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Crosslake Community School Announces Interim Leadership Team, Clarifies Termination

Web posted March 30, 2021
By Paul Boblett, Editor

Cinda Jensen, Crosslake Community School Board of Education Chair, issued a staff report Friday, March 19th explaining how the school will move forward following the March 12th resignation of Director Cliff Skagan, and the dismissal of Online Studies Director, Stacy Bender.

Northland Press had reached out to the school’s Board of Education (BOE) for comment following Skagan’s resignation and Bender’s termination.

Northland Press received the materials referenced in this article from Joe Aliperto, CCS Human Resources Specialist and Financial Director on Friday, March 26th.

Jensen’s letter states that on March 15th, an all staff meeting was held to “discuss recent changes in CCS Leadership, listen to comments, questions, immediate staff needs and suggestions for moving forward. We discussed that we need to have an interim leadership plan for now while we determine CCS needs, potential options and plans for a longer term leadership solution.”

The CCS Board of Education held a Special Meeting on March 18th to review, and ultimately approve an interim leadership plan. The board approved the plan unanimously.

According to the letter, “The CCS interim leadership plan will be implemented immediately and will continue through June and/or until [the board’s] long-term plans have been established and secured with talent.”

The leadership team will consist of Holly Amaya, the current online school counselor, who will assume responsibility for the online program. She will partner with Jill Arendt who currently has both online and seat based responsibilities. Arendt will also continue to oversee some seat based students with 3-4 teacher Annette Klang.

The layout of duties plan shared by Aliperto showed the areas that Amaya, Arendt and Klang will focus on, though the details listed here are not complete. Amaya will handle general questions for the high school age children, admissions and enrollment, study and systems and process creation. Arendt will handle future needs planning, program finances and budgeting, hiring and marketing, general questions for elementary program, truancy, online staffing and special education IEPs. Klang will handle day to day operations, discipline, teacher support and para scheduling.

“We are not going to rush our long-term leadership plan,” the interim plan states, “We want to conduct a rigorous process to understand and analyze CCS needs, student enrollment and demographics, possible leadership options and a thorough candidate selection process to select the most ideal candidates for potential roles.

The plan also states, “We do not have a plan all  figured out right now. We want to review data; receive staff and additional input and we must get Board approval for several elements. We will work diligently on this effort, but we will not rush it. This is absolutely vital to our student, staff and family experience and success. I am confident this will be a positive and collaborative experience.”

Also included from the school was a letter from CCS attorney, Jennifer K. Earley to The Lake Foundation, the school’s landlord. Earley's 11-page document to the Lake Foundation was in  response to a letter sent to the CCS school board by the Lake Foundation Board, who questioned Bender’s dismissal and the handling of the issue.

The Lake Foundation letter to CCS cited Bender’s role in growing the online studies program over the past several years and closed by stating “The LAKE Foundation respectfully requests the Crosslake Community School Board reconsider the action taken on March 12, 2021 with respect to Ms. Bender based upon 1) her self-reporting of the issue and the honesty she exhibited in  acknowledging her error; and 2) due to the fact that we believe the CCS Board did not follow the proper process for terminating an employee for cause based on the sequence of events outlined above.”

Earley cited case law in regards to rights of, and the allegations of the BOE’s mishandling the  process in terminating Ms. Bender.

According to Earley’s letter, Bender was apprised of her rights to address the BOE at their March 8 meeting, but she choose not to.

Earley stated, “When initial concerns arose in this matter, CCS immediately consulted with its authorizer, Osprey Wilds, and Joe Aliperto of Dieci School Finance, who provides human resource services, school business management and financial services to CCS. Both Osprey Wilds and Mr. Aliperto advised CCS that the concerns raised required investigation. Indeed the conduct that was at issue could have affected CCS’s contract with its authorizer and charter school status with the Minnesota Department of Education. On the advice of Osprey Wilds, the CCS Board engaged the services of our law firm to ensure that the processes it undertook in addressing these issues were in compliance with the law. While the CCS Board is dismayed at the degree of questioning posed in the March 17, 2021, letter, it appears that The LAKE Foundation was provided with a great deal of misinformation. These assertions, however, are not well grounded in facts or law as explained below.”

Both Bender and Skagan were “at will” employees and Early wrote, “At-will employees have no contractual right to appeal or challenge the termination of employment. Moreover, the Charter School Law, Minnesota Statutes Chapter 124E, does not provide any right of continued employment or right to challenge discipline or termination actions to charter school employees, regardless of licensure.”

Also included in the provided documents was the letter of termination to Bender, which lays out the reasons for Bender’s dismissal.

It states that Bender engaged the services of an independent contractor, with a known conflict of interest to Crosslake Community School.

The termination letter stated that this is a violation of school policies, procedures and state law that Bender should have known, based on her director level position, that by entering into this contractual relationship Bender was in violation of school policies, procedures and the law.

After contracting with the independent contractor, Bender directed the work of this individual for several months without informing the School Board that allowed charges to be incurred and assessed against the school, without its knowledge or consent, on a contract that is void as a matter of law.

The termination letter also states, “By [Bender’s] conduct stated above, you knowingly placed the School at risk of violating the Minnesota Statutes, section 124E.14, the conflict of interest law applicable to charter schools, thus potentially breaching the School’s contract with its  authorizer and jeopardizing its charter school status.”

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