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FULL STORY: School Board member says Grand Forks superintendent, board president misled the Herald

Grand Forks School District superintendent Dr. Larry Nybladh.

A Grand Forks Public School Board member said the superintendent and board president misled the Herald when the newspaper asked if the head administrator was taking the rest of the school year off after a heated confrontation with staff.

School Board member Meggen Sande on Saturday told the Herald that Superintendent Larry Nybladh suggested three weeks ago he would use vacation time and pre-planned sick leave for the rest of the school year after he yelled at school employees during a closed-door meeting. The confrontation was not physical, said Sande, who heard the account from the employees involved.  

As a result of controversy surrounding the incident, Nybladh said, the superintendent will use paid time off to be out of the office until his retirement July 1. It's contrary to what Nybladh told the Herald earlier in the week.

“As far as the rumor you’re hearing that I am taking PTO the rest of year, that is not true,” Nybladh told the Herald on Thursday when asked about the incident.

The Herald published Nybladh's comments in Saturday's edition. Sande said Saturday afternoon Nybladh and Carpenter weren’t transparent with the Herald.

The initial verbal agreement included Nybladh attending his last School Board meeting on April 9. He also would attend graduation and an annual awards banquet. Other than that, he would not be in the office, Sande said.

Carpenter later told Sande that Nybladh could come into the office to work some days, including days on which teacher contract negotiations meetings were held or if he needed to attend meetings with his staff if they need him, Sande said. Carpenter confirmed Saturday in a phone interview that was his understanding.

“There was not in my mind -- and I know in Dr. Nybladh’s, there was not in his mind either -- this total blanket that he could not be in the office from April 10 through June 30,” Carpenter said. “I understand Meggen has a different interpretation or recollection.”

Sande and other board members believe Nybladh coming into the office goes against the agreement.

“I’m not happy with the way Larry and Doug presented this (to the Herald),” she said. “There is nothing that we have to hide. … If Larry would have just said what actually happened, it would be understandable. I don’t know why they just wouldn’t say that this is what was agreed on.”

When reached by telephone Saturday afternoon, Nybladh told the Herald there was some confusion and “different interpretations” about which meetings and events he should attend.

“Because of all of the controversy, I will be taking leave the rest of the school year,” he said, adding he will not be in the office but will be available by phone.

Without Nybladh’s suggested solution, more action was imminent, board member Katie Dachtler said, but she wouldn’t pursue the issue further because the verbal agreement of not being in the office was reached.

“That is our job as a School Board: to take care of the staff and district,” Dachtler said. “I agreed that we needed to have a special meeting if Dr. Nybladh was not able to agree to step down or do something of the equivalent.”

Assistant Superintendent Jody Thompson will be in charge in Nybladh’s absence.

The incident

Sande did not name the employees who informed her about the incident of “inappropriately raised voices,” but said she first heard of it March 20.

Sande got input from fellow board members Amber Flynn and Dachtler. Dachtler said she wasn’t involved in any meetings with Nybladh regarding the incident, but Flynn, who attended the meetings, corroborated Sande’s account.

Multiple people contacted the Herald claiming Nybladh had to be physically removed from the meeting and that he was being suspended as a result. It is a rumor Sande, Nybladh and Carpenter discredited.

Sande and Flynn consulted legal counsel from the North Dakota School Boards Association, seeking advice on how to handle the situation without violating open meeting laws. They discussed holding a special meeting but were advised they wouldn’t be able to speak publicly about the incident if they went that route, other than to say they were discussing “behavior unbecoming of our superintendent,” Sande said.

She said she wanted to protect the employee and resolve the issue without rumors spreading, especially if the board couldn’t address them.

“We were trying to not have a media circus, to be honest with you,” Sande said. “We were trying to respect everyone in this situation.”

Sande and Flynn met with Nybladh on March 22 to discuss the incident and a path forward, including intentions to call a special meeting of the full board, Sande said. He asked for time to think about it.

The two board members met again with Nybladh on March 26, and Nybladh invited Carpenter, Sande said.

That’s when Nybladh proposed taking the rest of the year off, and the employees involved agreed.

Carpenter suggested Nybladh attend teacher contract negotiations, and Sande agreed that was appropriate.

“As far as I know, he should be taking PTO the rest of the year,” she said of Nybladh. “That’s the verbal agreement that we had.”

The Herald filed an open records request of six weeks’ worth of emails, but the documents did not mention the incident or any agreement. Also, Nybladh has not had any formal complaints filed against him in the past year. The only request submitted by Nybladh for PTO as of Friday was for April 11-13, according to documents obtained by the Herald.

Flynn said she left the meetings with the understanding Nybladh would put in a request for taking the rest of the year off before the end of last week.

‘Unfortunate miscommunication’

School Board members Matt Spivey, Cynthia Shabb and Alma Torres Pierce said they were unaware of the verbal confrontation or the agreement. In his experience, Spivey said Nybladh has been very level headed, adding he was surprised by the Herald’s Saturday story.

“I am really out of the loop,” Shabb said of the situation.

Other board members did not return messages left by the Herald.

When asked about his previous comments about whether he was taking the rest of the year off, Nyblad said Saturday he was taking vacation.

“I didn’t get into the details,” Nybladh said of the previous interview. “I didn’t, of course, convey this meeting to you, either, but I felt I was giving you an honest interpretation of where I was at.”

The district was set to pay Nybladh $103,000 in unused sick leave and vacation time if he didn’t use any during the year, but Nybladh taking the rest of the school year off will save the district about $50,000, he said.

Sande, who is not running for her spot on the School Board when her term is up this year, said she initially wasn’t going to go to the media, but the Herald story prompted her Saturday interview. She also said she wouldn’t lie about the incident if asked.

She is “very disappointed” in Nybladh and Carpenter.

When asked if she believes Nybladh and Carpenter lied to the Herald, Sande said, “Yes, absolutely.”

“We have enough trouble with accusations of not being open and honest,” she said. “I’m not going to be a part of a cover-up.”

Nybladh said he didn’t mean to mislead the Herald, and he and Carpenter said they disagree with Sande’s comments that they lied to the Herald.

“I believe I have not lied to you or anybody else,” Carpenter said.

Nybladh said he wants the school district to move on from the situation, which he called “just an unfortunate miscommunication.”

When asked if there was a move to alert teachers, staff or the public that Nybladh was taking the rest of the school year off, Carpenter said, “No, because it wouldn’t be necessary to let anyone know.”

“It is standard protocol that when the superintendent is out of the district … Jody is the No. 2,” Carpenter said.

There is “question of transparency” with the School Board, Dachtler said.

“They didn’t necessarily need to show all of their cards in the conversation because it is a (human resources matter),” she said of Carpenter and Nybladh. “However, I do believe they did a disservice to themselves by not being more forthright about what parameters they could share.”

Flynn said she was elected to do a job that includes a high level of integrity.

“We all knew that as uncomfortable as this all was, we have a duty to hold people accountable,” she said.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

(701) 780-1248
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