The controversy over the Stillwater Area School Board’s decision to close three elementary schools is impacting bills drafted at the state Capitol this year.
Local legislators have introduced two bills in the Senate and companions in the House that would allow the recall of school board members, limit expansion of instructional space after school closures, and clarify how bond proceeds must be spent.
The Senate bills were authored by Sens. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, and Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes. Reps. Kathy Lohmer, R-Stillwater, and Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, authored the House bills.
Recalling board members
Currently the law allows recall of state and county elected officials, but there’s no process to recall school board members or city officials in non-charter cities.
A recall election requires more than simply gathering signatures, and it can’t be based only on “disagreement with actions taken” that were within the official’s “lawful discretion.” Under the proposed legislation, the same process that applies to county officials would apply to school board members.
For county officials, the process begins with a petition. It needs signatures totaling at least 25 percent of those who voted in the last election for the office in question. The petition must allege “malfeasance” or “nonfeasance” by the official.
Malfeasance means willful commission of an unlawful or wrongful act in performing official duties. Nonfeasance is willful failure to perform specific duties.
The proposed legislation would expand the definition of nonfeasanse to include “the willful failure to uphold the intent and purpose of a voter-approved policy.”
If they get enough signatures, the petitioners for a recall must convince a judge through “clear and convincing evidence” that the elected official committed malfeasance or nonfeasance. Only then can a recall election take place.
“I don’t know how often that’s ever happened, but at least the people, the taxpayers, know it’s a tool they can use if it’s something they feel real strong about,” Dettmer said. “And those that are elected need to know that it’s there, so hopefully it’ll never have to happen.”
To Lohmer, it makes sense to add school board members to the list, because she says all elected officials should be on the “same level playing field.” She’d be willing to add city officials to the list if asked, but said it wasn’t in the proposal brought forward by constituents.
For Housley, consistency across the board is paramount.
“It just makes sense to have all language be the same,” she said, whether that means all elected officials are subject to recalls or none are. “You could go the flip side of it [no recalls at all], and maybe this is what will come of the discussion.”
Recall of state officials, however, was established through a 1996 amendment to the state constitution and couldn’t be repealed by lawmakers.
Housley said the bill authorizing recalls for school board members won’t get a hearing in the Senate this year, because the elections bill was finished in mid-February. But she said the committee chair has committed to a hearing next year.
School closures, bond proceeds
(1) For five years after a decision to close a school, a district’s ability to increase instructional space without a referendum would be restricted.
(2) For large, voter-approved projects, school districts would be required to act consistently with the written project description submitted to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Housley said the Senate version of the bill is scheduled for a hearing in the E-12 education committee next week. She expects the five-year restriction on expansion to be removed, but that didn’t seem to bother her.
The second part is what she strongly supports, calling it “common sense.”
“It’s holding the school district accountable,” she said. “The way the law is written right now, they can do anything they want [with bond proceeds.]”
Housley referenced a ruling by Judge John McBride in a recent court case brought against the Stillwater Area School District by parent Melissa Douglas.
Douglas and her attorney argued the school district should be bound by more than the short language on the ballot itself regarding how a $97 million voter-approved bond would be spent. Douglas argued that a lengthy written description of the project submitted to the education department, as well as campaign promises, should be binding on the district.
“The judge ruled — and said he had to rule — with what was currently in law that said [the district] only had to adhere to the language on the ballot,” Housley said. “I think as voters are going to the polls and voting on these, they have a right to know what they’re really going to get. And since it has happened in other districts, I think we have a pretty good chance of that going through.”
Bills raised by constituents
All three St. Croix Valley legislators said the bills came to them from residents.
“I’m just being responsive to my constituents,” Lohmer said.
“As legislators it’s our responsibility to listen to our constituents, to listen to the voters and, if it makes sense, to put together some legislation,” Dettmer said. “Some of the best legislation comes from the voters.”
Housley explained that these bills stemmed from a meeting she had with Chamberlain, Dettmer, Lohmer and a group of area residents.
The residents brought forward a number of concerns in a rational manner, she said.
“They weren’t angry at all, and they realize what’s done is done,” Housley said. “They were really intelligent and made some very valid points.”
That’s important to Housley, because “the last thing you want to do is take a group of upset parents and change legislation for the whole state just for one school district — so you really have to look at this across the board.”
But she said introducing a bill is a way to start a conversation.
“Very rarely is a bill perfect out of the gate,” Housley said. “It has to go through so many committees and so many good minds and so many great discussions … You put these things out there to have the conversations.”
Not all the conversations about the bills are positive.
“They’re just bad bills,” said Greg Abbott, director of communications for the Minnesota School Boards Association, saying there doesn’t seem to be much support for them among legislators.
Abbott said recall elections for school board members are unnecessary because there’s already an opportunity to change the board majority every two years during regular elections, and having special elections is expensive.
“The other thing about the recall is it tends to make elected officials think short-term and what’s politically expedient instead of long-term and what’s in the best interest of students,” he said.
Although Abbott was less familiar with the other bill, he said it appeared at first blush like a knee-jerk reaction to the situation in Stillwater and shouldn’t be applied across the state.
Whether lawmakers around the state feel the same way remains to be seen.
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]