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St. Francis school board advised to oust one of its own

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA
  • Star Tribune
  • December 6, 2012 - 8:32 PM

The St. Francis school board should take the unusual step of removing member Matthew Rustad at next week's board meeting, according to a recommendation from an independent hearing officer.

The first-term board member from Elk River admitted last month to plagiarizing a column he wrote for the school district newsletter, the Courier.

Rustad declined to comment Thursday.

At Monday's board meeting, the other six members will vote on whether they agree with independent hearing officer James Martin's finding that Rustad's act of plagiarism -- and the cover-up that preceded his witness stand admission two months later -- constitute the "proper cause" that Minnesota law requires for his ouster.

Only one Minnesota school board member has been removed by his peers. In 2009, Austin school board members cited conflict of interest in removing Curt Rude after he sued the former superintendent and the district.

In September, the board censured Rustad, 22, but it later rescinded that move after several members said Rustad's actions merited a stronger response.

The controversy began with the Sept. 7 publication of the Courier; Superintendent Ed Saxton immediately began receiving calls from people who commented that Rustad's twice-yearly column was nearly -- not exactly -- identical to a 2010 blog post about paperless school districts.

A Google search of the first sentence of Rustad's column brought up a lengthy comment written by a New Mexico school official on a blog run by the International Society for Technology in Education. The two differed only in a few areas.

On Sept. 10, Rustad told Saxton, School Board President Marsha Van Denburgh and district officials that he had accidentally submitted research notes; he also presented an article -- properly attributed -- that he later admitted writing after the plagiarism came to light.

In his conclusions, Martin said that the district had gone through the proper channels in seeking Rustad's removal, and that state law leaves it to the local elected officials to determine whether his actions constitute "proper cause."

He also noted that plagiarism -- committed within Rustad's capacity as a school board member -- is a violation of the district's own student discipline policy and, therefore, the board's ethics policy. He wrote that Rustad's changing story and his lack of an apology for what actually happened played into his recommendation. He also noted the controversy's negative impact on the function of the board, and its reputation.

Saxton said during the November hearing that he had received more than 100 calls and e-mails calling for Rustad's removal from the board. Since then, he said Thursday, the questions have changed to, when will this ordeal end? Legal costs could reach as much as $20,000.

District officials sent the recommendation to school board members Thursday afternoon. Human Resources Director David Lindberg said the next step depends on what happens Monday. Rustad could resign, though there's no indication he will. The board could vote to keep him or oust him. If he stays on the board, it will simply move on to the next agenda item. If he resigns or is removed, the board soon will appoint a replacement to serve until the next general election.

Neither Van Denburgh nor member Harry Grams could be reached for comment.

School board member Suzanne Erkel has stood behind Rustad from the start. Would she vote against a resolution seeking his removal?

"Definitely," she said Thursday. "I still think it's unjustified."

Board Members Amy Kelly and David Anderson have condemned Rustad's actions and were among those calling for more than censure.

Both said they would finalize their decisions after board discussion but still expressed distaste for the whole affair.

"I am disappointed and saddened by this whole thing because it puts a dim light on everything we stand for," Anderson said. "It's just bad for everyone."

Vice Chairwoman Janet Glover said she still needs to have a better understanding of the broader consequences of her vote, yes or no. But she said she has grave concerns about Rustad's judgment, and about the cost of his actions to the district. She said she has a hard time understanding Rustad's choices, and how the situation could get this far.

"I have a harder time understanding that, being a school board member, it doesn't seem to bother him that we're taking money from kids to spend for this purpose," she said. "If he's knowingly costing the district money, is he the right person to have ever been elected in the first place, and what are his reasons for being on the school board?"

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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