Rustad admits to plagiarism, lying

Before its Dec. 10 meeting, the St. Francis District 15 School Board will know what an administrative hearing officer has recommended should be done about Boardmember Matt Rustad.

Matt Rustad. File photo by Tammy Sakry
Matt Rustad. File photo by Tammy Sakry

Rustad submitted a 2010 blog entry written by Vernon Smith on the topic of paperless school districts as his own in the September edition of The Courier, the District 15 monthly newsletter.

During the nearly four-hour Nov. 14 administrative hearing before a hearing officer, Rustad admitted under oath, while being cross examined by District 15 attorney Amy Mace, that he intentionally plagiarized, lied when confronted and created an alterative article the day he found out that he had got caught in hopes of passing it off as the article he had planned to turn in for the September issue.

He chose paperless districts because it was a subject he brought up at the end of January or early February, but it was shot down by the board, Rustad said.

“I thought I would bring up the topic again with more substantial benefits (listed),” he said.

According to the Feb. 13 board meeting minutes, Rustad suggested purchasing iPads for the school board members to make sure each of them had similar access to technology.

The minutes do not include mention of promoting a paperless school districts.

Rustad said his research on paperless schools started with a web search and he copied an article he saw and pasted it into a computer file for easy access.

He made a bad decision when he submitted that article as his own, Rustad said under cross examination.

When a meeting took place Sept. 10 between District 15 Superintendent Ed Saxton, Human Resources Director David Lindberg, Community Education Director Troy Ferguson, Board Chairperson Marsha Van Denburgh and Rustad, he initially denied he plagiarized, according to Rustad.

“I did not want to admit to it,” he said under cross examination.

Rustad initially claimed he accidentally sent the research file in rather than his finished article.

But by the end of the Sept. 10 meeting, Rustad admitted to the plagiarism and apologized, he said.

But Rustad also testified at the administrative hearing that the apology he prepared for the Sept. 10 meeting was based on a lie and he never corrected the apology letter.

Under oath, Rustad admitted to creating an alternative article following Van Denburgh’s call notifying him of the Sept. 10 meeting.

Rustad said he felt that censuring and his letter of apology was enough of a punishment.

While he never read his letter of apology at a open board meeting, Rustad testified that his letter was published Oct. 12 on a blog run by William Gardner and that he believed that to be sufficient.

While the opening statement of Luke Enno, Rustad attorney, claimed that the proposed action to remove Rustad from the board was based on “preference of some board members to see him removed no matter what,” Rustad said he believes the drive to remove him is directly related to the plagiarism.

But it is Rustad’s opinion that the school board is overstepping its authority by trying to remove him, he said.

Rustad testified that he is being harassed by some of his fellow board members because they keep bringing up the plagiarism issue, which should have been put to rest after the Sept. 24 censure that was unanimously approved by the board.

Rustad later admitted under oath that the board members are reporting on the calls and community comments they are receiving during their individual board reports.

While in an Oct. 3 article in the StarTribune, Rustad claimed he did not know a lot about plagiarism, he admitted during his testimony that he had received information on proper citations at the college attends, National American Academy in Brooklyn Center.

Submitting an article he did not write was “my mistake,” Rustad said.

Rustad violated the school board’s code of ethics and his behavior has led to the majority of the board to doubt his credibility, Mace said in her opening arguments.

According to Lindberg in his testimony at the hearing, Rustad’s story surrounding the circumstances of the plagiarism changed three times.

After admitting he did not write the article at the Sept. 10 meeting, Rustad then blamed stress related to school, work and his writing insecurities for his decision, Lindberg said.

In the StarTribune article, Rustad claimed that he thought people reading his article would understand it was not his work by the attribution at the end of the article.

Saxton testified he did a Google search using the first sentence of Rustad’s article after receiving calls from community members and district staff claiming the article was plagiarized and found the Smith article.

Since the article was published, he has had well over 100 calls, emails and in person comments from community members, PTO parents and school staff asking about what is being done and what they should the tell the students who are asking about the situation, Saxton said when asked about the community reaction.

Boardmember David Anderson testified that Rustad’s actions were deliberate.

“It was a planned effort to deceive the public and the board,” he said.

The whole board was not told the original reason given for the article, that Rustad had submitted the wrong file, until much later, said Anderson, who made the motion for the board to consider remove Rustad at the Oct. 24 board meeting.

The only thing Rustad told the whole board on the issue was that he made a mistake and he learns from his mistakes, Anderson said.

While Boardmember Amy Kelly, Van Denburgh and Gardner testified they believed Rustad apologized, Mace said the meeting tapes confirms Rustad said, “I made a mistake. I learn from my mistakes.”

Email correspondence between Gardner and Smith following Rustad’s plagiarism were submitted into evidence, but not read at the hearing.

According to the emails, Gardner said Rustad had made an honest mistake.

“I don’t know what his intentions were. I think he made an honest mistake,” Gardner testified.

When asked by Mace if Gardner still believed the mistake was honest, “knowing what I know now from (Rustad’s) testimony, I would probably change my opinion,” he said.

Gardner also admitted to never seeing the original blog entry or the article submitted to The Courier.

He said that the censure was appropriate and should be the final punishment because the district released a document claiming the censure was the final disposition in the case after the Sept. 24 meeting.

The question is if there is proper cause to remove Rustad, Enno said.

The state statute governing school board removals by a vote of the school board does not give a clear definition on proper cause, he said.

In a 2010 case, a school board member was removed from his position because there were several violations, but in this case there is a lack of proper cause, Enno said.

Rustad has admitted to the plagiarism, he is contrite and the board has already censured him, he said.

While Van Denburgh agreed that what Rustad did was wrong and is likely the worse offense in an educational setting, she does not want to see Rustad removed.

She is concerned that without a clear definition of proper cause, this could be unconstitutional and lead to lengthy legal ramifications for the district, Van Denburgh said during her testimony.

Censure, which carries no penalties, was enough, she said.

Tammy Sakry is at [email protected]