Bullying, harassment and intimidation mark Hastings school board in 2022

There was a shakeup on the Hastings School Board last November when three parent-centered school board candidates swept to victory, defeating two incumbents in the process. While Hastings voters cheered the results, the remaining four board incumbents, the superintendent and the Minnesota School Boards Association hunkered down and prepared for a fight.

From the moment these three reformers were elected, they have been bullied, harassed, intimidated, censured and disrespected by the education establishment in Hastings. New board member Mike Reis finally had enough and announced he was quitting the board after being censured by the majority this summer. A special election to replace Reis is scheduled for November 8, 2022.

Reis, Carrie Banaszewski Tate and Jessica Dressely made big news by defeating two board incumbents in the 2021 election, including board chair Kelsey Waits. Waits immediately tried to blame her humiliating election loss on the “outing” of her eight-year-old child as transgender, even though she previously posted about the transition on Facebook “so friends and family could understand.”

The establishment’s reaction to Wait’s loss set the tone for how these newcomers would be treated by the remaining majority board members and the superintendent. Right after the November election, the lame-duck school board met and approved Policy 215, setting up a new procedure to discipline, censure and even remove fellow board members.

The last sentence is ominous: Categories 2, 3, and 4 are intended for extreme and/or repeated instances of violations where Category 1 has not resulted in a change in member behaviors. A change in member behaviors? They are elected officials!

The majority has since used Policy 215 against all three of the new board members. Jessica Dressley was harassed in a board meeting for her involvement in removing mature content from the school book fair after being told to do so by the organizer of the fair. Carrie Tate was questioned under the policy for casting an opposing vote on a proposed teacher contract – citing the questionable legality of some of the terms and that the contract had numerous errors. After chastising Tate for daring to speak up, the majority passed the error-ridden contract anyway.

Red flags were also raised during their initial indoctrination, I mean, orientation session. With help from the Minnesota School Boards Association, a consultant was brought in to indoctrinate the new members on how things actually work in a school district. If Reis, Tate and Dressely thought they were duly elected by the voters of Hastings to exert control over the policies and procedures of the school district, they were mistaken.

According to the consultant from Teamworks International, Dennis Cheesbrow, school board members have little power and should defer to the superintendent and staff for most decisions. The training distinguished between “governance,” provided by the school board and “management,” provided by the superintendent. The basic message of the training is to let the superintendent run the school board and stay out of his way.

The consultant told new board members that school boards have perceived power but have no actual power or say over the management of the district. They should trust the superintendent and not seek to understand the management of the school district.

This orientation for new members is not unique to Hastings — the MN School Board Association sponsors these sessions all over the state. But it does beg the question: Why elect school board members in the first place if you’re going to neuter them right after the swearing in session?

Mike Reis refused to be neutered and tried his best to represent the people of Hastings as the district navigated a return to school following the pandemic. Instead of cooperating with Reis, Superintendent Bob McDowell, with the backing of Board Chair Brian Davis, stonewalled him at every turn, denying Reis information about school district operations. As Reis’ frustration grew, he resorted to data practices requests from an organization he was elected to oversee, and shared his requests with the local press.

That caused Davis and McDowell to move to censure Reis (using Policy 215), with the taxpayer supported attorney laying out the charges in dramatic fashion at a public school board meeting. The censure motion included restrictions on the time, place and manner of communications Reis could have with district staff, effectively making it impossible to do his job.

After he resigned, no one in Hastings applied to take over in the interim before a new member could be elected this November. Can you wonder why? Three candidates filed to run for the vacancy including Todd Kullman, who is endorsed by the Minnesota Parents Alliance. Kullman will face Mark Zuzek, a former teacher, principal and superintendent and Pam Onnen, a substitute teacher.

Parents and voters in Hastings should not let the bullies dictate who will represent them on the school board.