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South Washington County School Board shuns opinion columns by members

Communication became a topic of conversation at a recent District 833 School Board retreat, after one member's recent newspaper column raised eyebrows and resulted in a recommendation that they keep disagreements in the board room.

The annual retreat, facilitated by education consultant Ken Dragseth, typically focuses on how well the board executed goals from the previous year and goals for the coming year for members as well as Superintendent Mark Porter.

But during that discussion, Chairwoman Leslee Boyd asked about board members submitting opinion columns to newspapers.

That issue goes back about two months to a workshop on the district's nutrition services budget. Nutrition Services Director Barb Osthus said the U.S. Department of Agriculture rules state the district must raise lunch prices by 5 cents even though her department doesn't need to raise more money.

Board members were adamantly opposed to the increase and agreed to a resolution by Board member Ron Kath that the board refuse to raise prices if there is no penalty.

Board member Jim Gelbmann said he later had second thoughts about his vote and submitted an opinion column on the issue to the South Washington County Bulletin and the Woodbury Bulletin.

In the column, Gelbmann said that the board should set an example and obey the federal law.

At the following meeting Gelbmann asked that the school lunch amendment be brought up again, but there was no second to his motion so it failed.

During the July 7 retreat, Boyd said there might have been support for Gelbmann's motion if he hadn't submitted a column to the newspapers.

Items of disagreement should be discussed in school board workshop meetings, Dragseth said. Some boards refer to board member newspaper commentaries as "going rogue," he said.

Gelbmann said he called board members in advance of his submission, adding that it all could have been avoided if he'd had time to think about whether or not he agreed with the resolution.

Gelbmann said he was "caught off guard" and felt it was a "significant enough issue" to comment in the two newspapers.

"There was no malice in the amendment," said Board member Marsha Adou.

Boyd also asked how board members should respond if a proposal by one board member during a workshop meeting gets no support from other members and is proposed again at the regular meeting.

Gelbmann, who also serves as deputy secretary of state, an office that oversees elections, had proposed that the board change to even-year school board elections to increase voter participation and save money.

Board members, who did not support the proposal, said school elections would get lost among other even-year elections.

Boyd said she was "puzzled" that Gelbmann would bring up the matter again.

Gelbmann said a Bulletin editorial on the issue might have changed some board member's opinions and was "a good opportunity" to bring it up again.

Dragseth cautioned board members to be "careful" not to let newspaper editorials influence them.

Boards "govern by plurality," he said, and workshops should be used to discuss differing points of view.

In a later discussion about submitting amendments to board members ahead of time, Boyd said she would encourage board members to do so as a courtesy but could not compel them.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
(651) 459-7600