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Community divided: Barnesville residents split on superintendent's future

BARNESVILLE, Minn. -- He's the talk of the town. Over backyard fences, at the Sunday sermon or by the frozen foods in SuperValu, people here can't stop talking about Todd Cameron. But that doesn't mean residents agree on the Barnesvil...

BARNESVILLE, Minn. -- He's the talk of the town.

Over backyard fences, at the Sunday sermon or by the frozen foods in SuperValu, people here can't stop talking about Todd Cameron.

But that doesn't mean residents agree on the Barnesville schools superintendent.

"He's vindictive and dishonest," says Diane Haugen, an outspoken Cameron critic.

Others disagree.

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"He's a great guy," says Todd Thompson. "I would stand up for Todd Cameron wherever he goes."

Supporters and critics of Cameron have clashed repeatedly this summer.

In a 4-3 decision, Barnesville School Board members voted July 8 to notify Cameron his contract may not be renewed next year.

School Board Chairwoman Loretta Szweduik and board members Jeff Brown and Kevin and Ellen Smith haven't said why they want to replace Cameron.

Some residents say they're as angry about the silence as they are about the decision.

Others insist a move to replace Cameron was overdue.

And everyone seems to agree the debate threatens to split Barnesville.

"This issue is dividing the town and the community as a whole," says Randy McEvers, one of three board members who supports Cameron.

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"I've never seen anything like this," he says.

Critics speak out

After 33 years of teaching science and math, Roland Holm retired as a Barnesville teacher three years ago.

Holm believes most of the unhappiness with Cameron lies with his budgeting skills.

Faced with declining enrollment, the school district cut about $700,000 from its budget the past three years.

According to numbers supplied by Cameron, the district's operating fund balance plunged from $503,587 in 1997 to $24,722 by 2000.

Holm blames poor financial management by Cameron for the sharp decline.

A Barnesville sixth-grade teacher for 33 years before retiring a year ago, Dennis Kragnes says many parents feel the same as Holm.

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Years of budget cuts forced the district to lay off teachers, which increased class sizes, angered parents and hurt staff morale, Kragnes says.

Haugen says a number of current district employees are unhappy with Cameron, but are afraid to speak out.

Five former and current school employees contacted by The Forum for this story declined comment.

Three said they were afraid of retaliation if they criticized Cameron publicly.

"The people who speak up are either laid off or given latrine duty," Haugen says.

Haugen supports the board's attempt to rid itself of Cameron, adding that his followers are simply angry at not getting their way.

"The old guard lost control and can't stand it," she says. "I'd like to see these people shut up, go away and let the School Board do its job."

Supporters respond

Cameron does have a long list of supporters in the school district.

"He's a very personable man," says Chris Ellefson, a secretary in the school district. "He's not an ogre."

After the board vote July 8, Sandy Brakke organized a petition asking the group to rescind its motion.

At least 375 people signed the petition. Another 122 people signed a petition asking Szweduik to resign.

The petitions carry no legal weight, but express people's disappointment with the board's actions, Brakke says.

"They're not listening to us," she says. "Our petitions are our voice."

In addition, parents formed the Coalition of Concerned Citizens of ISD #146.

The fledging group says Szweduik, Brown and the Smiths may jeopardize the future of the school district by letting go of Cameron.

"People should not be treated the way Todd has by the board," says Jim Miltich, a coalition organizer. "We weren't taught to do that."

Mary Trowbridge says the board caters to a small number of Cameron critics.

"They were elected to represent all of us, and they're not even trying to do that," the retired teacher says.

Unless people challenge the board, more dedicated employees will be out of work, says Gloria Hartmann.

"This won't stop with Todd Cameron," she says.

Miltich agrees. "Teachers and staff will be next," he says. "With these people, it's one strike and you're out."

The road ahead

Both sides agree the debate over Cameron creates a rift in the community.

"There's been a lot of hard feelings down here," Holm says. "Friends and neighbors are upset at each other."

A few Barnesville pastors have used their Sunday sermons to address the issue, trying to bring people closer.

"It's on everyone's mind," says Robert Albin, pastor at Assembly of God Church.

"People don't understand what the School Board has done and they don't know the reasons behind it," he says.

The community may learn some of the basis for the board's decision Monday.

Cameron and the seven-member board plan to hold a meet-and-confer session at the end of a regular scheduled board meeting, set to begin at 8 p.m. Monday.

Neither side has said whether the session will be open to the public.

Miltich says the meeting could be a final chance to try to save Cameron's job.

"We have to have the board members check their egos at the door and turn this ship around," he says.

Holm says the only way to right the district's ship is to hire a new captain.

"He has to leave," Holm says, referring to Cameron.

"We need to find a superintendent to work with the community and the board to bring people back together."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cole Short at (701) 241-5557

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