The evidence is in; the witnesses have said their piece. Now, Matthew Rustad's future on the St. Francis school board awaits the recommendation of hearing officer James Martin and a school board vote next month.
During a 3 1/2-hour hearing last week, Rustad publicly admitted that he had plagiarized the column he submitted for a school district newsletter published Sept. 7. The first-term board member, who was censured by the board in September, also said he believes that continuing to pursue the issue constitutes harassment.
Minnesota statute allows for school boards to vote members off "for proper cause." Last week's hearing was a chance for the district to try to show that cause exists and Rustad's legal right to argue it doesn't. At the hearing, participants said they were aware of only one case in Minnesota in which a school board member was removed by a vote of his peers.
"It's extremely rare that a board member is removed by a vote of the executive board," Gary Amoroso, head of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said recently. "Any time you remove a person from any elected body there's got to be strong rationale for that, simply because the people on those bodies have been elected by the public."
After the district received word that Rustad's column was nearly identical to a blog post written in 2010 by a New Mexico school official, the board voted to censure him at its Sept. 24 meeting. All seven members, including Rustad, voted for the motion.
But at their Oct. 22 meeting, board members said they had continued misgivings about whether censure was an adequate response; they rescinded the censure and began the process to seek Rustad's removal.
Arguing the case
School district staff members have recommended Rustad's removal. During last week's hearing, the district and Rustad had attorneys to present evidence and question witnesses, who included district staff, school board and community members.
David Lindberg, the district's human resources director, testified that Rustad initially lied about the plagiarism, then laid a pattern of falsehoods and half-truths, referring to the action as a "mistake."
Lindberg offered copies of Rustad's article and the original blog post, noting areas of identical wording as well as a few sections that were somewhat or completely different. The edits, Lindberg said, were evidence that the article was not the research file Rustad initially said he submitted by mistake.
Lindberg also testified that Rustad brought a document that he said was the article he meant to have published to a Sept. 10 meeting with district officials after word of the 2010 blog post surfaced. In his testimony last week, Rustad admitted that he wrote that article after the blog post came to light.
Rustad's attorney, Luke Enno, said Rustad had been targeted by peers who disagreed with his positions on the board. Under cross-examination, Rustad said the removal hearing was related only to his act of plagiarism.
In his testimony, Rustad described how he found the blog post, copied it to a Word document, then "through a bad decision submitted that as an article to the board." Describing a letter of apology he had written, he referred last week to "my action of plagiarism." He also acknowledged that he had initially denied intentionally submitting someone else's work. "Like anyone who's been caught, I didn't want to admit to it," he said.
Under cross-examination, he said he did not remember whether he had directly owned up to plagiarizing the column before last week's hearing or whether he had apologized for making a "mistake."
Still, Rustad also said he was dismayed that the issue had returned after his censure. Asked by his attorney whether that measure was appropriate punishment, Rustad said, "I believe censure, along with the public admission of my mistake and act as well as an apology, yes."
He also agreed with Enno's suggestion that further discipline would be "overstepping." In cross-examination, he said he has suffered in recent weeks "the negative impact of continuing public humiliation beyond the final disposition, the continued harassment by members continuing to bring up something that should have been laid at rest at the Sept. 24 meeting."
Martin plans to have his recommendation to board members by Dec. 5, in advance of the Dec. 10 school board meeting.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409