After a video about inclusivity narrated by Pequot Lakes School District Superintendent Chris Lindholm made the rounds on social media and drew outcry from some community members last week, the Pequot Lakes School Board invited the public to hear the board’s thoughts on the situation during its monthly work session Monday, April 12.
The board did not take public comment at the work session, but will host a listening session for the public at 6 p.m. Monday, April 26. The April 12 session was moved to the high school auditorium, which was about two-thirds full, to accommodate the expected large crowd.
Lindholm began Monday's session by apologizing to members of the public for whom the video was “not appreciated and possibly even hurtful." He said the portion of the video shared was taken out of context and is one piece of a “larger effort” put together by Voice for Rural Resilience, with support from the Region Five Development Commission and the Department of Transformation.
"Over the past eight years, and especially six to seven years ago, I found myself and our team addressing staff who complained quite loudly about a district culture in which diverse opinions weren't listened to or honored."
— Superintendent Chris Lindholm
Lindholm said the video’s intent was to “highlight and celebrate” the work being done in rural communities in their efforts to be more welcoming communities, but cited some first- and second-hand accounts of more work needing to be done.
“Over the past eight years, and especially six to seven years ago, I found myself and our team addressing staff who complained quite loudly about a district culture in which diverse opinions weren't listened to or honored,” Lindholm told the board and crowd. “A couple of situations involving a transgender student needing to function in secret to avoid being bullied or harassed. One of those students ended up taking their own life, just a couple years after graduation. I personally witnessed staff hear students' racial and homophobic slurs and not confront them - they simply looked the other way.
“I heard from a parent of a high school student that is Black, that they were regularly being targeted due to their race out in public, in our stores and in our schools. In one instance, a young man pulled up a chair next to one of the girls in the classroom and asked when she got off the boat. That was in our classroom,” he said.
Middle school reading and language arts teacher Karen Rubado then spoke about the SEED Program - which stands for “Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity” and was at the crux of Lindholm’s video. Rubado was one of the district’s first educators involved in SEED, which is an optional program for staff to recognize their own biases and strive to create more inclusive learning environments. She serves as a SEED facilitator for the district.
Board member Dena Moody defended and praised the work done by the staff taking part in the SEED program - which she said is meant to help children - but expressed concerns surrounding the content and statements of Lindholm’s video.
“Mr. Lindholm, you are the chief administrator for the district and you are our salesman,” Moody said. “We task you with selling our district … and you were very judgmental, very self-serving and it was just appalling.
“We all see things from a different perspective, but I think it is unfortunate that you, being the chief salesman (for the district), did not realize that no matter who the audience was, you don’t start off the sales pitch by insulting.”
Her statement received applause from a portion of the crowd in attendance.
Board member Curt Johnson defended the track record and performance of Lindholm and the district as a whole during his tenure, but admitted he empathized with individuals in the community who felt wrongly accused of intolerance and discrimination by the video.
“For the last seven or eight years here, we have been doing pretty good as a district under Mr. Lindholm’s leadership,” he said. “In fact, I think we have had a couple of graduation rates that were 100%. I think we have done some things that are exceptional, but I want to keep that exceptional atmosphere going.”
Board member Derrick Johnson said he was taken off guard by the video, but said the “bigger message” of the video’s theme of inclusivity was more important.
Addressing the crowd regarding specific questions asked in emails to board members but left unanswered, board chair Kim Bolz-Andolshek reminded attendees that they as individuals cannot speak on behalf of the board, and discussions would take place during meetings and work sessions.
She also said she, personally, was disheartened that the individuals calling for Lindholm’s resignation or termination never asked for more information on the topic or asked for a one-on-one conversation. Though there have been several emails sent in opposition to the video, she said she received “as many, if not more” emails of support and gratitude.
"We all see things from a different perspective, but I think it is unfortunate that you, being the chief salesman (for the district), did not realize that no matter who the audience was, you don’t start off the sales pitch by insulting."
— School board member Dena Moody
“We have a superintendent who has been here for eight years,” she said. “He moved his family here, and his family is reading your comments with a child in this building. You have a right to dislike him or call him a scumbag, but I also take heed that I have been called those too and I might be tomorrow. I know that.
“What I have felt sadness over is that we have people willing to make statements for somebody who has served the district for eight years after a video that, I will tell you, I probably showed to 20 people and not one had the same reaction. What that speaks to is that this conversation is hard. I could have had any (board member) make that video and half of you would have asked, ‘Why did you say this that way?’”
While she did not defend the video, Bolz-Andolshek said in the eight years she has worked with Lindholm, she has never heard him talk about politics or post anything political on social media.
“We all have unconscious biases, and some of his did come out in that video. What I also want to say is that video was not made for students or put in classrooms," she said.
Dan Determan may be reached at 218-855-5879 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan.