In the days after the Grand Forks School Board reversed its decision to cut seven teaching positions from next year’s budget, several board members cited a breakdown in the reduction-in-force process, a lack of necessary information and particularly the rushed pace of the proceedings as factors.

On April 12, the board voted 6-3 to eliminate the positions. At the board’s meeting April 19, the panel reversed course, restoring all seven.

Board member Shannon Mikula, a member of the board’s finance committee, told the Herald that a “robust process” had been developed, but that “it just didn’t get executed … in the way that they had envisioned, so there was just a breakdown somewhere.”

Before the start of April 19 reduction-in-force hearings for the teachers, Mikula said the administration made a general case for all of the RIFs, but it became clear that “they didn’t have the people there (at the meeting) to substantiate the necessity for the RIFs – they weren’t prepared to do that.”

Regarding the Artist in the Classroom program – which also was slated to be cut – Mikula was concerned that the administration had not involved constituent groups in the decision-making process.

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“It wasn’t just how it was going to be carried forward after the program was cut, but that they didn’t work in good faith with the ArtWise group and other constituents of that group to come up with a way to keep the program. But alternative funding sources and a refined budget was what we asked for at the Finance Committee,” she said. “And it was clear that that direction and that request from the board was not followed through on.”

The surprising reversal is the latest in the district’s ongoing discussions about budget cuts, financial shortfalls, potential school construction and school consolidation.

The RIF recommendation had been brought April 12 to the board by the district administration as part of a plan to trim $4.4 million from next year’s budget, the first step in an overall plan to cut the budget by 10% over the next two years. Cutting the seven teachers would have reduced the budget by approximately $400,000. That amount may have to be added to the budget reduction process, with a target of about $6.4 million, that is planned for the 2022-23 school year. It’s a process school leaders will have to carry out in the upcoming school year, said Doug Carpenter, who chairs the board’s Finance Committee.

“The problem was the rushed pace,” Mikula said of the board’s decision to cut the seven positions and change course a week later. “From presenting it to us at Finance Committee to coming to the board a week later to RIFs a week after that. I mean it’s a two-week process from us being really informed of the details and the process itself.

In the days following the April 19 vote, the Herald reached out to all nine board members to seek clarification on the process. Mikula, Carpenter, Bill Palmiscno, Cynthia Shabb, Chris Douthit and Jeff Manley all offered comments; Jacqueline Hassert and Amber Flynn, president of the board, did not respond.

Eric Lunn, who did not attend the April 19, responded but said “as I was out of town and didn’t participate in the discussions, including the executive sessions, I am unable to comment on it.”

Mikula said she heard from “a lot of different groups” and now, she believes the board and school administrators “have to own where we are, and we need to own how we got here – and we need to take a step back and recognize that many small decisions led to the situation we’re in now. And I think we as a board have to do better and be more accountable to the larger impact that these seemingly isolated decisions end up making. That’s been something I’ve learned through the last two weeks.”

The decision was unexpected. Even the teachers whose positions were cut, and then restored, have questions.

When contacted last week, Mary Kulas, whose full-time position as coordinator of the Artist in the Classroom program had been among the cuts, was at a loss for words concerning what the board’s action means for her and the program.

“I have no idea what that will mean; I haven’t been contacted. I truly do not know,” she said last week. “I know my ‘end of job’ has been lifted, but I don’t know what that means.”

Jeanne O’Neil, whose part-time job was to be cut but who was not among the seven who were eligible to request a RIF hearing, said she was “in shock” following the reversal.

“I’m astonished, because it looked pretty grim for the arts (at the April 12 board meeting). I don’t know what the reasons are, but I think it’s very sad if they cut all those arts and music positions, and so, for whatever the reason they’re keeping them, I’m happy about that, but I don’t know what the reason is.”

Kulas had requested a hearing at the April 19 meeting, along with several others, but it didn’t occur because after the first closed-session hearing for Alexander Barta, a Red River High School orchestra teacher, Brenner requested that the RIFs be rescinded.

When asked by Douthit at the meeting if there was “anything further we would be informed (of) as to the ‘why’,” Brenner said, “Based on the first conversation, I think it would be difficult for each of the next three hearings. I’ll just leave it at that.”

The School Board then unanimously approved the district’s request.

Insufficient information

Mikula said she felt the board had been asked to cut the positions without the administration presenting all of the relevant information.

“That was the burden at the hearing, first on the administration and then it shifts to whatever the party is that’s up for consideration,” she said.

When contacted by the Herald for comment, the district did not make Brenner available for an interview, but simply issued a prepared statement that mirrored one distributed to the media shortly after the April 19 board meeting.

The statement read: “On the evening of Monday, April 19, Grand Forks school system administration determined that it was in the best interest of the teachers involved to not proceed with the Reduction in Force (RIF) process this school year based on the discussions of the School Board in executive session. Each of the teachers involved will retain their employment with Grand Forks Public Schools.

“The administration recommended, and the School Board approved, that each of the teachers who waived their right to a RIF hearing would also retain their employment with Grand Forks Public Schools.

“Upon the guidance of the school district legal counsel and due to the discussions occurring in executive session under North Dakota Century Code, the school system will have no further comment.”

According to Mikula, “the problem that happened here was, all of the information wasn’t made available. And that was something that, in a one-week period of time, we had to figure out, we had to decide what is the decision we’re making. I don’t put it on the outcry (after the initial decision). I put it on people saying, ‘well, wait, I don’t think you considered all of the information,’ and the process that was being presented wasn’t how it actually played out. Again, I think that’s just a breakdown in application.”

"As a board, if we realize we don't have the material facts to make a decision, then it’s incumbent upon us to say we can’t make any decision until we have this information,” she said.

‘Need to work together’

Board member Bill Palmiscno echoed concerns about the district’s process of RIF decision-making.

“I think we just need to work on our process. It’s been 37 years since we’ve done this, and I think there were a few glitches that we noticed,” said Palmiscno, a Finance Committee member. “So I think this was best for everybody to revisit all that and move forward.

“And we accomplished our goal – not our total goal – but we still cut very close to $4 million that we needed to cut, so we still did that much. I guess I’d rather be comfortable with the process than rush it, because we didn’t have to do it.”

As school district leaders move on from this point, Palmiscno emphasized the need for a joint effort.

“I think we all, as a board, we need to work together, we need to just look at it together as a board,” he said. “I don’t think, as a board, we can lay this all on the administration to do this and that, because we have tons of things going on right now that they’re knee-deep in – or maybe neck-deep in, with the referendum, with the looking at budgets, and then with all the (contract) negotiations that are going on, and then with the legislators – how are we going to end up with the legislation when it comes out. So I think there’s enough work for everybody.”

Will the board’s decision mean the target for budget reduction in the next school year will increase by $400,000? Palmiscno declined to speculate.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I think we’ll have to wait and see what comes out of the (state) legislation. And we have to also take a good look at what federal money we can receive from the ESSER funds, because right now they’re very vague (on) what you can use them for, so it’ll be nice if they refine that, so we can look at that prior to next budget year.”

ESSER stands for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund, part of the federal CARES Act.

Lack of input

Board member Cynthia Shabb expressed similar concerns about the process.

“For me, the proof wasn’t there that all the stakeholders had been consulted with,” Shabb said. “The other thing that was disappointing for me was, I didn’t feel I had all the information about the role of (Barta)” whose position was to be eliminated, and a plan for how his courses would be provided going forward.

“It’s a general feeling of a lack of planning with how the reductions were going to be handled,” she said.

Further, “I felt the process was rushed,” said Shabb, who also raised questions about the timeframe for RIF decision-making at the April 12 board meeting, and was one of three members who voted against the RIF recommendation when first brought by the Finance Committee.

She also wants more clarification on how federal ESSER funds may be used to help school districts recover from the impact of the pandemic.

About the April 19 vote to cancel the cuts, she said, “As a (board) member, I was also holding everybody accountable, so to speak, because you want to make sure you have a fair process. These are people’s lives at stake.”

Carpenter said he voted, along with Manley, to approve the RIF of the first and only position that was voted on in open session – a position held by Barta – because “I believe the case had been made in support of that RIF.”

“Is there any process that’s perfect or that some may have questions about? Certainly, but I felt the administration had made their case on the first one. And that’s why I voted to support that RIF, but the majority of the board disagreed with that,” Carpenter said. “Then after that is when the administration decided to pull the other requests.”

All board members voted to approve the administration’s recommendation to rescind all the RIFs. Carpenter said he voted in favor of the administration’s request to rescind all RIFs, because the administration requested it.

“I would have liked to have had all the RIF hearings proceed, but the administration, they made a determination that it was in the best interest of the district to not move forward, so I wasn’t going to object to the district’s decision.”

Because the $400,000 in teacher position cuts will not come out of next year’s budget, that amount may be added to the $6.4 million in cuts the Finance Committee is targeting for the 2022-23 school year, Carpenter said.

“I’m anticipating that it’ll get pushed to next year. We’ll have a larger number to try to get to next year,” he said.

Board member Douthit said that he couldn’t discuss what occurred in executive session, but he voted in favor of the administration’s request to rescind the RIFs because “when (Brenner) made the request – knowing what has been done on this – if he made the request, I trust him. It appeared to be the best step that could be taken. If it wasn’t, he wouldn’t have made the request.”

Brenner’s request may have been made based on input from legal counsel, Douthit said, but he was uncertain about that.

Board member Manley said in an email to the Herald, “I will make no assumption as to why the administration changed directions here, I was not involved in those discussions.

“If the administration recommends the board approve RIFs and later retracts that recommendation, I see no reason why the board would continue to move forward with the reduction in force despite that change in recommendation,” Manley said.

Citizen comment

Among those who have addressed the board and watched its members wrestle with this issue is Naomi Welsh, the parent of a Grand Forks Central High School student and long-time music teacher in this area.

Welsh said the board’s decision to reverse the RIFs “indicates how much our community values its education system and the arts, and that people in Grand Forks believe that equity in arts education matters.

“I thank the school board members who listened to the community voices and asked tough questions, and I also thank the administration for recognizing that hard decisions may need to be made with more levels of input in future,” she said in an email to the Herald.

“I’m proud to know so many fantastic school teachers and involved young people, and appreciate that there is a place for citizens to express their opinions about decisions that impact our entire community.”