FARGO — The Fargo School Board on Tuesday, June 8, disciplined one of its members for repeatedly not wearing a mask during meetings.
Face masks were required in all district facilities during the school year, and board member Jennifer Benson frequently attended school board meetings without wearing one, according to a memo filed by Fargo School Board President Rebecca Knutson. The memo and emails reveal Knutson told Benson she could attend the meetings over the phone if she had objections to wearing a mask, but Benson declined, stating that she would not be able to fully participate in meetings over the phone.
Knutson also told Benson that she could file for a mask-wearing exemption, but Benson declined, according to the memo and emails given to the board Tuesday night. Benson continued to attend meetings maskless even though she received repeated reminders about the requirement.
The school board "censured" Benson for her actions, which simply means the majority of the board doesn't agree with her actions which they agreed was a violation of board policy. It doesn't affect her right to speak or participate in meetings.
The vote was 6-2, with only board member David Paulson voting against the censure. It's the second time Benson has been disciplined in such a way by other members of the board.
Benson was greeted by applause from the crowd of about 15 people when she spoke up for herself at the meeting. Most were part of a group that started collecting signatures on Tuesday to recall four board members. More than 4,000 signatures from district residents are required on each of the color-coded petitions to force a recall election.
Benson told the board since North Dakota hasn't been in a state of emergency, she does not believe the board has the authority to enforce mask-wearing and to say she poses a risk.
She said according to federal law the board had no right to ask her for a medical exemption. Benson said the board policy disregards federal law that "protects individuals' rights" and called it "illegal,' adding she wasn't an employee of the district, although other board members disagreed saying they received W-2 forms from the district.
Benson said the board "hasn't even acknowledged that this isn't about health and safety. It's just really about me being forced to follow a policy that in my opinion should have expired a long time ago."
The two-term school board member, who's second term expires next year, also said she was sticking up for the other parents who spoke at earlier board meetings about the effects of mask wearing on children. She said the board should have been listening to them.
"Is it really just about power, control? When does it end?" she asked.
In the emails given to the board, Benson even got personal. She accused longtime board member Jim Johnson and a few others on the board of "harassing me both verbally and via restrictive policy modifications."
Knutson, though, said other members of the public have reached out to the board wondering why Benson wasn't wearing a mask.
She realized that there were people on both sides of the masking issue, as the board had heard from those parents against mask wearing, too.
Paulson wondered if there were any incidents among staff or students in the district concerning masks and how that was handled.
Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said if there was a student or staff member who didn't comply, he or she would be asked to turn in a medical exemption, before talking things out with the principal if the problem continued.
"To my knowledge, nothing happened behind that point," Gandhi said.
District Human Resources Director Doug Andring agreed and said to his recollection there were no adverse situations with the mask requirements.
Knutson, who consulted with North Dakota School Boards Association attorney Amy DeKok for an outside opinion, was told the board has a right to manage and control school matters.
DeKok, who said she wasn't giving formal legal advice, also told Knutson that the North Dakota Supreme Court has "reaffirmed on multiple occasions the state's and local government's ability to enact laws, regulations, ordinances and policies to protect public health and welfare." She mentioned school vaccinations requirements as an example.
Knutson said she realized it was "new territory with COVID-19," but that the North Dakota Legislature this past year also turned down proposals that would stop school boards and other units of local government to pass health and safety regulations.
Benson was censured by the board last year for making "unsubstantiated comments" about the Fargo superintendent and associate superintendent.
Forum reporter Michelle Griffith contributed to this report