Board member raises question about allowing superintendent to make decision to change policy

Posted 2/2/22

Chair Davis says board working toward ‘cohesiveness’ By John McLoone Hastings School Board Chair Brian Davis expects some bumps along the road to cohesiveness on the new school board. The board …

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Board member raises question about allowing superintendent to make decision to change policy


Chair Davis says board working toward ‘cohesiveness’

By John McLoone

Hastings School Board Chair Brian Davis expects some bumps along the road to cohesiveness on the new school board.

The board seated three new members at its organizational meeting in early January. Much of the time at last Wednesday night’s meeting was spent on items where new board members had concerns or questions. Elected to the board at the November election were incoming directors Jessica Dressely, Mike Reis and Carrie Tate.

“We’re obviously a new board,” said Davis. “It doesn’t matter if we’ve been here two years or we’ve been here two weeks, we’re a new board. We’re learning to work together and work as a cohesive unit. Bear with us until we’re doing that.”

Reis then spearheaded a 40-minute discussion on whether the board policy or resolution can be made that gives the superintendent powers to change it without board approval.

Reis said that the district health and mask mandate passed in August has been changed by Superintendent Robert McDowell since, when new CDC guidelines are put into place.

Reis said he conferred with Terry Morrow, Director of Legal and Policy Services at the Minnesota School Boards Association, and he doesn’t believe the superintendent would have that power. McDowell and other board members countered with the fact that Morrow hadn’t seen the entire Hastings resolution and that his office specifically doesn’t give individual school districts legal advice. McDowell said school district attorneys helped put together the language for the health and safety measures that the board reviewed, and there is language in there indicating that the superintendent can make changes.

Reis had an email exchange with Morrow that he handed out copies of at the meeting, saying he received an email from Morrow too late in the evening to have time to send it to other board members.

“I blacked out some other stuff just to keep on topic,” said Reis. “I asked a question ‘Can a policy/resolution be made that gives the superintendent powers to change policy or resolution without consulting the board or requiring board approval?’” Reis said Morrow answered that board approval would be required to make the change.

Reis expressed the opinion that the policies, if changed, could be “invalidated.”

“We can’t just give permission to somebody else,” he said. “We can’t make a policy that overwrites a law.”

Davis said the item had been added in to allow McDowell to make changes because oftentimes, things come up that need to be dealt with quickly, especially when it came to adapting to new CDC quarantine guidelines that lessened the length of quarantines.

“We can give latitude to the superintendent to make some changes. We can give him some latitude so we’re not meeting every 30 seconds,” said Davis.

Of the MSBA, McDowell said, “They do not provide legal advice. They request you go to your own attorneys for that.”

He said the item in question “has been approved by our attorneys and was written by our attorneys.”

“The only thing I can tell you is we are not the only district that has passed this resolution,” said McDowell.

Countered Reis, “We’re getting conflicting information. This is a real big legal issue in my eyes.”

McDowell questioned exactly what Reis presented to Morrow.

“It is important for me to know when I go to our attorney, exactly what you shared,” said McDowell. “If he did not have all the information, including the full resolution as written, that could change what he gave as a response.”

Reis answered, “I specifically asked ‘Can you give the superintendent authority to make a change?’ He says no, it can’t be done. I don’t know what else to tell you there.”

Davis volunteered to speak to Morrow and present the resolution as drafted and report back to the board.

“We can get in a tennis match, and I don’t really want to do that. I’ll go back to Terry. I’ll let him read it in its entirety, and I’ll let him weigh in on that.”

Board Treasurer Lisa Hedin agreed that the district law firm needs to be consulted.

“To reiterate Superintendent McDowell’s point, I went to a session with Terry Morrow at the MSB Conference. He very clearly said, ‘I don’t carry malpractice insurance. I’m not giving legal advice. I would support going and getting a written response from the legal team we’ve hired as a district,” she said. “I’m concerned about this because we already paid them to write this. Now we’re going to pay for their time again, which I don’t think is a very efficient or effective way to operate as a school board.”

Director Stephanie Malm asked Reis, “Do you work in law?”

“No,” he replied. “Let’s leave it up to the legal professionals to decide this,” she said.

Davis stressed that it’s fine for issues to be brought up and that the board works things through.

“Let’s make sure we’re on the same page. “I’m fine with the fact that you raised this. We clear the air, and we move forward as a unit.”

Asynchronous Learning Days After discussion, the board agreed to hold asynchronous learning days on Feb. 18 and May 9. That means work will be sent home with students those days, and teachers and other school staff will have time to catch up on work and plan lessons. Staff will be available for students who need help that day, and there will also be full-time childcare offered.

“With our conversations with both administration and teachers, the one main topic that comes up is that teachers don’t feel there’s enough time,” said McDowell. “Your prep is used up because you’re covering a class.”

Because of a shortage of substitute teachers and teachers out sick, staff often has to cover classes during their free time.

“This would provide the teacher to be in at work and available if kids need help. They won’t have a classroom full of kids or be running online classes,” said McDowell.

Board members spoke out in support of the days. “This is a common approach,” said Hedin. “An asynchronous learning day also reaches out to other staff, the paras, the custodial staff. It can support them taking on different things. I would support us moving this to an action item.”

Said David, “This would be an opportunity for teachers to catch their breath while students are still learning those days. I would support it as well.”

“I think they probably need more days to say the least given our current climate. This is warranted,” said Malm.

There was the sentiment that kids don’t learn as well at home raised.

“My concern is the perception by the parents. I’ve seen a lot of emails. I’ve had a lot of concerns from parents. They don’t feel they’ve gotten a quality experience at home. It’s a different story when they’re in person,” said Tate.

Said Dressely, “I agree the teachers need this day to prep. They’ve been losing so much prep time. Teachers aren’t prepared because they’re doing other things. I also agree that students being out of class isn’t the best idea.”

Reis opposed the change for the two days. “So we want to make the kids not be in school even more?” he asked.

Reis voted against the plan.