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Cass Lake-Bena School District: E-mail stirs up controversy

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Cass Lake-Bena School District: E-mail stirs up controversy
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

A superintendent's cry for help in an e-mail last weekend resulted in attention being drawn on the school district and its improvement methods.


Anita Grace, Superintendent of Cass Lake-Bena School District since November 2010, sent an e-mail to several media outlets and state politicians stating she believed the Cass Lake-Bena Education Association was attempting to remove her as superintendent.

Her e-mail states, "The teachers' union is attempting to remove me as superintendent because they are protesting my school improvement efforts."

Big changes

Cass Lake-Bena is wrapping up its first year of a three-year School Improvement Grant it received from the federal government.

Cass Lake-Bena Secondary School was identified by the Minnesota Department of Education as one of the state's persistently lowest achieving schools in January 2010. It was in the bottom 5 percent of secondary schools eligible for, but not receiving, federal Title I funding.

The U.S. Department of Education gave funding to turn around the persistently lowest achieving schools through the School Improvement Grants. In 2009 states received a total of $3.5 billion for the SIG program.

Cass Lake-Bena has been operating under a transformation model, which requires the district to make certain changes in order to receive "school turnaround" funding. Some of the changes included teachers spending 90 minutes per week working together to discuss student learning needs, adding two days per week of after-school math and language arts-focused programs and starting an incentive program to reward teachers and principals who achieve specific goals for improving student achievement.

Grace attached a document to her e-mail outlining what she believed teachers were protesting.

According to Grace's e-mail, the teachers' union is protesting the need to hold the correct licenses and the transferring of teachers to positions for which they are licensed.

She wrote that teachers would not agree to being formally evaluated three times a year or accept reward incentives tied to their performance evaluations.

She also stated some teachers do not intend to include their building principal in their communication with the superintendent, which she stated would not be following chain-of-command protocol.

"Teachers are protesting that communication between them and the superintendent is unsatisfactory," Grace wrote. "They refuse to use their principal for communication as required..."

According to Grace, the teachers' union also planned to submit a letter of "no confidence" to the Board of Education during the May 23 meeting.

Union responds

Jeff Wibbe, co-president of Cass Lake-Bena Education Association, said the teachers' union has no intention of sending a letter of "no confidence" to the school board regarding Grace.

"We try to work together with the board and the superintendent," he said. "We want to run the school the best we can and provide what we can for the students."

Todd Pack, an Education Minnesota representative for the Bemidji area, said the CLBEA has not sent a letter of "no confidence" to a school board in the last 20 years.

With the issue of teachers not agreeing to accept reward incentives tied to their performance evaluations, Wibbe said the teachers are not protesting that issue.

"The incentives were written with teachers as part of the process," he said. "Teachers worked last summer with administration and put together a series of incentives and were not protesting them at all. We wrote them so they'd go to benefit the classroom."

Wibbe said the teachers' union is not protesting teachers receiving multiple evaluations, either.

"Teachers, again, as part of the School Improvement Grant, spent part of the summer putting together an evaluation rubric," Wibbe said. "Teachers are constantly looking for new ideas that will work in the classroom and be effective."

Wibbe said he did not believe the teachers' union was protesting going through the school principals to communicate with the superintendent, but said he had not heard much information on that matter.

Cass Lake-Bena High School Principal John Klinke said the school district has "gained extensive ground" with the new school turnaround methods.

"We had a plan that focused on instruction that was diagnostic and prescriptive," Klinke said. "It addressed the educational needs of students and professional needs of teachers."

The school district had to re-submit a grant proposal this spring to receive two more years of funding from the School Improvement Grant. He said over the years, students and staff have become more receptive to the changes.

"Any time you go through significant change, you have concerns and have conflict that arises," Klinke said. "With that said, the existing students at the high school and staff have grown, I think, immensely in their understanding as they have seen the results in classrooms."

Grace stated in her e-mail "The teachers do not understand that the state will shut down the school if teachers do not address school improvement issues."

Christine Dufour, communication spokesperson for the MDE, could not comment about how a school could be shut down due to not obeying school improvement issues because the statement was too broad to be specific, but did say "this administration is interested in supporting schools, not punishing schools."

Attorney present

It is still unclear why the superintendent sent the e-mail or why she feels she is being targeted by the teachers' union, but Wibbe admitted the CLBEA sent a letter to the superintendent.

"The purpose of our letter the other night was to try to open the lines of communication so we can all work together more effectively," Wibbe said. "We've got a history of quite a few superintendents for a short period of time and we wanted to make sure we are communicating better."

Because the Cass Lake-Bena School District's board of education is the superintendent's employer, it is the only entity that can hire or fire a superintendent. The teachers' union cannot remove a superintendent. However, the union can make suggestions to the school board about the performance of an employee.

"We are always advocates for what is best for our students," Wibbe said. "This year teachers in the high school have been knocking themselves out by working extra hours. The district changed a lot of things and we're trying to work through it."

Grace could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday. However, she left a voice message on a Bemidji Pioneer reporter's telephone early Wednesday morning stating she would comment only to her attorney.

Grace attended the Cass Lake-Bena school board meeting May 23 with her attorney, Mary Kay Klein of Bemidji. Klein did not return a phone seeking comment.

Jolyn Donnell and Rick Halland, co-chairs of the Cass Lake-Bena Board of Education, also did not respond to phone calls Wednesday seeking comment.