Nov. 10: Prior Lake supt. quits; fired employee elected to board

  • Article by: EMILY JOHNS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2007 - 9:34 PM

The Prior Lake-Savage superintendent is leaving because a man who had been fired from the district at his request was elected to the board.

Tom Westerhaus

Prior Lake-Savage School Superintendent Tom Westerhaus.

Photo: Jennifer Simonson, Star Tribune

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In an announcement that caught the community off guard, Prior Lake-Savage School District Superintendent Tom Westerhaus said Friday that he is stepping down at the end of the school year because a district employee who was dismissed on his recommendation was elected to the school board Tuesday.

Westerhaus' decision followed another blow at the polls when voters handily rejected the district's requests for money for operations and a high school addition. But he said that the levy failure had nothing to do with his decision.

In a letter to staff, Westerhaus said he "can no longer work in this district. The election to a board of a former employee, whom I had progressively disciplined and ultimately recommended for final dismissal ... confirmed for me that it was time to move on. The community has spoken through this election."

Westerhaus, a highly regarded leader of one of the state's fastest-growing districts who is president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said he will let his contract expire at the end of the school year.

In June, with Westerhaus' recommendation, the Prior Lake-Savage school board fired Chris Lind, who worked as a campus supervisor at Prior Lake High School. Lind, a devout Christian, had been at the high school for four years. In that time, he had developed a reputation among students as an adult willing to befriend them and mentor them in their faith.

The district says it fired Lind for "job performance and insubordination" after receiving complaints about his talking to students on campus about their sexual orientation. The district also warned him about maintaining appropriate boundaries with students and the need to separate the role of a supervisor of students from the role of friend.

Lind and supporters who showed up at the school board meeting in droves told a different story. Lind argued his First Amendment and religious rights were violated when the district told him he couldn't talk to students off-campus about his religion. He said he couldn't morally agree to that demand.

Lind was elected to the Prior Lake-Savage school board on Tuesday. Informed of Westerhaus' decision to step down at the end of the year, Lind said Friday that he was surprised and saddened.

"I was very open in the belief that I was wrongfully terminated," he said. "But I didn't run on a platform of getting rid of him. I think he's been very effective and very good."

In an interview, Westerhaus said, "It's very painful for superintendents to have to work under those circumstances, and I don't intend to do that to myself."

While he made it clear that his departure was not linked to the levy failure, he did address it in his letter, calling it a "tremendous setback for the district." He also apologized if he contributed in any way to its failure and said that "we are reviewing what was done in this election to learn for future elections."

Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said that Westerhaus is very highly regarded.

"Tom Westerhaus is a person of very strong ethical values," he said, "and he just feels that the fact that [Lind] was elected to the school board was just something he didn't feel he was going to be comfortable living with."

Westerhaus has been a superintendent for almost 20 years and an educator for more than 35. He graduated from Eden Prairie High School in 1969 and studied education at St. John's University. He received his doctorate in education while working as superintendent of the Rocori School District near St. Cloud.

Several school board members and Kyte have tried to get Westerhaus to change his mind, but "he was pretty clear that he couldn't be talked out of it," said Michael Murray, chairman of the school board. "... My sense is that it wasn't something that was arrived at lightly."

Westerhaus said he has been contacted by several districts within and outside of Minnesota, as well as by a firm outside of education. But he plans on taking his time to make any decisions about his next career.

"This is a great community, and I am going to miss it," he said. "I have felt great support over the five and a half years I've been here, and I care deeply about this community, I really do."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460


    School board Chairman Michael Murray said the board will probably seek advice from a professional group in the search for the district's next superintendent.

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Tom Westerhaus