Pledge of Allegiance voted down at Bemidji school board meeting
In a 3-3 vote, board members Justin Hoover, Anna Manecke and Dave Wall voted in favor of adding the pledge to board meetings while Ann Long Voelkner, Jenny Frenzel and Julie Laitala voted against it.
BEMIDJI — The Pledge of Allegiance will not be recited at Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meetings.
In a 3-3 vote during the board's regular meeting on Monday, a measure proposed by board member Justin Hoover failed when he along with members Anna Manecke and Dave Wall voted in favor of adding the recitation to the beginning of board meetings while members Ann Long Voelkner, Jenny Frenzel and Julie Laitala voted against it.
During discussion, Hoover referenced Minnesota State Statute 121A.11, subdivision 3a, which states that “all public and charter school students shall recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America one or more times each week.” He encouraged the board to follow suit as a way to create unity among the board and within the community.
“I believe that when we recite the Pledge of Allegiance, we display to our community, to our students that we are united together honoring the U.S., honoring our soldiers, honoring God, our flag, our liberty and our justice for all,” Hoover said.
Superintendent Jeremy Olson stated that there is no statutory requirement for school boards to recite the pledge, but that a board may decide to add it to its meetings if the members so choose.
“In my experience, about half of the boards I’ve been on have started with the pledge. It’s not unheard of, but there’s no statutory requirement forcing you to do that,” Olson said. “This would be a decision the board would make of its own volition.”
Regarding the pledge in schools, Olson noted a provision that allows students to decline the recitation as stated in subdivision 3b of the same statute. Frenzel expressed support for the option of opting out in the interest of respecting people with various reasons for not wanting to recite it.
“I consider myself patriotic. I’ve been a teacher in the classroom and have recited the pledge more times than I can count,” Frenzel said. “I think it’s an important piece, but I have heard some genuine concern about the pledge. … I think we need to be sensitive to those who choose to opt out of it. That is their choice and we need to be respectful in allowing that.”
Long Voelkner expressed similar sentiments and detailed conversations she has had with people who define themselves as Christians along with their feelings about the pledge.
“They have a concern with the pledge because it’s not pledging to a nation, it’s pledging to their God,” Long Voelkner said. “I really appreciate, as do they, the ability to opt out inclusive of children and adults without judgment.”
Laitala detailed the historical development of the pledge and several revisions that it has undergone with the most recent revision being the addition of “under God” in 1954 following Congressional approval.
She added that she feels it’s unfair to say someone isn’t patriotic if they don’t recite the pledge.
“You can be patriotic in other ways and that shouldn’t be the only reason we’re deciding something,” Laitala said, “that it makes us look patriotic and it makes us look like better Americans.”
Wall emphasized the pledge being a unifying factor, saying, “we need to understand that our 250-plus years of growth in this country is on a good trajectory … We’ve learned from our mistakes, we’re continuing to learn from our mistakes. That’s why the founding fathers said 'a more perfect nation,' it’s going to take a moral people to do that.
“I see the pledge as coming together to commit ourselves to doing that,” he left off.
Following more discussion, the board did not secure a four-vote approval for the pledge’s recitation.
The board spent considerable time discussing public participation procedures, specifically its placement on the meeting’s agenda and concerns regarding personnel complaints.
Manecke proposed moving public participation toward the beginning of each regular meeting and live-streaming the comment period.
Until a May 2022 regular meeting, public participation had taken place near the beginning of each meeting and was part of each meeting’s live-stream. Starting in June 2022, the comment period was placed at the end of the meeting and not live-streamed.
“People at home can not go back and see what people have said,” Manecke said about meeting recordings. “We owe it to the constituents to hear their concerns and criticisms. … We were elected and (criticism) just comes with the territory, and for the district to censor is unacceptable and I think it looks less than professional.”
Laitala stated that the board is not constitutionally required to have a public comment period and expressed concern about possible defamation against an employee that could arise during a meeting. However, she still supports the idea of a public comment period with certain restrictions in place.
“A community isn’t entitled to speak during a board meeting because it’s just that: a meeting of and for the board, not a community forum,” Laitala said. “That being said, I do want to hear comments as long as they’re respectful, and there’s no defamation going on.”
The board chair has traditionally prefaced public participation with comments regarding the importance of an employee’s reputation and that public criticism of an employee is inappropriate at board meetings. The chair would then share information about where to direct a personnel complaint.
Olson is expected to present a proposal to the board regarding public participation at a February meeting.
Setting the agenda
Manecke also proposed that another board member be a part of creating each meeting’s agenda, a role that is currently reserved for the board chair working alongside the superintendent and cabinet members.
Her proposal included the vice chair as part of the process, followed by the clerk if the vice chair was unable to take part and so on.
“It brings transparency to the board not having just one school board member making the agenda,” Manecke said. “There are five new board members and three of us are going to be on this board for four years. If we don’t get the opportunities to be in on these meetings, how will any of us learn if we have that opportunity down the road to become chair?”
Hoover agreed, saying, “we are creating accountability, we’re having better representation of the board for setting the agenda and we’re also preparing the next person to take the role of chair. It’s a mentorship. I don’t see, in any way, why we wouldn’t want this.”
After more discussion, the board tabled the matter until its February meeting to allow for further research.
The full meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel. The next regular board meeting is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 27, in the district board room.