By Jennifer Kotila
DASSEL-COKATO, MN The beginning of last Monday’s Dassel-Cokato School Board meeting was moved to the choir room, where it was standing room only as residents came out in support of well-liked and respected teacher Susan Marco.
The district is currently investigating Marco in regards to a complaint that has been filed against the tenured teacher. Due to data privacy laws, the board and district administration cannot comment at this time about the nature of the complaint.
Although Marco’s employment status has not been disclosed at this time, the high school English teacher has not been teaching since before Thanksgiving break.
A crowd of more than 50 residents were in attendance in support of Marco, and two parents addressed the board with their opinions about mistrust, fear, and hostility within the district.
“Trust is a huge factor in any relationship, and it appears that trust is eroding,” said DC resident Scott Halonen during the open forum of the meeting.
“We, as parents and community members, do not feel respected, nor do we trust what’s going on,” said DC resident Joseph Latt. “Things do not seem to be transparent in our district right now.”
The Marco situation is a symptom of a greater problem within the district, Latt added.
“I believe the greater problem is a series of issues that includes bullying, a trend of poor decision-making, and straying from the mission statement that defines this high school,” Latt said.
Halonen noted he has always been amazed and proud of the cooperation and communication that takes place between parents, teachers, students, and administration in the DC School District. “But it seems something has changed in the last couple years,” he added.
Several examples from throughout the last two years were brought up by the speakers to make their points regarding the claims of mistrust, fear, and hostility within the district.
Issues with coaching in track and field, speech, and basketball, along with student spirit at volleyball games, led to student interrogations being the norm, Halonen said.
Providing the board with a definition of bullying from Webster’s dictionary, Latt said “administrative bullying” has created a culture of fear amongst staff and students.
“This can be observed by coming to a varsity athletic event and watching as students sit quietly in fear of repercussions by coaches or hovering administrators,” Latt said. “This culture has robbed the school and community of every ounce of school spirit.”
Although high school staff members have expressed concerns about working in a hostile environment, they are afraid to speak openly for fear of being the next to be targeted by administration, Latt commented.
“The trend of poor decision-making is exemplified in the witch hunt that has culminated in the termination of Susan Marco and the destruction of morale amongst staff and the student body,” Latt said.
Bringing up the recent errors with the school support levy, Halonen noted he felt the community had given administration a free pass and a second chance.
“Within a couple of weeks, unfortunately, we got kind of a kick in the butt, I think,” Halonen said, referring to the situation with Marco. “Why is this administration trying to get rid of a 20-year teacher who is as well-liked and respected as she is?”
He asked if the administration had thought about what would happen to students who lost their teacher during the school year, and how much money the district will spend on attorney fees.
“The decision to rid the district of a teacher who was an advocate for students and who cares for them beyond the classroom, is a decision that was made without due regard or its effect on the student body,” Latt said.
“I hope the reasons you used are good ones,” Halonen said, noting the truth will eventually come out about why Marco is no longer teaching and under investigation.
Halonen and Latt also pointed out their distaste in last year’s faculty response at graduation, which students had requested Marco deliver, but which was given by another member of the faculty.
“Last year’s graduation speech was, unfortunately, appalling. I was sick listening to it,” Halonen said.
Latt said the decision was selfish and unfair, and the response given was inappropriate and unprofessional.
Latt also noted the singing of the song, “It’s A Great Big Stupid World” at graduation, was embarrassing and hurtful at a time when the students had just lost two friends to untimely deaths.
“We feel the administration is not modeling these traits of personal responsibility, but rather is bullying the staff and the student body,” Latt said, referring to the high school’s mission statement.
“We want accountability, we want honesty, and we want integrity in this administration,” Latt added.
Halonen and Latt asked the school board to do three things:
• immediately reinstate Marco as teacher;
• allow an outside entity to conduct a climate study amongst students, staff, and the community to find the root causes of the issues within the district;
• and immediately halt the bullying behavior by administration and hold them accountable for the current culture of fear and intimidation.
Response to Marco supporters
In response to district residents at the meeting, School Board Chair Kevin Bjork said their comments would be taken into consideration.
“This is kind of tough for the community, as well as the students,” said student representative Tori Marschall during her report to the school board. “There is a whole different atmosphere in school.”
She noted the students and community are upset about the privacy surrounding the situation, and not being able to know what is going on.
Ron Hungerford, president of the DC Education Association, said the teachers’ union has no comments concerning the accusations that were made at the board meeting.
Marco noted that she would “love” to comment, but has been advised not to, providing the name and contact information of her attorney, Jess Anna Glover through Education Minnesota. As of press time, the attorney has not responded to requests for comment.
Superintendent Jeff Powers did not respond to the accusations and opinions about a climate of fear and a hostile environment for students and staff at the high school, or the erosion of trust amongst district officials and the community.
However, Powers noted he was not surprised by the emotion that was displayed during the open forum.
“One of the many strengths of our school community is the strong relationships that are built between staff, students, and parents,” Powers said. “While I understand that people would like more information at this time, we must adhere to the laws that govern our ability to disclose information. My request is that people continue to respect each other and recognize that all of us care deeply about the children and families in our district.”
Data practice laws
According to Minnesota Statute 13.43 regarding personnel data of a government employee, such things are public: name; actual gross salary; salary range; terms and conditions of employment; and actual gross pension.
Also public are “the date of first and last employment and the existence and status of any complaints or charges against the employee, regardless of whether the complaint or charge resulted in a disciplinary action; the final disposition of any disciplinary action together with the specific reasons for the action and data documenting the basis of the action, excluding data that would identify confidential sources who are employees of the public body . . .”
“All other personnel data is private data on individuals but may be released pursuant to a court order.”
There are civil and administrative remedies, as well as criminal penalties in some cases, for violations of the act, including the failure of a government entity to comply with the act’s provisions.