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What should happen when school board members go rogue? Fargo officials mull their options

Policy changes under consideration include reducing an offending school board member’s compensation, holding a public meeting between an offending member and the full board, and removing an offending member from leadership assignments or committee positions.

Fargo Public Schools Board of Education meeting in December 2021.jpg
The Fargo School Board, seen here meeting in December 2021, is considering tougher consequences for board members who repeatedly violate board policies.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

FARGO — The Fargo School Board has moved a step closer to creating stiffer consequences for board members who repeatedly violate the board's policies.

The conversation has gone through governance committee and work session meetings, and will be brought up at the board's regular meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 8.

Proponents of stiffer consequences say the board's current rules need more teeth, otherwise board members could continue to violate the board's policies.

A governance committee meeting was held Thursday, Feb. 24, and the proposed rule changes will be forwarded for a vote at the March 8 school board meeting, said Board President Rebecca Knutson.

Policy changes under consideration include reducing an offending board member’s compensation, holding a public meeting between an offending member and the full board, and removing an offending member from leadership assignments or committee positions, according to the board's work session summary .

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While Knutson said the proposed changes do not apply to anyone specifically, the conversation on tightening the rules began after board member Jennifer Benson lobbied North Dakota lawmakers in November 2021 and expressed views that were not supported by the board.

In November, the school board had not taken stances on the issues that Benson addressed in her emails to lawmakers, and school board protocol states that to publicly voice differing and personal opinions as a board member goes against policy, Knutson said.

In November, Benson told The Forum that she did not violate any school board policies. Benson said she was not representing the board in her lobbying efforts and that her voice should not be silenced.

At the time, Knutson told The Forum that such actions from board members at most face censure. Censuring a member means the board publicly expresses their disapproval of the member's actions, but otherwise the step does not carry a penalty.

Fargo Board of Education President Rebecca Knutson
Fargo School Board member Rebecca Knutson at a meeting in December 2020 at South High School.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

The board has not censured Benson for her November actions , but she has been censured twice before: once in June 2020 for making accusations against district leadership, and again in June 2021 for repeatedly not wearing a mask during board meetings when district policy required her to do so.

Benson defended her actions, saying some board members are trying to push policy changes to silence certain members and ignore previous reports she has filed.

Pointing to examples of policies in school districts in Grand Forks, Bismarck, West Fargo and Stillwater, Minnesota, Knutson suggested at the board's recent work session that there are local precedents for “language leading up to or after censure for additional steps if continued board member violations occur.”

“These changes have to apply to any board member, and we do have examples that we can refer to, but I want to make sure that this isn’t portrayed about one board member. When we look at policy changes we have to make sure it’s something that can be applied across the full board,” Knutson said.

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Benson said Thursday's governance meeting was another attack against her.

“Now they want to add policy language to remove me from committee work as their next level of punishment,” Benson said.

They “continue to spend time and energy working hard to silence me simply because I disagree with them,” Benson said. “Imagine what we could accomplish if these members spent their time focused on improving student outcomes and holding administration accountable to it versus all this nonsense.”

Jennifer Benson, Fargo School Board member.jpeg
Jennifer Benson, Fargo School Board member.
Submitted photo

Benson, a board member since 2014, works as an area business specialist for Janssen Pharmaceuticals , a company owned by COVID-19 vaccine-maker Johnson & Johnson.

Among other topics, Benson lobbied state legislators to ban state licensing boards from taking action against doctors who prescribe off-label FDA-approved drugs (Lawmakers ended up passing a bill that prohibits such action against prescribers of ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug that's become a popular unsanctioned treatment for COVID-19).

“Please advocate for direct access to the life-saving medical treatments, including monoclonal antibodies and ivermectin on behalf of all North Dakotans for both vaccinated and unvaccinated patients needing this treatment,” Benson wrote in the November emails to elected officials, adding that “discrimination based on ‘vaccination’ status should never be allowed.”

Benson also supported imposing penalties of up to a year in jail or a $500,000 fine for pharmacists who deny a prescription of a medically-necessary drug (Lawmakers ultimately declined to enact such penalties).

“This is where we lose America. If we fail to act on this, we will fail to safeguard the freedom that we are supposed to hand down to our children and grandchildren,” Benson wrote.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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