat-based learning Jill Arendt and seat-based grades 3 and 4 teacher Annette Klang.

Attempts to reach board members for comment when actions first unfolded were unsuccessful. Joe Aliperto, president of Dieci School Finance in Roseville, said via email that he is fielding all questions on the board's behalf as board members are not doing any interviews. He shared the letter from the LAKE Foundation and the attorney's response to that letter.

Aliperto has been working with Crosslake School for more than 10 years as both financial adviser and human resources specialist.

Dan Determan may be reached at 218-855-5879 or dan.determan@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan.