By John McLoone
There’s never been a school board meeting quite like the Hastings Board of Education held Wednesday, April 27.
Correction: it was held Wednesday into Thursday and tabled to be picked back up Monday night. The initial meeting spanned 61/2 hours before being adjourned because of the late hour.
It was broken up by two recesses so Superintendent Dr. Robert McDowell could confer with counsel and the Minnesota School Board Association. Board members sparred about adding things to the agenda for the night’s business. That agenda didn’t get approved for two hours.
At four hours and eighteen minutes in, Director Mike Reis left the meeting, citing another engagement.
At five hours in, noticeably weary and sometimes emotional board members tackled the main item for contention for the night: possible action against Reis.
The board met often through the meeting with the school district’s attorney, John Edison, who was invited to sit before the board several times.
Photo courtesy of Hastings Community TV The final item on the board agenda was a closed session for “Preliminary consideration of allegations against an individual.” Discussion was posted as a closed session. However, the allegations were being made against Reis, and prior to leaving he requested that they be held in open session.
“I verbally heard him state before he left that he asked for the discussion to take part in open session and others heard that too,” Edison told the board.
The “case” against Reis involves communication with the superintendent and other board members, demands for information he emailed sometimes a couple times a day and for sharing board information via email with the Hastings Journal and Hastings radio station KDWA.
The Hastings Journal in its April 20 edition published an article containing a sampling of the emails sent over the period of several weeks and published an article on district information/ data requests, showing a large number of them being filed with the district office. A majority of those requests were from Reis. (During the meeting, McDowell read a response to the April 20 article. It’s published on page 7.)
Edison told the board that he has represented school districts statewide on a full range of issues.
“I bring to the table experience and have worked through issues for school districts all over the state of Minnesota,” he said. “I think that context is important just so you know who I am and where I’m coming from.”
Reis has contended that he and the other two members new to the board this year – Carrie Tate and Jessica Dressely – are treated differently than other board members and have a hard time getting information from the school district.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about unequal treatment. As I view what we’re about to discuss, this goes way beyond all of that,” said Edison. “You have one board member who is doing things that are inappropriate in a lot of ways. This is something the board needs to discuss.”
Edison presented two options to the board: either pass a resolution condemning Reis’ actions or to censure him, the latter being a more severe action. He said acting to remove Reis from the board is not under consideration, but could be in the future if things don’t’ improve.
Edison raised several issues of concern.
“The first is in what I’ve seen in emails, there’s been conduct to essentially try to direct the work of the superintendent. He hasn’t been given authority to do that,” said Edison. “I’m talking about things like sending a request for information, and then when you don’t get a response, sending the exact same thing the next day.”
He said it’s an “unreasonable expectation any board member should have on your district administration, to expect they’re just going to drop everything. It’s inappropriate.”
Edison went on to state that Reis breached attorneyclient privilege, by emailing a memorandum from him labeled as “confidential.” It was noted during the meeting that the content of that memo was basic board member conduct information, and it didn’t contain “confidential” information.
That Reis passed on that information “cannot be disputed. There’s email correspondence that proved this happened,” said Edison.
“He sent a privileged memorandum to others including the media. I view that as a very, very serious issue that the board should address,” said Edison.
He said that even if the information contained in the memo wasn’t necessarily private data, “That’s not what this is about. This is about one of you unilaterally sharing privileged information without the authority of the full board.”
“The letter I sent the board said it was privileged and should not be shared to outside organizations,” said Edison. “It calls into question whether any confidential information can be shared with a person. Is that person going to start sharing private information about an employee situation, a student situation, all that stuff. You are trusted with a lot of sensitive information in your positions. You have to respect that trust. There is a disrespect of that here.”
Another item of contention the attorney presented is “just the volume of requests for information. There is no comparison in terms of the frequency and volume of information he’s requested from the administration to any of you sitting here as a board.”
“By and large, I know there are disagreements here about various things,” said Edison “Some of you feel you don’t have the same access to information as others. This isn’t a new board member vs an old board member situation. It’s a situation where there’s one of you who is taking up an inordinate amount of district administration time and doing it in an extremely disrespectful way, sending the same request multiple times throughout the day. That’s not appropriate.”
Forwarding information to the media was Edison’s final contention against Reis.
“The other thing that is a concern is there have been allegations made directly to the media about district representatives, including some people who are in this room tonight,” said Edison.
Reis had emailed and copied the media with a concern that the closed session at the meeting was not posted correctly.
“There was an email sent to the media yesterday alleging there are illegal violations of the Open Meetings Law. At no point did member Reis seek clarifications. Had he done that, he would know things were done properly. There’s a protocol about how complaints are to be made against people. He sent an email to the public that made false allegations against employees,” said Edison.
In short, Edison argued that a resolution or censure are necessary because actions were more serious than can be handled under board member code of conduct policies.
“If this continues, there could be an issue in the future where you could face liabilities if this type of disclosures continues,” said Edison. “This is behavior you don’t endorse. When he’s doing it, he’s acting in his own capacity.
“I’m hopeful that all of you will take a step back from some of the differences of opinion you have had and look at this and say ‘Is this how a board member should act?’ ” He said that either the resolution or more formal censure would be “more or less a reprimand that would be imposed by the board. It’s commonly done when there’s concern about an elected official’s behavior,” said Edison.
“There are other things the board can do if this type of thing continues,” Edison said, noting Reis could be removed from committees or ultimately removal from the board.
“No one is recommending or talking about that right now,” Edison said. “If this kind of stuff continues, we could get to that point.”
Edison said that he tried to arrange a meeting with Reis to talk about conduct and concerns, but Reis wouldn’t solidify a time or date. McDowell said that Reis has been difficult to work with, as he won’t take or return the superintendent’s phone calls “I would add Mike’s the only board member that refuses to take a phone call. I have documented numerous unreturned phone calls to him,” McDowell said. “That’s a problem. The district doesn’t function with only one way of communication. All of you have experienced that as well.”
He said he tried to answer questions Reis has on, for example, teacher contracts.
“Again, he didn’t show up on that,” said McDowell. “I share those only as examples. It’s ramped up exponentially in the last month if not the last two weeks. It is a pattern of behavior.”
After Edison handed out copies of the legal resolution and censure documents, the board held discussion and decided to table the matter. The meeting ended just after 12:30 a.m.
“It’s late. I can’t comprehend what the law says on a good day let alone after six hours, and I have to be up in four,” said Becky Beissel.
Monday, 6 p.m.
Davis called the meeting back in session. Edison offered a refresher and urged the board to pass one of the two resolutions, either the one disavowing Reis’ conduct or the one censuring him.
Tate asked whether there was an appropriate time to read an email response to the charges Reis sent to the board members at 5:34 p.m. Monday. Edison suggested that since the board members were all emailed a copy of that response, they should read that on their computers. Davis called a 20minute recess so board members could review that and emails sent previously that were the genesis of the complaints.
Dressely also asked who came up with the idea of passing a resolution. Edison said he conferred with Mc-Dowell and also had conversations with Davis and Stephanie Malm in their leadership positions on the board. Malm is vice chair.
The introductory paragraph and closing paragraphs of an email Reis sent to the board was read aloud by Davis at the meeting. It was not available to the public.
Reis said he couldn’t attend the night’s meeting because of prior commitments. He said he started emailing media because he wasn’t getting answers to questions and his requests were being ignored. He said that the Constitution guarantees free speech and that he feels board actions should be transparent.
“I didn’t even get a copy of allegations for the closed meeting,” said Reis. “I want to be able to focus on the children and education but if board members keep refusing to assist, help, mento, even discuss things, then how can we ever get anything done? I exposed all this to allow the public to see that the new board members are trying to do what we were elected to do.”
Malm commented, “It would have been nice to hear this from him directly. We haven’t been afforded that opportunity in four months…to get to know each other and understand his position.”
Edison said the statement underscored the need for the board to censure.
“There’s no ownership in some of the concerns that have been raised. He still doesn’t understand the severity of disclosing confidential information,” he said.
Tate expressed surprise that going into Wednesday’s meeting, resolutions were already drafted, and that case against Reis had already been organized.
“Getting to this point on Wednesday night, there were a lot of surprises at the board table,” she said. “There was a lot of work done without board approval and without board knowledge. We don’t hold power individually. We hold power as a whole.”
She said that there should have been attempts to speak with Reis ahead of time, before it got to this point.
“There has to be a recognition that there should have been some other communication before getting here, some mentor discussion,” said Tate. “If the pattern began that long ago, there were opportunities to provide feedback to him before it got to this point.”
“It’s a level of frustration that Jessica and I share with Mike. It’s a feeling as though we are not members of this board, to be completely honest,” said Tate. “All of that has led to where we are now. Mike obviously handled it different, but I feel it, for sure.”
The board wrapped up discussion. Hedin made the motion for the resolution of censure, Beissel seconded it, and it passed 42. In favor were Davis, Malm, Hedin and Beissel. Opposed were Tate and Dressely.
The resolution states the accusations against Reis and guides how he will communicate with the district.
The resolution states: “Given the issues outlined above, the School Board hereby formally authorizes Superintendent McDowell with input from Chair Davis to work with the District’s legal counsel to place appropriate and reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on Mr. Reis’s communications with District staff. The time, place, and manner restrictions will be revisited on a 30day cycle by legal counsel,, Superintendent McDowell, and Chair Davis.
“Mr. Reis is not to engage in the same or similar conduct as that discussed above. If he does, the School Board reserves the right to impose additional disciplinary action, including but not limited to pursuing his removal from the School Board.”
Photo by Bruce Karnick
Photo by Bruce Karnick
Photos by Bruce Karnick
Photo by Bruce Karnick
Photo by Bruce Karnick
Photo by Bruce Karnick