A new trend is emerging within school districts of citizens suing the district based on decisions being made or policies being implemented that they don’t agree with. Besides that trend, districts have found school board meetings are becoming powder kegs when controversial issues are on the agenda. At the forefront of these controversial issues are masking policies or other COVID-related decisions.
Cases in point that exemplify these trends:
•Video of a recent Mora special meeting wasn’t posted on YouTube like usual due to cursing by people speaking about the district’s new criteria for implementing mandatory masking of students.
•A physical altercation took place between attendees at an Eastern Carver County School Board meeting where the district was implementing temporary mandatory masking.
With situations such as these on their mind, the Cambridge-Isanti School Board unanimously approved adopting a resolution further spelling out what authority the superintendent has in making unilateral decisions in certain situations, with an emphasis on COVID situations.
The resolution, titled “Resolution approving Return to Learn Plan and delegating authority to superintendent,” adopts the district’s “Return to Learn 2021-2022 plan,” which is posted on the district’s website. It also delegates to the superintendent “the authority to implement any additional mitigation strategies, including a face covering requirement, if the superintendent concludes, based on new developments and his professional judgment, that immediate or prompt implementation of additional mitigation strategies is necessary.”
In introducing this resolution, Superintendent Dr. Nate Rudolph emphasized this resolution isn’t the same as Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s state of emergency executive powers.
“The resolution that is before you tonight doesn’t change any of that,” Rudolph told the board while referencing the official duties of a superintendent based on Minnesota statutes. “The superintendent position is always directly responsive to the board. What this resolution does is amplifies our current practice.
“It allows us some legal protections to take official further action to be able to respond when need be, as we think particularly about our COVID response plan,” he added.
Rudolph pointed out there is a COVID response team that meets frequently to go over the district’s general practices, but sometimes action needs to be taken in short order.
“We realize in these times there are decisions that need to be made every single day. And this is just overtly articulating the practice we already have in place based on our policy and in statute in case it is needed in a litigated setting.”
School Board Member Aaron Berg said that based on open meeting laws, such authority is absolutely needed.
“Should we decide we need an emergency special session meeting in order to address an issue, we’re obligated by law how many days do we have to announce that we are having a meeting?”
School Board Chair Tim Hitchings stated it is required to give three-days notice before convening a meeting.
“So we’re looking at 72-plus hours before we can even get together to make a decision,” Berg said. “Some of these circumstances need to be addressed in sooner than three days.”
School Board Member Carri Levitski, who is also on the COVID response team, added that the team meets regularly to help Rudolph in making those decisions.
“We can meet virtually via zoom if we need to,” she said, pointing out their last meeting was just that previous Monday. “It’s a very active committee.”
A summary of district’s strategy
Dr. Rudolph gave another example of why this authority is needed while briefly discussing the district’s current mitigation strategy. He noted that last year, most decisions that were made applied to an entire school building or the entire district. This year, however, such actions are being taken on a much smaller scale.
“Our goal is to mitigate any spread in the moment,” Rudolph said. “Our primary goal is to do so while keeping kids safely in school. Our goal is to find the smallest cohort of students that we see spread is happening in or we see positive cases, draw a circle around that and implement a temporary mitigating strategy to stop the spread. At this point, I’m happy to report this is working and it is going well. But we know we have to implement those small, temporary mitigation strategies from time-to-time and we can’t bring the board together every time we do a classroom or an individual.
“Our goal will remain to keep kids safely in school, with minimum effect as possible,” he concluded. “We had several thousand students quarantined last year as part of close contacts, and part of measures that were sometimes larger and weren’t as specific as some of the measures the we are able to take right now. And there’s an impact with that. The team feels like we are very dialed-in to how we are responding right now.”