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Parent files complaint against Bemidji schools superintendent

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published in September 2017. School Board deemed no discipline was necessary.

BEMIDJI—A Bemidji-area parent has filed a formal complaint against Bemidji Area Schools' superintendent after an alleged confrontation between the two earlier this month.

Mitchell Martinez told the Pioneer he had been looking for his stepson in Bemidji Middle School's bustling parking lot Sept. 8, and became worried when the second-grader and two of his classmates didn't get off their normal bus from Schoolcraft Learning Community. (The school district handles charter school students' busing.) Martinez said he eventually found his stepson and the other students after searching a few other buses.

Jim HessAfter that, Martinez alleges, he was approached by Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Jim Hess, who asked what was wrong.

Here's what Martinez said happened next, according to the formal complaint filed with the school district late last week, to which the Pioneer has edited to follow Associated Press style: "I told him I felt it was unacceptable for three children to be unsupervised and alone near a busy road. He responded with the statement 'transportation works for most people, but for some people it doesn't. You are always welcome to transport them yourself and that's the end of that.' He then began walking away from us and I got his attention by saying 'is it now?' He returned and approached me in what I felt was a confrontational and intimidating manner with his body and face extremely close to mine. He said 'yes it is.'"

Martinez said he felt his concerns were dismissed and that he was spoken down to and brushed off.

"I tried to continue the discussion and he attempted to intimidate me," Martinez wrote in his complaint to the Bemidji School Board. "I felt his behavior was inappropriate and completely unprofessional."

Hess declined to comment for this article.

"We do not typically discuss personnel matters that are under investigation," he told the Pioneer.

In his complaint, Martinez asks that the confrontation be investigated and that Hess publicly apologize. Martinez told the Pioneer that he did not record the incident, but it was witnessed by his stepson's classmates' grandmother, who also had trouble finding the students after school.

Personnel committee to meet

The School Board's Personnel Committee will meet with Human Resources Director Jordan Hickman, Board Chair Ann Long Voelkner said, to review the complaint and craft a recommendation for the board as a whole to address it.

That meeting, presumably, would not be open to the public. Minnesota law allow public bodies such as the committee to meet for preliminary discussion of charges or allegations leveled against an employee. Future meetings must be open if officials conclude that discipline of any nature is warranted as a result of those charges or allegations, according to Mark Anfinson, the Minnesota Newspaper Association's legal counsel who frequently represents and advises newspapers, including the Pioneer. The board's Personnel Committee is comprised of three board members: Jeff Haack, Bill Faver and John Gonzalez.

Long Voelkner said she didn't anticipate that the committee would conduct any interviews, and school district staff said Tuesday that it did not yet have a meeting scheduled.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education (mostly K-12) and American Indian affairs for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He's from Minneapolis, earned a degree from the College of St. Benedict - St. John's University in 2009, and worked at the Perham Focus near Detroit Lakes and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis before heading to the Pioneer.

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