Comments from Lincoln High School Math Instructor, Reid Froiland, before the Thief River Falls Board of Education Tuesday Night …
“I am here speaking not directly about all that has happened surrounding Mike Biermaier’s resignation and re-signing of a contract for next year, but because of it. What I have observed in the three months since the controversy first came about is just how demoralized the staff of this school district is…
…and not because of Mike, and not because of budget cuts necessarily, and not because of pay, or benefits—but because of the perception that right now, this district, a district that was once lauded in this state for its site-based decision-making process, is seemingly being run by an autocracy, with the agendas being personal and dictated by a select few.
What the whole controversy surrounding the Activities Director position has exposed is a staff, at all levels, that is full of fear—fear that no matter what they do or do not do, they will “be next”—be the next individual placed on an improvement plan, or given a choice between resigning or being fired, or being reprimanded not for doing anything illegal or immoral or just plain wrong, but for doing something that does not match the personal beliefs of someone or multiple people at the top.
I took a pay and benefit cut to come here 12 years ago because this place was, I believe, better long-term than my previous district. Processes were better; people’s opinions were valued; what leadership teams discussed in buildings mattered; there was trust in our staff and our buildings to do what is right for our students —the business buzzword would be “empowered.” Judging by the number of people who have brought up in conversation, either public or privately confided in me, that morale is as low as they have seen it in their twenty, or thirty, or more years of working for ISD 564, that empowerment no longer is present. The culture is not healthy. The culture is quite ill—almost on life support. It is as if input no longer matters—or worse yet, input will make you “next” because it doesn’t match the agenda of those running the show.
I am amazed at the comments I hear from staff about just doing what they can to get by and not be noticed…the comments about looking elsewhere…comments like “I am in no position to move my family—but I go on EdPost and dream about working elsewhere.” (EdPost is the statewide teaching job board hosted by St. Cloud State University.) These are comments I would not have dreamed of hearing from my coworkers even a short time ago—but they are there, the feelings are real, and this is simply wrong.
It’s easy to say “This is the superintendent’s job to fix things” or “It’s the principal’s job to fix things”—insert the title of your choice in that phrase. Truth is, it’s not. It’s your job as board members, the ones elected to set the direction and the tone of things in this district. The behaviors, the attitudes that you would recoil against in the places you work are things that you seem to be exhibiting or tolerating right now. With at least one of you, I have personally witnessed you help lead the charge at your day job against the very treatment of staff that you have condoned of late. The superintendent may be the public figurehead of the district, but you are the ones in charge. The example you set is looked at by staff and, most importantly, by students. Their “crap detectors,” I like to say, are extremely sensitive to good leadership. Our students are making comments in the hallways about the lack of it right now.
The easy fix would be to say “out with them”—out with the board members who condone or encourage this type of micromanagement based on personal agenda. I admit to having thought and said that these last three months—and ultimately that would be a strong message for our students on the results of leadership. Maybe that is what voters will decide in November. I can’t predict the future.
I do know, though, that we in this school district, as Scott Brekke likes to say, are in the “business of giving second and third chances” to our students—and that can be given to you as well. You have the opportunity to reset the culture. You have a staff that if given honest signs of effort to make things right again, will assist with that work. Changes on your part to raise the morale and fix the agenda-driven governance we seem to have, to restore the valuing and empowerment of our staff, would be a far more powerful lesson for our students and far more personally rewarding for me. I hope you, whether you have eight months or eighteen years remaining on our school board, commit yourselves to “righting the ship”—to working to raise morale, to lessen the micromanagement, to restore the processes that have made this a great place to work and a great place to learn—and most importantly, to give our students the school system they deserve.”