Eric Langness

News Article

Censure Pot Still Boiling in ISD 831

Cliff Buchan, News Editor

Is Joe Grafft an out and out liar? Does Eric Langness have bad information? The two Forest Lake School Board members were at the middle of a spirited and heated discussion Thursday night as the board’s earlier censure of members Langness and David Gay came back to life.

On Feb. 7, the board voted 5-2 to censure Gay and Langness for comments made at the Jan. 3 meeting that suggested disciplinary action be explored against Superintendent Lynn Steenblock. Gay raised the matter during discussion of criminal background checks and incidents last year involving an alleged sexual assault by a Community Education instructor, and the death of a Scandia student in a crash driven by a contractor who had not been subject to a background check by his private employer.

In leading the censure move, Grafft and Board President Bill Bresin led the push, saying Gay’s discussion and a motion, with a second from Langness, did not follow procedures and put the board in a position of violating Steenblock’s employee  rights under data practices rules.

The topic popped up again Thursday as Gay attempted to amend the past board minutes to more clearly define what he said was his intent at the Jan. 3 meeting. After his review of data practices statutes, he argued he did not violate Steenblock’s rights by asking the board to “explore” options for a discussion of disciplinary action.

Criticism also came from incorrect numbers and the spelling of Eric Langness’ first name in the board censure motion. Bresin conceded the name was spelled incorrectly and that district attorney Patricia Maloney had quoted a data practices statute number with two numbers inverted.

But Bresin said the meaning of the action was not changed by an incorrect number.
Gay argued that he should only be censured for what he actually said, not what others thought he said. Langness has argued he should not be censured for the fact that he seconded the Gay motion on Jan. 3 that was eventually dropped without a vote.

Langness would not let the matter drop last week after Gay’s motion to amend the minutes lost on a 5-2 vote with Bresin, Grafft, Rob Rapheal, Julie Corcoran and Dan Kieger all opposed.

The matter, however, may be raised again at the next meeting on Thursday, March 27.
Following the Feb. 7 discussion, Langness said he sought answers of his own by calling the Minnesota Schools Boards Association and Maloney. Both had provided information to Grafft that led to the censure.

Langness said he never heard back from Maloney. He issued a more serious allegation, saying he was told by MSBA that it had no record of calls from the Forest Lake district. In fact, Langness said, he was told MSBA would not issue legal opinions in such situations.

“They (MSBA) made it over and over clear to me,” Langness said.

Langness said his research confirmed to him that the Feb. 7 discussion was filled with “lies” and “drastic inaccuracies.”

Grafft, clearly riled by the suggestion that he was not truthful, defended his actions. “I  did contact MSBA,” Grafft repeated.

More debate

There was more debate on Friday as the two were called for additional comments.
“I could not sleep last night,” Grafft said. “No one has ever called me a liar in my life. I’ve never once looked at someone and told them a lie.”

Grafft said Jan Rhode of the MSBA staff came to his defense after being contacted on Friday. He received a note from Rhode saying, “This email is to confirm that we did have a conversation about the appropriateness of discussing items that would be considered job performance of a staff member at a public meeting around the time that the articles appeared in the newspaper. I stated that I am not in a position to offer legal advice, but I was referring to statute M.S. 13.43, Subd. 2(a).”

Langness countered Friday by saying his one-hour telephone conversation with MSBA made it clear the staff had no documented contact with anyone from Forest Lake, and that MSBA would not offer legal advice.

Grafft said the board was correct in taking the steps on Feb. 7 and that the action triggered a sore spot with Gay and Langness.

“They can shoot at people all they want, but when it comes back to them, they can’t handle it,” Grafft said.

Langness said the Feb. 7 move was no more than a “blasted attack” that has done more arm in dividing the board. He said he has felt the wedge during his entire two plus years on the board.

Langness repeated that the board should have been obligated to reconsider the minutes because the motion that shows in the minutes is not accurate. “That’s not the motion they had in the minutes,” he said, referring to Gay’s comments. “We withdrew it without it ever going to a vote.”

Will Langness pursue the matter? That he could not answer, saying any future actions would depend on what the board may do. He did say he has talked to more than one attorney.

“Frankly, it depends on what their move is,” he said. “Everything is open. It’s all up in the air. If they do nothing, we’ll see. The ball is in their court. They know what they did.”

He said he believes the other five members were trying to embarrass himself and Gay. Gay, he said, was doing no more than speaking to protect students and hold the administration accountable. In light of what he labeled political attacks and Gay’s motives, which view is the public going to favor, he asked.

What was said

Is the debate over the minutes and what was said on Jan. 3 continues, the Forest Lake Times  asked the superintendent’s office to provide a transcript of what was said by member Gay during the discussion that remains so controversial.

The comments by Gay went as follows:

Member David Gay: “This spring when we had the drug-using mini van driver we were told that he didn’t get a background check, we were told that we weren’t  required to do so by state law, and then we had this other incident with a community education instructor wasn’t given a background check, we were again told, the public was told we weren’t required to do so. 

“Where the district policy clearly states that at administration’s discretion any employee or volunteer can be asked to submit to a background check. Had we done so for these individuals we may have  spared two children and their families needless suffering and the board now has to step in and take action to provide a safe environment for our students. We the board members have a clear duty to hold the Superintendent accountable, and I intend to. 

“And I’d like to make a motion that the board explore options for and discussions about disciplinary action against the Superintendent - um, after all, the safety of our students in our charge are more important than any one  employee.”

President Bresin:  “There is a motion, is there a second?” 

“Second” by Eric Langness.

After discussion on Jan. 3, the motion and the second were eventually withdrawn.
The censure, which amounts to a board reprimand, carried no penalty.     

Forest Lake Times

Date: 03/07/08

for Minnesota Senate District 39