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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

School board wrestles with Cherry teacher termination

Marcus White
Posted 5/29/19

TOWER - Community outcry over the termination of a teacher at Cherry reached the St. Louis County School Board on Tuesday evening. A district evaluations board had recommended termination of …

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School board wrestles with Cherry teacher termination

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TOWER - Community outcry over the termination of a teacher at Cherry reached the St. Louis County School Board on Tuesday evening. A district evaluations board had recommended termination of elementary teacher Melinda Asuma, who just completed her second year as a probationary teacher at the school. The recommendation prompted a community-wide petition to stop the board from following through with the termination of the popular teacher.

Teachers within their first three years of teaching are considered probationary, meaning they can be terminated from their contracts with little recourse.

It was not clear why Asuma, who is herself a Cherry alum, was terminated, but statements by Cherry Board member Lynette Zupetz suggest it was related to underperformance on evaluations performed by the district’s competency (Q-comp) evaluators and Cherry Principal Michael Johnson.

Zupetz said Asuma granted her access to the evaluations, documents which are typically confidential, even to school board members.

“I want to see her work with her mentors to get more experience,” Zupetz said. “She was rated quite high from Q-Comp and her ratings from the principal that she is pretty much passing. I can’t see any reasons in here that would qualify her for termination.”

Her comment on Asuma “pretty much passing” struck a chord with other board members.

Christine Taylor took issue with the statement, saying teachers needed to be excellent in what they taught and not just making the grade.

“Our most important duty is the education of our kids,” she said.

Zupetz also clarified that Asuma’s Q-Comp ratings were “proficient to good”.

“I have been asking that we keep exemplary teachers, not good ones,” Chair Dan Manick said.

“All it takes is one year for a kid to fall behind,” he said. “If they don’t get a good teacher right away, they don’t get a do-over.”

Troy Swanson brought up a change.org petition which has since been removed from the website.

“In the end, we are the stewards of the taxpayers,” he said. “When you see that many signatures it says something.”

Manick said the board was also there to serve the educational interests of the students.

Swanson and Zupetz argued that Asuma had moved back to Cherry, her hometown, for the job, and that fact should also be considered.

Taylor took issue with the sentiment, however, saying it was an unfair approach to employment in the district.

“My problem is that if we offer different treatment to one, why isn’t everyone else getting the same treatment,” she said. “Maybe it’s a future discussion on how the process of evaluation is done.”

She also suggested that evaluations could be more transparent so teachers and the board would be on the same page when terminations happen.

Following the discussion, Superintendent Reggie Engebritson read a statement stating her position on the matter.

“These are people we feel are not a fit for the district,” she said. “You are telling people that their child did not come first.”

She also said that decisions to terminate should not be swayed by popular opinion.

A vote on the matter was 5-2 with Swanson and Zupetz voting to retain Asuma. Both voted to terminate employment of all the other teachers on the list.

North Woods grievances

The board, after some discussion, opted to deny two grievances from teachers at North Woods. Julie Holien, the grievance chair for the district’s Education Minnesota union, addressed the board on two issues.

The first was for Amanda Pascuzzi. Holien said Pascuzzi had not been informed during her first year of teaching college level courses that she was eligible for 35 hours additional pay for taking on the task.

Holien said while Principal John Vukmanich had informed the teacher this year of her right to the additional pay, she wanted back-pay for the previous year.

According Holien, lawyers for the union in St. Paul had already reviewed the case and were willing to take it on should the board not award the back pay.

The board immediately took up the discussion on the grievance. Taylor asked whether the contracts were clear on the matter.

Engebritson said they were while Holien said they were not.

“There are parts of the contracts that say they have to turn in the vouchers (for additional hours) within 10 days,” Engebritson said. “If we pay this, there could be many other teachers from past years that will come forward and claim compensation.”

Taylor then asked if the new contracts addressed the issue.

Holien said they did not.

Regarding the second grievance, Holien said it was being brought forward by Chris McIntyre who felt he was not being paid enough because the district had not taken into account all of his additional credits earned beyond his bachelor’s degree.

Engebritson said that McIntyre had waited until May to submit his credits for consideration and not at his time of hire in December.

The board voted unanimously in both cases to deny the grievances.

South Ridge

woes addressed

Ground breaking on the South Ridge addition was scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on Thursday despite the project being currently out of compliance with county ordinances.

Last week, the board learned that the property was over the impervious surface limit imposed by St. Louis County.

Nathan Norton, the project manager from ICS, the lead consultant group on the project, addressed the board.

“One of my arguments would be if that we would have caught it a few months ago, we would still be having this discussion,” he said. “We would have always needed this square footage. The silver lining here is that the county is looking at increasing the impervious coverage allowed for that area.”

He added that engineers on the project had made an incorrect assumption on county regulations. Norton said in many other counties the impervious surface limit is usually closer to 25 percent, not 10 percent as it is in St. Louis County.

Taylor countered, “It seems a little late in the process to check on this. You find this stuff out before you design things. It might have altered the beginning of the discussions. We could have waited. We would have saved ourselves design and stakeholder money.”

She noted that the county had given no guarantee on when the impervious surface regulations would be changed. The county has given the school district a compliance deadline of June 2020.

Business manager Kim Johnson said property owners neighboring the South Ridge School had not responded to inquiries on whether they’d be willing to sell vacant land to the district.

Taylor said she preferred land acquisition to the alternative of ripping up one of the parking lots and outdoors basketball courts.

In other business, board members,

Heard a plan to make the district transportation specialist full-time by adding an additional 30 days to her contract. Taylor was again critical of Johnson’s plan since the position is shared by the Mt. Iron-Buhl school district. She questioned why the district needed to take on more burden for a position that was benefitting other districts. “I don’t want to be held hostage by the way you are doing your books,” Taylor said to Johnson. “I believe your rationale, but you haven’t brought me proof.”

Awarded insurance contracts for the 2019-2020 school year.

Voted to release land covenant easements on property previously sold by the district. One of the properties is now in the hands of Twin Metals.

Northeast Range member Chris Koivisto said he’d secured a $1,000 grant from Cleveland Cliffs to complete the renovation project of the school’s football field.

Added a June 11 study session to the calendar.

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