COLFAX, N.D. - A special recall election on Thursday, Aug. 2, will pit three incumbents against five challengers seeking spots on the Richland 44 School Board – the governing body of a district rocked by scandal and turmoil in recent months, including allegations of sexual misconduct by male students.
If the recall effort is successful in ousting the incumbents – former board President Lisa Amundson, Josh Mjoness and Sarah Myers – then recently appointed President Nathan Berseth would be the longest-serving member working alongside a group of newcomers.
The seven-member board already has three new members who were elected in June: Todd Johnson, Craig Olson and Nicole Rostad Holdman.
In the recall election, the challengers running for a three-year term are Amy Lehmann, who’s vying for Amundson’s seat, and Scott Hendrickson and Derek Beito, who are running against Mjoness. Myer’s challengers are Jody Lingen and Paul Lucas.
Only Amundson, Mjoness and Hendrickson responded to The Forum’s request for comment for this article.
“I think that the community does want a new board,” Hendrickson said. “We’re going to find out in a few days.”
During the June election, Richland 44 saw a huge spike in voter turnout. The district typically gets about 100 voters for its regular board elections, but nearly 400 came out in June to elect three new members.
Hendrickson, a father of two sophomore girls at Richland 44, said if the recall has a high voter turnout, “the community is saying something.”
“If they show up and vote again, it proves everybody is paying attention and they’re ready to turn a corner,” he said.
- Report alleges ongoing 'rape game' among male students at Richland 44 School District
- Richland 44: A timeline of events
District residents initiated a recall petition earlier this year amid investigations into hazing and sexual assault among male teenage students, though petitioners at the time cited “fiscal concerns” as the reason for the recall. The so-called “rape game,” as one independent review described what was happening in the boys locker room, had reportedly been going on in the district since at least 2015.
Amundson said she’s concerned about the “fiscal” impetus of the recall because since 2013, when she was first elected, the district’s ending fund balance has more than doubled. The district was hit with unexpected costs with the recent investigations, such as retaining legal help and hiring an independent team of investigators to analyze the district’s policies and procedures.
“I believe the public will be pleasantly surprised at how well we performed given the unexpected expenses incurred by the district,” she said in an email.
Ultimately, five male students faced charges in juvenile court related to the “rape game.” All the student victims were male.
Victims’ families retained a Fargo attorney to pursue all legal avenues, first requesting documentation to determine what the board and administrators did or didn’t do when the misconduct first surfaced in January.
Much of the district’s leadership departed in the wake of the controversy. Former high school principal Bruce Anderson retired, and former superintendent Tim Godfrey left without explanation, along with former Athletic Director John Freeman.
The district hired Dean Koppelman as interim superintendent and Brittany Gandhi, the wife of Rupak Gandhi, Fargo’s new superintendent, as the new high school principal. Freeman’s replacement has not yet been hired.
Hendrickson said he thinks the district is headed in the right direction with new administration. “I do think that, and I’m hoping that, the worst is behind us,” he said.
With the district in the midst of changes, incumbent Mjoness believes there should be more seasoned members left on the board to carry out those changes. Amundson agrees.
“There is a learning curve for new board members, and it can take a year or more to really gain the knowledge and experience required to effectively lead a school district,” she wrote.
Mjoness said he believes the board did all it could to remedy issues last school year. “We did everything we needed to do at the appropriate time,” he said.
Polls for the recall election are open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday. Ballots can be cast at three locations: Richland 44 High School, 101 Colfax Ave., Colfax; Abercrombie Community Hall, 516 Broadway, Abercrombie; and Christine Community Center, 201 Maine St., Christine.