Elk River school board tries to bully new members

There’s a disturbing new trend developing in Minnesota with superintendents and school board chairs bullying conservative members into submission through phony “investigations” for not following school district policy. This week, the Elk River School Board voted to censure two of its members after one of these lengthy investigations produced petty charges of being late to meetings and not being prepared for discussions.

If you can’t beat them at the polls, bully them in the board room, I guess.

At the direction of the school board chair and superintendent, the district’s law firm spent months interviewing people and reviewing emails in their “investigation” of board members John Anderson and Mindy Freiberg. Anderson and Freiberg are both new board members elected in 2022 with the support of the Minnesota Parents Alliance.

District lawyer and paid attack-dog Michael Waldspurger then breathlessly walked through the charges as if he was their boss and this was a year-end employee review.

Late for meetings.

Unprepared for meetings.

Talked to legislators about district priorities without authority.

And the ultimate sin: failure to follow Policy 209.

Good ol’ Policy 209. A similar policy was used against Hastings School Board Member Mike Reis in 2021 during his censure, by the same law firm. In both cases, the school board chair let the attorneys speak in a condescending and disrespectful manner towards these elected officials.

Policy 209 comes from the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) model polices for school districts and serves as a code of conduct for members. Most districts in Minnesota have adopted the exact language of Policy 209 from the MSBA.

The purpose of this policy is to assist the individual school board member in understanding his or her role as part of a school board and in recognizing the contribution that each member must make to develop an effective and responsible school board.  

Policy 209 and school board governance are at the heart of the current battle for control of Minnesota school boards. Ironically, the MSBA believes school board members have very little power. Once they hire the superintendent, they are supposed to get out of the way and let them run the school district. Do not talk to staff. Do not even answer constituent emails — just forward them to the superintendent for guidance.

From Policy 209:

  • Remember my responsibility is to set policy – not to implement policy.
  • Recognize that my responsibility, exercised through the actions of the school board as a whole, is to see that the schools are properly run – not to run them myself.
  • Work through the superintendent – not over or around the superintendent.
  • Delegate the implementation of school board decisions to the superintendent.
  • Recognize the status of the superintendent as the chief executive officer and a non-voting, ex officio member of the school board.
  • Support the decision of the school board, even if my position concerning the issue was different.

Under this model, it’s unclear why we even have an elected school board. Why not just elect the superintendent and get out of the way? Lawyer Waldspurger repeatedly referred to “training” he provided the Elk River School Board as he read through the charges against Anderson and Freiberg. He accused Anderson of being unwilling to accept the position of the superintendent on a policy matter, even though “I addressed this issue in training in July” and “I specifically gave advice to the board that no violation had occurred.” In other words, elected board members have no right to disagree with the superintendent or his lawyer.

I happen to serve on the city council of a small suburban city and can tell you I would be outraged if my colleagues tried to censure me for a petty list of grievances and policy disagreements like we’ve seen in Hastings and Elk River. School board members need to remember who they answer to — the citizens who elected them! Not the superintendent, not their colleagues, and certainly not the lawyers.

Member Freiberg from Elk River appears to understand this as she told the board and their lawyer the investigation was “just nuts.”

“I work for the people, this is a sham of an investigation. This won’t stop me from talking to people, it didn’t work.”

It didn’t work in Hastings either as this year a majority of parent-backed candidates took over majority control of the board. Look for the same thing to happen in Elk River after the 2024 election. Revising Policy 209 should be the first thing on the new board’s agenda.