PEQUOT LAKES -- While he didn't exactly get his job back at Pequot Lakes High School, Steve Nelson said he felt relieved Monday night that the school board didn't hire someone to replace him.
On a 4-3 split vote with much discussion between board members and school administrators, the board decided Monday not to offer the job to another candidate.
Several teachers, his Education Minnesota representative and a few parents of special needs students attended Monday's school board meeting to show support for Nelson, who has served as a full-time PLHS special education teacher for the past two years and previously for an additional half-year as a long-term substitute in that position. While Nelson didn't have a special education licensure when he was hired on a full-time basis, he had been allowed to teach under a variance granted under the assumption that he was going to school to obtain his special education degree.
Nelson said school administrators knew he was attending night and summer classes for two years for this specialized degree and he graduated June 30. Nelson also holds a master's degree in business administration and a bachelor's degree in business communication.
When the district decided to not renew several non-tenured teachers at the end of the school year, they were told they could reapply for their positions if the board decided to bring back their positions. Nelson said he was one of three candidates for the position and following the interviews Aug. 12 was told by high school principal John McDonald that he was the top candidate and he would be recommended to the board to be rehired pending obtaining his licensure. He said he didn't apply for any other positions in the area this summer because he had been told he would get his job back.
Last Tuesday, the same day his special education licensure was no longer pending but approved by the state, Nelson received a call from the district, saying he would not be recommended to the board for rehire. Instead, school administrators decided to offer the job to Maria Dissell, who accepted. McDonald told the board that Dissell has an elementary education degree and this would be her first year as a special education teacher. He said she could receive a variance to teach special education. If Nelson wouldn't have received his special education degree, he could have continued to teach for a third year under a variance. He is now licensed in special education through 2010, he showed in documents after the meeting.
McDonald told the board that he stands behind his administrative team's decision on Aug. 16 to recommend Dissell for the position. A few board members questioned whether the district was selecting the best candidate for the position or if McDonald was forced to change his recommendation. McDonald continued to say he stood behind his position on Aug. 16. Unlike in the past, school administrators this year gave all non-renewed teachers who were reapplying for their jobs a deadline in which to become licensed in their specific field.
"This situation has really put me in a position as a board member that we shouldn't be put in," said board member Kim Bolz-Andolshek. "A lot has happened this past week that I don't agree with. ... I typically go with administration but I feel there was a real disconnect in this process. I don't think it should have gotten where it is."
"As a board we need to trust the process here," said board member Brad Wallace. "There are timelines set. ... I'm not in the job of being an administrator at this school. I just won't go against the recommendation by administration. I just can't."
"Brad asked if we can trust administration and for the most part, I do," said Bolz-Andolshek. "My concern is was this a team decision?"
On a 4-3 vote, with Paul Sandelin, Bolz-Andolshek, David Kennedy and Jean Kraft opposed, the board did not authorize the hiring of Dissell. The board referred the issue back to administration.
Jan Lichy, an Education Minnesota representative based in St. Cloud, was told by board chair Mike Clausen during the meeting she could not address the board. Afterward, Lichy said Nelson could have taught for another year under a variance but the school administration did not apply for one because administrators knew he would soon have his special education licensure.
"It's very rare that a board would question administration," said Lichy. "Refreshing, but rare."
Mike and Sandy Mullin of Pequot Lakes said they have cared for 70 foster children, many with special needs, for the past 16 years. They attended Monday's meeting in support of Nelson.
"He'll call when our special needs kids are doing well and that's a first," said Sandy Mullin. "He just extends himself to help these kids. He's soft-spoken but he gets his point across."
"Steve goes above and beyond the call of any teacher," added her husband, Mike. "The good part is he isn't shut out because of some imitation deadline. Hopefully they'll look at the concerns and consider the welfare of the kids."
JODIE TWEED can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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