BISMARCK — North Dakota's State Board of Public Education reluctantly appointed two new school board members to a small district in the northeast part of the state on Tuesday, June 2, after four of the five members of the board were suspended by Gov. Doug Burgum and face criminal charges.
The appointments again give the Oberon school district a quorum of three board members to carry on the needed business of the district of 55 students. It was the seven-member state board's responsibility to make the appointments after the suspensions.
The reason the board hesitated was that one of the appointees had a criminal record, and the other has been convicted of driving while under the influence.
On top of that, Benson County Superintendent of Schools Lucia Jacobson, who oversees the district, told the board the two were also related and that their appointment would just continue the "Hatfield versus McCoys" struggle that has enveloped the district for years.
Jacobson said the district would be "in the same mess," if the two were appointed. She was hoping they could find someone that was not in "either camp."
However, state Superintendent of Schools Kirsten Baesler, who herself was arrested this past winter on DUI charges, said there was a sense of urgency with what appeared to be a five-day window from Sunday when Burgum suspended the four and that no one else had applied.
Baelser said it appeared that even if the board had a few more days or delayed the decision that it was unlikely there would be any new candidates surfacing at this time. "I, too, wish we had a broader field of candidates," she said.
The state board's lawyer, Assistant Attorney General Allyson Hicks, is the one who brought up the criminal records of the two appointees.
She said the convictions were from years ago, but she wanted to point them out.
Sharon A. Mudgett, one of the appointees, had a DUI in 2001, while her son-in-law, Matthew L. Friesen, 36, the other appointee, has a record dating from 2004 through 2008, that involved minor drinking-related charges but then the more serious convictions of disorderly conduct in 2008 when he served 30 days in jail and a simple assault on a correctional officer the same year that landed him another 60 days in confinement.
Hicks asked the board to consider when they thought Mudgett and Friesen might be considered rehabilitated and if the two were qualified to do the job.
Board member Jeff Fastnacht of Mandan said he hoped and prayed that the two new members would do what was best for students and "put aside the Hatfield versus McCoy" mentality.
Fastnacht said even if they waited, he and other board members still "wouldn't know the people" they would be appointing.
The board approved the appointees on a 7-0 vote. The new three-member board, which also includes county commissioner Doris Griffen, has 60 days to name two new members to the board and then Mudgett and Friesen are required to step down, Hicks said. The next new board will then appoint two more members, and Hicks said it could include the two state appointees.
Meanwhile, the suspended board members are awaiting court hearings. One of the suspended members is also seeking the results of next week's election. Hicks said Carolyn Nelson is seeking a spot on the board, although Hicks said even if re-elected Nelson would still be under suspension. The other board member facing re-election, Karen Peterson, has decided not to run again.
The four suspended members face charges after police say they misused $150,000 in school funds.
The four, also including Corey Ploium and Jacob Hegland, were charged after an investigation by the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
The suspended board members are accused of willingly using school funds to hire Victim, Survivor, the Voice, LLC, a sales firm that lacked credentials to do an audit and wasn't in good standing with the North Dakota Secretary of State's Office. The head of the company was Ploium's friend, according to court documents.
Ploium was previously a teacher in Oberon, a town of 100 about 25 miles southwest of Devils Lake, but he resigned five years ago after he was accused of having sex with a student.
The four board members face several charges in Benson County District Court, including misapplication of entrusted property, giving false information to law enforcement and failure to disclose a conflict of interest.
State Auditor Josh Gallion has been requested to do an audit on the Oberon School District.
Reporter Jeremy Turley contributed to this report