The St. Francis District 15 School Board removed one of its own Monday.
The board voted 4-2 to remove Boardmember Matt Rustad after he was caught plagiarizing.
Chairperson Marsha Van Denburgh and Boardmember Suzanne Erkel voted against the removal. Rustad also voted no, but his vote was not counted.
The vote came after a recommendation for removal by Administrative Hearing Officer James Martin following a Nov. 14 hearing on the issue.
Rustad had plagiarized a 2010 Iste Community Ning blog entry by Vernon Smith, technology director of Socorro Consolidated School in New Mexico, on paperless school districts in the September issue of The Courier, the district monthly newsletter.
During the Sept. 24 board meeting, the board voted unanimously, including Rustad, to censure him. A censure carries no penalties.
The majority of the board reconsidered the censure in October because it thought that censure was not punishment enough after getting feedback from community members, staff and students.
Martin recommended Rustad be removed based on his ever changing story on the plagiarism of an article he submitted to the The Courier and then creating a false, alternative article after being caught.
“Rustad may have made a mistake and may be apologetic for his action, but his every changing story and his less than forthright acceptance that he actually engaged in plagiarism justifiably raises questions regarding his integrity with some in the community and with members of the school board which is detrimental to his ability to serve as a member of the school board,” Martin wrote in his recommendation.
Martin also found Rustad’s violation of the board’s code of ethics policy constituted proper cause for his removal.
The hearing was a legal court, it was not impartial and he was not aware he could call witnesses, said Rustad, but he had two witnesses to testify for him at the Nov. 14 hearing.
Rustad also contended that everything he submitted was discredited for no apparent reason.
Before the board could discuss his removal Monday, Rustad had requested the case be removed from the agenda as he had received an administrative opinion from the Minnesota Department of Administration’s Information Policy Analysis Division (IPAD) regarding District 15 Human Resources Director David Lindberg sending an email Sept. 11 about his case to a resident of the district.
Because the district considered its board members to be employees at the time the information was released, the IPAD opinion was that the district violated Rustad’s rights by releasing certain personnel data, which was considered private.
But the board voted to keep the issue on the agenda.
Boardmember David Anderson said he believes the Nov. 14 hearing was legal as it followed state statute and the parameters set by the board.
This situation was more than a mistake, he said.
The board and Rustad could have moved on from the original plagiarism, but he believes Rustad received bad advice on how to take care of the situation, Anderson said.
“This reflects poorly on us if we allow this type of leadership on the board,” he said.
“I am saddened by this, but we need to take a stand on something we feel is important.”
Boardmember Suzanne Erkel said Rustad’s rights were violated and he did not have an opportunity to help select an impartial hearing officer.
Rustad did not plagiarize to be malicious, but to educate, she said.
The Courier should be taking responsibility, Erkel said.
While she has been substitute teaching in the schools, Erkel said she has heard staff say it is a waste of taxpayers money and that the board has a vendetta against Rustad.
With certain board members nitpicking her and Van Denburgh, Erkel wonders who will be next.
“There seems to be a large smoke screen on this,” said Boardmember Harry Grams.
“(Rustad) did something wrong. He plagiarized. There are no vendetta against Rustad.”
If Rustad had been forthright on what happened, the board could have dealt with it, Grams said.
“I agree it is a waste of money, but necessary,” he said.
Given that the state statute does not define what is proper cause to remove a board member – the only elected official that can be removed by a vote of a board under state law – she questions whether removing Rustad is constitutional, Van Denburgh said.
Nor does she believe denying Rustad legal representation paid for by the district was legally correct as he was a board member, she said.
Rustad should have been put on equal footing as the district, Van Denburgh said.
While it was clear Rustad plagiarized, Van Denburgh said she did not find Martin’s option to be compelling for proper cause, which should be ironclad to protect the district and that there may have been some due process issues because Rustad could not obtain the hearing transcripts because of cost.
Had Rustad asked, the district would have sent the transcripts at no cost, Lindberg said.
Why would he ask the enemy for aid, Rustad said.
His role in this “… is to provide technical support for both sides. I am not the enemy,” Lindberg said.
Nor does he have control over the actions of Rustad’s attorney, who could have requested it from the district as the district would have supplied the information if it had known Rustad’s team did not have it, he said.
Van Denburgh is also concerned that no one from The Courier was at the Nov. 14 hearing to testify.
The Courier staff should have run a plagiarism program, she said.
There were a lot of opinions being accepted as fact in this case, Van Denburgh said.
During a private Sept. 10 meeting with administration and Van Denburgh, Rustad admitted to and apologized for the plagiarism, she said.
Had the board not voted to censure Rustad Sept. 24, the vote to remove would be less bothersome to her, Van Denburgh said.
This issue is not about nitpicking, it is because Rustad plagiarized, which is the theft of someone else’s ideas and work, Boardmember Amy Kelly said.
When voting for the Sept. 24 censure, Kelly said she was unaware Rustad had not been honest with the administration and the chairperson on the actual situation, she said.
It snowballed and this is about what happened afterwards, Kelly said.
The board sets the standard and is a role model for the students, she said.
This board also took the extra steps asked of it by the chairperson to make sure things were done right, Boardmember Janet Glover said.
This is only the second time in Minnesota that a board member has been removed by a vote of fellow elected officials.
In 2009, the Austin School Board removed Curt Rude from the board after he sued the district and the superintendent, and for missing more meetings than he attended.
Rude was also convicted of a felony drug crime in 2009 prior to his removal.
With Rustad’s removal, the board will have to appoint someone to fill his seat until the next election, said Lindberg.
For Rustad, the question has yet to be answered.
“I don’t know what I’m doing next,” he said.
Van Denburgh is concerned the board’s decision could lead to a long legal battle if Rustad appeals the decision.
Tammy Sakry is at firstname.lastname@example.org