Less than a month before the start of the school year, the principal at a Watertown elementary school is facing dismissal, apparently because of flirtatious e-mails he sent to a teacher with whom he was involved.

The proposed firing of Nick Guertin, who joined the Watertown-Mayer School District five years ago, came in a unanimous resolution passed by the School Board on Aug. 5.

Guertin, 35, was suspended with pay until he decides whether to appeal the firing, the district said. Guertin's attorney said this week that he intends to do just that.

"This was very surprising," Roger Aronson, Guertin's attorney, said about the firing. "This is not a case of misconduct that warrants this type of action."

The proposed firing of the popular Guertin has divided the 550-student school -- the district's only elementary school -- and has been the talk of the Carver County town, in part because the district did not disclose the reason for the dismissal.

"Certainly the timing is quite unfortunate because it is near the beginning of the school year," said District Superintendent Karsten Anderson. "It was a unanimous vote of the school board after careful consideration. Beyond that, I don't really want to comment."

Anderson said Guertin does not have any previous disciplinary history at Watertown-Mayer. He said there are no pending complaints against him in the district.

School officials, citing data privacy concerns, have only said that Guertin was fired for violating Minnesota Statute 122A.40, Subdivision 13, which covers anything from improper conduct to misuse of school funds.

"The district, when it became aware of issues, investigated and, when it became ripe, the board acted," said Patrick Flynn, the district's attorney.

He said Guertin has been notified about the reasons for the board's action last week.

Guertin on Wednesday said he had no comment beyond the statements of his attorney.

Aronson, also the legal counsel to the Minnesota Elementary School Principals Association, said Guertin is being let go because he and the teacher sent suggestive e-mail messages to one another at school, using school equipment.

The teacher is no longer employed by the district, having taken a job with another district for the coming school year, Aronson said.

The two were engaged in a consensual relationship while both were going through divorces last year, Aronson said, and they are still together; Guertin's divorce became final in February in Wright County.

The e-mails were presented last month to a school board member who then moved to have Guertin fired, the lawyer said.

Aronson said that the e-mails were not obscene. He said the language and sentiments were the kind two adults might use in private.

"I would classify them as flirting between two consenting adults," he said. "They said something to the effect of you look hot and can't wait to see you."

Controversy erupts

Judging by reaction around town, the school board's decision caught many people by surprise, by how quickly it came and how close it was made to the start of the school year on Sept. 2.

While parents were shy about talking on the record about the planned dismissal, they used local websites to post comments both for and against the firing.

"I am in shock," one parent wrote on the websites of local newspapers such as the Waconia Patriot and the Carver County News. "This is the first I have heard about this situation."

That parent, like many others in the town of 4,000, expressed frustration that no further information was furnished about why Guertin was let go.

"This is completely unfair to leave us parents wondering what has taken place, and not allow us to make and voice our own opinion in support for or against the school board's decision," the parent wrote.

The law cited by the school board states that a school official can be fired for immoral conduct, insubordination, conviction of a felony, conduct unbecoming a teacher which requires the immediate removal, gross inefficiency, willful neglect of duty.

Aronson said he believes the school board will use the "conduct unbecoming" clause as the reason for the firing. He said that the basis for the firing is one of the flimsiest for dismissing a principal he has come across.

"He acknowledges that he wasn't using his best judgment," Aronson said, "but this is not a hanging offense."

Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280