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School Board president's leadership should be called into question, City Council president says

Grand Forks School Board President Doug Carpenter

A Grand Forks city leader called on the School Board to address the future of its president, and one board member is asking whether it violated open meeting laws.

The comments follow controversy over board members' handling of a report of a verbal confrontation by Superintendent Larry Nybladh, who agreed to step away from his duties until his June retirement. He will retain his title, attend certain events and help with teacher contract negotiations, but he said he will not be in the office.

School Board member Meggen Sande said Nybladh and Board President Doug Carpenter misled the Herald when they denied reports he was taking paid leave because of the incident, in which Nybladh yelled at district staff.

On Saturday, City Council President Dana Sande, Meggen Sande's husband, called for a special meeting to address Carpenter's role in the matter.

"In my opinion, the School Board should call a special meeting and call into question Doug's leadership as the School Board president," Dana Sande said Saturday. "As a citizen of Grand Forks who pays taxes for the school district, I am horribly disappointed in all of the leadership in the school district if this behavior has been going on and nobody had the guts to say this isn't right. ... Everybody who works in that building should be questioned."

The incident was the first time Meggen Sande heard a first-hand account of Nybladh yelling at staff members, but employees came forward with at least two separate but similar instances in which Nybladh yelled at staff.

Meggen Sande said the confrontation with staff was not physical and Nybladh was not being disciplined or being forced to take paid leave. But she was disappointed in how Nybladh and Carpenter presented the situation to the Herald.

"As far as the rumor you're hearing that I am taking PTO the rest of year, that is not true," Nybladh said last week before saying Saturday he would use paid leave to take the rest of the year off "because of all of the controversy" surrounding the verbal confrontation.

Nybladh told the Herald Saturday he didn't recall any other instances in which he yelled at employees, reiterating previous comments that he and his staff have a "good working relationship."

Carpenter, who is seeking re-election in June, disagreed with Dana Sande's statements.

"I think I've acted appropriately in this entire affair," Carpenter said Monday, adding it will be up to other board members to decide the future of his leadership.

When asked on Monday if the School Board should remove Carpenter as the board's president or from the board completely, Dana Sande said that would be up to the board members.

Open meeting laws

The School Board has nine elected members, but only board members Carpenter, Sande, Amber Flynn and Katie Dachtler knew about the incident or Nybladh's suggestion to take the rest of the year off using paid leave, Meggen Sande said.

Dachtler didn't attend meetings with Flynn, Sande and Nybladh to discuss the incident but said a special board meeting should be called unless an agreement was reached. Meggen Sande said she contacted board member Eric Burin to discuss a matter regarding Nybladh, but he didn't reply, she said.

Burin confirmed in an email to the Herald Meggen Sande had contacted him about "the episode" with Nybladh but said he didn't know "the precise nature" of the incident, which was reported to Meggen Sande on March 20. The two board members discussed procedures, policies and law.

"Over the weekend (after March 23), I started coming to the conclusion that initiating a formal disciplinary and/or conflict resolution process would be an appropriate course of action," Burin wrote. "However, by Monday, March 26, (Meggen) Sande informed me that the issue had been resolved."

Board member Matt Spivey questioned whether open meeting laws were broken or if school policy was violated.

"I'm pretty frustrated and upset myself because it sounds to me like Meggen Sande kind of did this on her own," Spivey said Monday. "I just can't see how that's legal to have any type of action on the superintendent without the board."

Other board members did not return messages left by the Herald on Monday seeking comment for this story.

Meggen Sande and Flynn said they contacted legal counsel for the North Dakota School Boards Association to ask how to proceed without violating open meeting laws. Five members would equal a quorum for a meeting, which must be advertised and open to the public.

Meggen Sande, who said she doesn't believe open meeting laws were violated, said she and Flynn did not go into the meetings to negotiate a solution but to notify Nybladh that they planned to ask for a special meeting.

"If the exact situation presented itself again, I think I would proceed exactly the way we did," Meggen Sande said.

Spivey said he wasn't accusing anyone of wrongdoing, but he is concerned about the integrity of the School Board.

"At the very least, I'm just very confused," he said. "At the most, I'm frustrated and question how this went down."

Moving forward

There are no written school district policies to handle the situation at hand, Meggen Sande said. Carpenter said, however, there is an understanding that staff with complaints should go to the accused's supervisor.

In this case, Carpenter and Spivey said the School Board president should address complaints against the superintendent. Carpenter said the employees involved in the verbal confrontation did not file a written complaint against Nybladh.

"I think that is getting lost in this whole thing," Carpenter said. "There was no complaint from the employees involved."

The route Flynn and Meggen Sande took was "out of the ordinary," Carpenter said, but he doesn't know if any open meetings laws were violated.

"I think it is highly unusual the steps they took," he said.

Meggen Sande said she didn't include Carpenter in the initial discussion because she felt he couldn't be unbiased toward Nybladh, a notion Carpenter denied in a Saturday phone interview.

"Yes, I have a close working relationship with Dr. Nybladh, as it should be between a board president and a superintendent," Carpenter said Saturday, adding no one has ever come to him about a problem with Nybladh before the incident. "Do I believe that I could be unbiased if a complaint or issue was brought to me? Absolutely."

School Board members need some time to ask questions, collect information and digest what happened, Dachtler said, so calling a special meeting likely wouldn't have happened immediately.

When asked how she would vote on motions to remove Carpenter as the board's president or from the board completely, Dachtler said she couldn't make that decision at the moment.

"I've been thinking about that question myself," she said.

Spivey and Meggen Sande also declined to say how they would vote.

"I don't have a lot of trust in Mr. Carpenter," Meggen Sande said. "Of course, it would have to be a full board decision. I don't know how that vote would go."

Carpenter said he feels he has done nothing to cause distrust on the board, and he trusts other school board members.

Dachtler and Meggen Sande said it is important to learn from this situation and improve communication with the public.

"I think, more than anything, I hope what is recognized is that type of behavior is not tolerated in a public school system," said Meggen Sande, an idea with which Dachtler agreed. "We don't tolerate it with the students, so there's no reason it should be tolerated in the administrative building."

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.

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