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Pine River-Backus School Board: Board discusses public documents, new English teacher

Discussion of public records of communications was heated at the Monday, March 16, meeting of the Pine River-Backus School Board. Discussion began when board chair Lee Aimers shared information on public meeting laws that he learned at Minnesota ...

Discussion of public records of communications was heated at the Monday, March 16, meeting of the Pine River-Backus School Board.

Discussion began when board chair Lee Aimers shared information on public meeting laws that he learned at Minnesota School Boards Association board training. Aimers said emails that are sent to all board members are required to be available to the public, though information that is considered by law to be confidential must not be included. Aimers said that because of this issue, he would recommend the board delay hiring a new high school English teacher until emails pertaining to the hire were made publicly available with private details redacted. This initiated a complex discussion of laws regarding public documents.

"It says information emailed to board members in preparation for a meeting should be made available to the public at the meeting because of materials required in the open meeting law," Aimers said. "Private or confidential data must be redacted. It says board members should never send an email about school district business unless they are willing to have the whole world see it."

Board member Chris Cunningham later said emails that include a quorum of board members are also public. Aimers disagreed, saying the email must go to all board members to be required to be released to the public. He said this understanding came from the board's attorney.

Superintendent Cathy Bettino said the specific emails in reference concerning the potential hiring of a new high school English teacher were considered confidential, according to the board's attorney, and for that reason were legally withheld. Aimers disagreed.

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"If we got an email and we are going to vote on an issue, then the public has the right to view the email with the confidential parts redacted," Aimers said. "She (the board's attorney) suggested in this case we refer to the candidates as candidate A, B and C. I'm real hesitant to discuss it until we can get that out there."

Bettino said emails that are expected to be public are included in the board book, which is available for public reference, but that does not include documents that are confidential. Bettino said that was according to the board's attorney also.

"The part I send out that is confidential on occasion, the whole thing would be redacted," Bettino said. "The whole page would come back blank from the lawyer's office, so I don't include the confidential part in the board book."

Aimers said there are items in the confidential reports that he understands would not be confidential.

Cunningham asked if the board was at legal risk because of other emails starting when the board first began using email.

Board member Garny Gaffey said he believes the board has been sharing all public documents appropriately and would not be at risk.

"I don't think we've withheld any appropriate information from our public," Gaffey said. "It's been available to them. The information is available to the public. We are not withholding information."

Much of the discussion was specific to emails regarding the choice to hire a new high school English teacher from a pool of three candidates. During action items, Aimers indicated that one of the candidates was previously a teacher at the school and had not been granted an interview, though he thought she deserved one. He said he would oppose a decision at the March meeting to fill the vacant position with hopes that that applicant be granted an interview.

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Cunningham suggested Aimers wanted the unnamed candidate to be interviewed partially due to his familiarity with her, and asked if they would interview all candidates if the unnamed candidate was offered an interview. Board member Richie Bean said he understood the decision by the administrators not to offer an interview from a business standpoint, considering the candidate's decision to leave the school. He said they had no guarantee she would not leave again. Bean and Cunningham both said the unnamed candidate had been a good instructor for the school. They also said they were trusting the administration's decision on this subject, because it was board policy to allow the administration to handle such hirings.

Board member Katy Botz said she remembered a time when board members were involved in new hires. She suggested the board should consider that policy again.

Board member Jim Coffland said he didn't want to depend on the decision of administration, and referenced a time when a school administrator admitted to lying to him on important decisions.

The board ultimately voted to fill the high school English vacancy by hiring Eleanor Polus, as was recommended by administration. Aimers, Botz and Coffland voted in opposition. Cunningham, Bean, David Sheley and Gaffey voted in support of the decision.

In other business, the board:

• Learned that Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) efforts have expanded on school buses, previously the largest source of behavioral referrals.

• Streamed its first board meeting at stream.prbschools.org, and agreed to discuss streaming all committee meetings online at the next board meeting.

• Approved a calendar for 2015-16.

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• Adopted an agreement between Independent School District 2174 and the Minnesota Department of Transportation for the distribution of Safe Routes to School funding.

• Authorized posting for two Minnesota Reading Corp Literacy Tutors for the elementary school.

• Hired Rhende Hagemeister as long-term substitute teacher from March 2 until the end of the school year; Ryan Pahl as supplemental math teacher effective Feb. 10; Angela Merritt as cook effective March 16; and Ben Kinser as junior high basketball coach for the 2015 season.

• Accepted the resignations of Jessica Dalanch, behavior management specialist, effective at the end of the school year; custodians Brandon Sechser and Orlyn Steffen; and bus driver Lloyd Oney.

• Approved reclassification of Kim Johnson from behavior management specialist to paraprofessional effective March 5.

• Approved termination of paraprofessional Hope Crawford, with regret expressed by Aimers.

• Approved a child care leave of absence for Shannon Moran, high school special education teacher, from May 3 to the end of the school year.

Related Topics: SCHOOL BOARD
Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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