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Public concerns, private interactions behind Fargo School Board vote to oust Johnson as president

Fargo School Board members (left to right) Brandi Aune, Jennifer Benson, Linda Boyd, Dinah Goldenberg and Jim Johnson (top row), and Rebecca Knutson, David Paulson, John Rodenbiker and Kristi Ulrich (bottom row). Special to The Forum

FARGO — The decision to remove Jim Johnson from his role as Fargo School Board president was a necessary response to a perceived lack of respect, according to David Paulson, one of six members who approved the motion on Tuesday, Feb. 27.

Board member Dinah Goldenberg, who voted against it along with Johnson and Linda Boyd, said the hasty decision didn't follow normal procedures and didn't respect Johnson, the board's longest-serving member.

But Johnson said the 6-3 vote should be honored, even if he has "some disagreements" about what happened. "Hopefully, the board is on a healing path," he said.

The issue arose Tuesday when board member Jennifer Benson brought up Johnson's handling of parents' concerns about possible school boundary changes, including concerns raised at a Feb. 13 meeting. She also accused Johnson of bullying by cornering her after the meeting and using profanity.

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Rebecca Knutson, the board's vice president, will now finish out the remainder of Johnson's president term, which concludes at the end of the school year. Johnson will remain on the board.

Benson and fellow board members Kristi Ulrich and John Rodenbiker didn't respond to requests for comment. Boyd declined to comment, citing board policy that says the president is the official spokesperson.

'Blindsided'

Paulson said public perception was critical of Johnson, including complaints that he was "tactless" in his responses to concerned parents. Paulson said the vote also was necessary after Johnson verbally attacked Benson.

"I'm very confident that this will be good for the board and will reaffirm all our convictions that we act as a board in the best interest of our patrons," he said.

Johnson disputed Benson's characterization of their conversation after the Feb. 13 meeting. He said he approached her because Benson read a statement that included a reference to Johnson and district administrators not being her boss and not caring about citizen comments.

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He said he didn't corner her, but asked that she let him know in advance the next time so he wouldn't be "blindsided" again.

According to Johnson, possible school boundary changes discussed at a board retreat in early February became a big talking point the following Monday, Feb. 5, as parents contacted him upset about changes that haven't been finalized.

He said he was unaware until shortly before the Tuesday meeting began that a conversation about his role as president might come up. He said he went home that night and watched footage from the Feb. 13 meeting, but couldn't find anything he said that he believed to be "condescending" toward the public.

Moving forward

Goldenberg, a board member for 12 years, said the vote didn't follow normal procedure. She said the president typically first talks to a member accused of violating rules. Because the president was accused, the vice president should have talked to Johnson privately to share those concerns, she said.

"That's what's worked in the past, and I don't feel that we gave respect to our most senior board member," she said.

Goldenberg said every board member during her tenure who had a "misstep" was first granted a private conversation. "There were plenty of opportunities to raise it with him in that private setting and that didn't happen," she said.

But Knutson said the board did follow its policies. A rule about addressing member violations includes a private conversation between the offending member and the board president or another member. However, she said that's just one of three options, with the board also able to publicly censure the offender or talk it over in a public meeting.

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According to Knutson, Benson brought up the conversation about Johnson's alleged conduct violations and said it should be discussed in a public meeting, which is why it was done that way.

Knutson said Rodenbiker proposed a separate motion before the final vote that, if approved, would have tabled the original motion to oust Johnson. However, that motion failed.

Knutson, a member for the past three years, said she's never had an experience with Johnson that raised obvious issues. She said other board members brought up concerns, including comments they've heard from teachers or community members about Johnson's interactions with them. She said the vote suggests the board felt there was enough to act on.

"I can't imagine they would've voted for the motion if they didn't feel confident in the vote," she said.

Board member Brandi Aune said she doesn't feel like there's tension on the board now, but this vote needed to happen so the group can move on.

"We can't expect kids in the school to follow the rules if the board members can't," she said.

Knutson said the board needs to continue the work it has always done and that includes benefiting from the "wealth of information" that Johnson brings from his long tenure.

"Sometimes, there are these hiccups along the way," she said. "We deal with them when they occur, and so there can be a bump in the road, but we get back on and we keep moving forward."

Johnson said he regrets that the matter overshadowed what the group should be doing.

"The board should never be the news story," he said. "It should be about the kids."

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Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is the Features Editor for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He previously wrote for The Forum and the Grand Forks Herald.

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