McFeely: ‘False firestorm’ at heart of Johnson’s School Board ouster
That’s the phrase ousted Fargo School Board President Jim Johnson used in a text message to fellow board member Jennifer Benson to describe the controversy over potential changes in school boundaries for two south Fargo neighborhoods.
It seems to be at the heart of the conflict between Johnson and Benson that led to the school board voting 6-3 on Tuesday, Feb. 27, to remove Johnson as president after Benson accused him of bullying her and treating the public with disrespect.
Johnson declined to be interviewed, and Benson didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Benson spent several minutes Tuesday building an emotion-choked, tear-filled case against Johnson – at one point the board took a break to allow Benson to regain her composure. She said Johnson confronted her after the board’s Feb. 13 meeting and told her to never “blindside me again.” She said Johnson used profanity. He doesn’t deny the confrontation, but doesn’t remember using a profane word.
Benson also referenced a text message Johnson sent her Feb. 5, which she also considered bullying. Johnson denied it, sharing a copy of the text with the board. It read, in part:
“Just so you know I have spent over 3 hours of my workday today dealing with a false firestorm from wood haven (sic). I’m not sure how this fire started but I do have an idea for you. Please tell the group tonight that nothing is on the immediate horizon regarding boundary changes as at best those decisions are a year away.”
Johnson was referring to Woodhaven neighborhood residents who, along with those in the bordering Pointe West neighborhood, were contacting Johnson and Fargo Public Schools officials with concerns about boundary changes that would send some students bound for Davies High School to South High instead. Those residents were opposed to the change and scheduled a meeting that night to discuss it.
Benson lives in Woodhaven and attended the meeting, which she said drew about 100 people. She is up for re-election in June.
Here’s the rub and what appears to have irked Johnson: The School Board met in a retreat the previous Friday and discussed for the first time long-range options to accommodate growing enrollment on the south side, something Johnson figured would need to be addressed in three to seven years. Potential boundary changes were one item discussed. The public didn’t attend the retreat, and it was not covered by the media.
Yet a couple of days later, before the board had a chance to discuss the retreat at a public meeting, much less make any concrete proposals (which, again, Johnson didn’t figure would happen for at least a year), a blaze had been lit – a “false firestorm,” in Johnson’s eyes. Maps of possible new boundaries, given to board members at the retreat, were circulating among Woodhaven and Pointe West residents.
Have we mentioned Benson lives in Woodhaven? Have we mentioned she’s up for re-election in June?
Johnson has not directly accused Benson or any board member of stirring things up, and certainly not any reasons behind it. But the text nibbled at the edges, and he made another reference at the Tuesday meeting by saying, “After our retreat, something occurred out in south Fargo. Some information began to be shared with a number of parents who began then to reach back into the district and by Monday morning the district email was getting several messages from the Woodhaven and Pointe West neighborhoods. I was met at my door by the media.”
There’s nothing illegal or unethical with a board member sharing information from a retreat with the public. Retreats are open meetings.
But Johnson and other board members believed Woodhaven and Pointe West residents were given premature, incorrect or incomplete information that was tainting their opinions. They were getting riled up and pressuring the board over something that might not happen and, if it does, is years away.
It boiled over at the Feb. 13 meeting at which several residents addressed the board saying they opposed boundary changes. Two Woodhaven residents, Shannon Voeller and Stacey Piechowski, were particularly pointed in their criticisms, accusing the board of not being transparent and not communicating with the public. Multiple board members cringed at the accusations, but only Johnson spoke.
“I thank you for your advice. I assure you this board is committed to transparency and public input and both of those will be front and center when and if we have a boundary to adjust,” Johnson said. “But again, thank you for coming tonight.”
This was deemed by members of the public, Benson and other board members as being disrespectful. After the meeting, Johnson confronted Benson. Two weeks later, he’d been fully consumed by the “false firestorm.”