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Crookston schools' Native liaison's job in question

CROOKSTON, Minn. - A new American Indian liaison for Crookston Public Schools, who some say has made strong progress with students, has been placed on temporary paid leave.

CROOKSTON, Minn. – A new American Indian liaison for Crookston Public Schools, who some say has made strong progress with students, has been placed on temporary paid leave.

Jonathan Stronstad, who was hired as a part-time liaison Dec. 15, said he just wants to keep his job. He feels administration is targeting the position and the American Indian Education program, he said.

"I just want to go back and help those kids," he said.

His suspension follows an alleged disruption last Thursday students witnessed in a common area at Highland Elementary School and a decision by school administrators to move him to progressively smaller offices, he said.

The district superintendent said incidents with Stronstad are under investigation but would not comment on his leave or his future employment.

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A voicemail Stronstad provided from Highland Principal Chris Trostad, sent Monday to Stronstad, confirmed the he won't be allowed to attend school the rest of the week but will be paid.

Trostad said he's examined statements and a video related to the incident. He will report to the personnel committee next Monday, he said in the voicemail.

"I will be notifying you of their final decision as to what happens with your employment," he said.

Trostad did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday but did contact Stronstad to say they would meet Wednesday to discuss "the final decision," according to Stronstad, regarding his employment with the district.

Crookston Public Schools hired Stronstad through grant funding offered to districts statewide with sizable American Indian populations. The state has long offered funds to support these students but this year set aside more, according to a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.

Stronstad and others have said Crookston can use the support. The district was awarded funding based on 43 students who attended school last year, but the number is higher. About 189 Native students attend school in the district, they said.

Carol Schulz, a former American Indian liaison for the district about a decade ago, said Stronstad's suspension is not surprising. She said the district has fought against offering assistance to Native students for years.

"The better Jon was doing at his job, the worse it got for him," she said.

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'Extremely biased'

In a text to Trostad, Stronstad described his treatment by some school employees as "extremely biased and extraordinarily unprofessional."

Stronstad last Thursday walked out of his office, which is adjacent to the library, and accidentally interrupted a class of students, he said.

He said an employee loudly disputed his presence in the library as he tried to take the conversation to a quieter location and away from students, he said.

A couple of days later, he said he was admonished again for walking through the library, he said.

He has also been moved to progressively smaller offices. Administrators told him he had to move so they could use one office to lock up test information.

Superintendent Chris Bates would not confirm or discuss Stronstad's status. He said it's under investigation and administration will "make the best decision we can" once that has concluded.

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"I'm not going to speculate until I know what happened," he said. "If nothing happened, for me to speculate ... is just not professional."

Bates also would not say who would take Stronstad's place if he were fired.

 

Student improvement

Stronstad said he feels he's being targeted by administration.

"I just want to keep my job and keep helping these families," he said.

In the two months he's worked for the district, students who have had attendance problems now go every day, he said. About 40 American Indian parents showed up for the first parent advisory committee, others have said.

Stronstad had planned more after-school tutoring sessions, a drum and dance program and other events. He told the Grand Forks Herald he works beyond the part-time hours meeting families, tutoring students and doing whatever he can to engage them, he said.

He works beyond his part-time hours, and he said some staff seem to interpret that as infringing upon their work. But he doesn't want to reduce his extra time with students and families, he said.

"I care about the job, I care about the families, it has nothing to do with the school or the pay," he said. "Even if they decide to fire me, that doesn't mean I'm going to stop working with the community and help organize and make positive changes. It's just going to be a lot harder if I can't help the kids stay in school."

Schulz said the district as recently as 2013 failed to appropriately support Native students with state funding and so many students are failing academically, "our numbers are just pitiful," she said.

Schulz quit her job as the district liaison several years ago to focus on her family but volunteered in 2013 to support the program.

Schulz said the district is required by law to provide programming and support to American Indian students if there are at least 15 in the district. She commended Stronstad's work, saying he's made an "amazing connection" with students, parents and guardians.

"He's got kids going to school, he's got parents involved," she said. "But this is just not something the school district wants."

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