DEVILS LAKE – With the resignation of its superintendent pending, board members with Devils Lake Public Schools are apologizing for holding an executive session on the matter that some say violated open meetings laws.
Superintendent Matt Bakke has requested an early termination of his two-year contract – set to expire on July 1, 2024 – to fill the position of assistant superintendent for elementary education at Grand Forks Public Schools. The position is being vacated by Brenda Lewis, who has accepted the role of superintendent at Fridley Public Schools in Fridley, Minnesota.
At Devils Lake, Bakke was paid $155,075 in his first year, and is scheduled to be paid $160,075 in the second.
During the June 20 meeting of the Devils Lake Public School Board, members entered an executive session, during which they discussed Bakke’s pending resignation, and how to proceed with hiring his replacement. The board ultimately decided to table Bakke’s request until a qualified candidate is found.
Eric Arndt, news director for KZZY radio in Devils Lake, attended the board meeting, and was asked to leave when the session took place. He said School Board President Cory Meyer contacted him the following morning, and provided him with a recording of the closed session.
At one point during the meeting, Arndt sent word that he believed the meeting was being held illegally. During the closed portion of the meeting, one board member can be heard saying Arndt needs to “get a life.”
The Herald obtained a copy of the recording and forwarded it to Jack McDonald, an attorney with the North Dakota Newspaper Association. McDonald said that because no discussion was held regarding the merits of finalists for the position, he believes there was no legal basis for holding an executive session.
“There was not a single thing that was discussed during the meeting that warranted it being an executive session,” he said. “They did discuss advertising for a replacement. If they get, say, 10 applicants, the board can meet in executive session to narrow the list to finalists. But then the names of those finalists are public, and any interviews with them are public as well.
“The open meetings law is very strict regarding when you can go into executive session,” McDonald added. “Among them are discussing pending litigation, giving advice to a negotiator and discussing matters with your attorney. None of that criteria was present here.”
Meyer said the district met with legal staff the evening of June 19, to consult with them about whether discussions surrounding the hiring of a new superintendent fell under open meetings requirements. He said the district was erroneously told that the meeting could be held during executive session.
“We met with our lawyers the night before, misinterpreted their advice, and went into an executive session when we shouldn’t have,” he said. “That’s why we later opened up the meeting to the public. We realized the next morning that we screwed up. I called Eric (Arndt) up, apologized to him and said ‘hey, we misinterpreted advice from our lawyer, because it happens sometimes – it’s lawyer speak.’”
Regarding hiring Bakke’s replacement, Meyer said the district plans to accept applications until July 7. The board will then reconvene on July 10 to review applicants’ qualifications.
Meyer also said that if the district is unsuccessful in attracting qualified applicants by the July 7 deadline, it will pursue other options, including hiring on an interim basis.
Bakke stressed that he wants to help the district make his departure as seamless as possible.
“I’m trying to make the right decision, and do everything I can to help both districts,” he said. “At the same time, I want to do what’s best for me and my family.”
Banish covers news pertaining to K-12 and higher education, as well as county commission coverage.