Home Blog

Honoring Mia Urick

Dr. Deb Henton
Executive Director

It is with great pleasure that I provide this tribute to Mia Urick. Mia has served MASA and its members for 32 years and is retiring on October 13, 2022. She leaves behind a legacy of dedication to MASA including providing high-quality professional development opportunities and support of all kinds to staff and members that will long be remembered. 

To prepare for this article, I contacted former MASA Executive Directors Dr. Dale Jensen, Dr. Charlie Kyte, and Dr. Gary Amoroso along with Barb Nicol of Barbara Nicol Public Relations to share their experiences working with Mia. 

“It was an honor to work with Mia for 12 years,” said Dale. He went on to add, “She was a hard worker who was always thoughtful and made the office a pleasant place to work every day.”

Charlie related that during his tenure Mia was responsible for many of the “back office functions.” That continues to this day. Mia fosters business partnerships, develops contracts, and was responsible for remodeling projects and leases when MASA owned a building. Charlie noted that “Mia stayed abreast of who the emerging speakers were and was able to attract them to speak at MASA conferences.” While Charlie was executive director, Mia was able to secure conference speakers Senator Paul Wellstone, most governors, and even the owner of what was then the newly formed “Geek Squad.” Perhaps Charlie’s most notable quote was that one of Mia’s jobs was, “Taking care of poor Charlie Kyte and keeping him on task.” No doubt that was a challenge!

When I connected with Gary, he commented that “Mia’s commitment to, and history with the association, has resulted in an unparalleled legacy. Mia’s years with the association created a fabric that touched all members and all aspects of the association’s work.” Gary’s delight in working with Mia was evident in his most notable quote, “I am forever grateful for the partnership Mia and I shared during my tenure as executive director.” I’m certain Mia feels the same about working with Gary!

Close colleague, Barb Nicol stated, “When you think of MASA and MASE, you immediately think of Mia. For years Mia has been the glue that holds the organizations together, the organizer who knew where to go for what, the connector who could tell you who to talk to. She’s been a great and generous partner to all school districts – and all school communicators – for more years than I can count. We will miss you, Mia!” Exactly Barb, exactly. 

And now it’s my turn. Mia’s appreciation for the MASA staff is unwavering. She has been available to them no matter the time of day. Though I have only worked in this capacity with Mia for a little more than two years, the support she has provided me during my transition, the pandemic and its uncertainty, a personal tragedy, and more, has been remarkable. She has been at my elbow throughout these past two years. My most notable quote is, “Mia is that one person we know who says when they are retiring everyone is replaceable, but we know in our hearts and minds that there is no replacing Mia, only starting anew and honoring her legacy.” I know you will join me in acknowledging and expressing gratitude of the deepest kind for the many gifts Mia has brought to MASA over the years!

We will all miss you, Mia. It’s been a privilege.  

Public Schools Strengthen Democracy

Dr. Matt Hillmann
Northfield Public Schools
MASA President

The start of the 2022-23 school year feels the most “regular” since 2019. The pandemic has a substantially lesser impact on planning for the school year and the day-to-day operations of a school district. I cannot imagine there is a MASA member who isn’t feeling a sense of relief because of it. While we have been exhausted by it, we should take pride in our communities’ reliance on us. 

History is yet to sort out what pandemic-related policies were wise from those that were not. There is one clear message: public schools were the most effective unit of government during it all. And, in my opinion, it wasn’t even close. Take these examples into consideration:

  • Regardless of how someone feels about the decision to shift to distance learning or not, it is clear that our economy depends on public schools to provide a safe, productive learning environment not only for children to learn but so our economy can thrive. Some downplay that role, but it is crucial.
  • Our systems were able to make massive shifts in programming and academic instruction in days — and pull it off in a way few could have predicted before.
  • Public schools were the hubs for distributing food — the confidence we could change our food service model to ensure communities had regular access to nutritious meals was critical for the stability of families.
  • The ubiquity of COVID-19 testing availability coincided with public schools becoming involved. 

The crisis revealed, once again, how essential public schools are for our communities and in American democracy. This year, I will use this theme for my four columns in the MASA newsletter.

With the mid-term elections upon us, public schools again will serve as a political football. Many of us dread that role, but I encourage you to accept it and lean into it. Public schools will always be at the center of political debate in America. For now, we remain a microcosm of American society. The issues being discussed at kitchen tables make their way into our schools because of it. These issues can be thorny, but skilled school leaders navigate them and help our communities understand whether or not they have a tangible impact on our ability to educate students and help them grow.

As we move forward this school year, let’s fully embrace the foundational role that our schools have in our nation. This year can be an opportunity for a “reset” – a chance to re-design systems to support all students and prepare them to participate fully in our democracy. It will be a year when we can play a role in healing our society. Let’s lean into our responsibilities in preparing every student for a future that we cannot adequately imagine the possibilities and challenges they will face. I have complete faith that Minnesota public schools will once again deliver for our state and nation. Leadership matters! Enjoy the energy that the start of a new school year brings — especially this school year.

Livin’ on a Prayer: The Kennedy Case and Its Potential Impacts

Adam C. Wattenbarger
Education Law Attorney
Kennedy & Graven, Chartered

This summer, the United States Supreme Court issued a decision that has potentially significant ramifications in analyzing the appropriate boundaries of religious exercise by school employees while on duty. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prevents government entities, including school districts, from taking action that promotes the establishment of religion. This restriction at times creates tension with individual First Amendment rights regarding free speech and the free exercise of religion, particularly when addressing the religious expression of government employees while on duty.

That tension came to a head in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a case involving a football coach who had a regular practice of taking a knee at the 50-yard-line to pray following games. Initially, he prayed alone, but over time some players began asking if they could pray alongside him, which Kennedy allowed. Eventually, a majority of the team was joining him for prayer, as well as players from opposing teams, and Kennedy began incorporating motivational speeches with his prayers. At times, he also led pregame or postgame prayers in the locker room. Kennedy stated that he never pressured or encouraged any student to join in these prayers.

These practices continued without controversy for several years, until the District’s superintendent, concerned about potential Establishment Clause violations, sent Kennedy a letter instructing him to avoid motivational talks with students that included religious expression or prayer, and to avoid encouraging or supervising any prayer of students. Kennedy ceased the practice of offering locker-room prayers and incorporating religious references into motivational talks to the players, but requested that he continue to be allowed to offer a “post-game personal prayer” of thanks at midfield. The District, however, directed him to avoid from engaging in “any overt actions” that could “appear to a reasonable observer to endorse… prayer…while he is on duty as a District-paid coach.”

Subsequent to that directive, Kennedy offered a brief prayer after the next football game—most of the players on his team were occupied in the singing of the school fight song, but players from the other team and members of the community joined him. The District wrote to Kennedy again, explaining that it felt this could still be interpreted as school endorsement of religious activity, and directed him to pray after a game in a private location or engage in an interactive process to determine alternate accommodations. After the next game, Kennedy again knelt at the 50-yard line, though briefly, and bowed his head for a short prayer. The superintendent informed him that this “moved closer to what [the District] wanted” but was still likely unconstitutional. Following the final game at issue, Kennedy knelt again to offer a prayer, and was joined by other adults on the field. The District placed him on paid administrative leave and, after the season, gave him a poor performance evaluation based on his failure to follow District policy and failure to supervise student athletes after games. Kennedy chose not to seek renewal of his contract and sued for violation of his First Amendment rights. The district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his claims, finding that the District’s Establishment Clause concerns were legitimate and that the District’s actions were justified.

In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Gorsuch, the Supreme Court analyzed the claim under both free exercise and free speech grounds and reversed the decision of the lower courts. When there is a claim that a governmental rule violates someone’s right to the free exercise of religion, a non-neutral policy that burdens a sincere religious practice must satisfy “strict scrutiny”—the rule must be justified by a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored to pursue that interest. There was no dispute about the sincerity of Kennedy’s religious practice, and the policy was non-neutral because it singled out religious acts.

Under free speech grounds, a different test applies: when an employee speaks as a citizen addressing a matter of public concern, courts engage in a balancing test to determine whether the interest of the government in promoting the efficiency of public services outweigh the employee’s free speech rights. The Court held that this was private, non-governmental speech, because the prayers were not given within the scope of his duties as coach—coaches were free to engage in private speech during this postgame time, and the prayers at issue were not delivered as an address to the team. There was no dispute that the speech was related to a matter of public concern.

The Court then held that, under either the free exercise or free speech analysis, the District had not met its burden to justify its imposition on Kennedy’s free exercise rights. The Court fully dispensed with the endorsement test previously used in analyzing Establishment Clause claims (known as the “Lemon test”). In place of that test, the Court held that Establishment Clause must be interpreted by “reference to historical practices and understandings.” The Court held that the evidence in this case did not demonstrate coercion of students, at least among the three prayers actually at issue in the case—the prayers were not publicly broadcast or recited to a captive audience, and students were not required or expected to participate. Therefore, the Court held, because there was not a valid Establishment Clause concern, the District’s imposition on Kennedy’s speech and free exercise of religion violated his First Amendment rights.

The dissent from Justice Sotomayor, joined by justices Kagan and Breyer, criticized the majority for misconstruing the facts with respect to the degree to which Kennedy’s prayer was simply private and quiet. Notably, the record showed that Kennedy had “consistently invited others to join his prayers and for years led student athletes in prayer at the same time and location.” There was evidence in the record of students feeling pressured to participate in the prayers, and the fact that Kennedy modified the prayers did not eliminate the context and history. The dissent also noted the significant disruption that Kennedy’s conduct had caused, in large part due to his own efforts in contacting media outlets, and criticized the “history and tradition” test as offering “essentially no guidance for school administrators.”

Following this decision, it is clear that public schools generally may not limit the private religious expression of employees on the job, at least during down-time when they do not have other specific duties and other private speech is permitted. But acts such as leading students in prayer, or using religious messaging as part of an official duty (such as a lesson or speech to a team), likely still create Establishment Clause concerns and can properly be prohibited. Evidence of coercion also may still be a problem, but this case suggests that the Court will take a narrow view of what constitutes coercion or government-endorsed speech. School districts should carefully keep these standards in mind when deciding whether and how to address employee religious speech.

This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied on as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.

Adam Wattenbarger is an attorney and shareholder at Kennedy & Graven, Chartered, who practices education and employment law. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9306 or kennedy-graven.com.

© Adam C. Wattenbarger (2022). Used by permission.

Fall Legislative Outlook

Valerie Dosland
Government Affairs Director
Ewald Consulting
MASA Lobbyist

Since the end of the session, many hoped Governor Walz would call the Minnesota legislature back to a special session. While some discussions were held between the governor and legislative leaders, they failed to find agreement on the terms of a special session, and it is unlikely a special session will be called as we head into fall and the height of the election season.

Election outlook and the importance of connecting with candidates

This election year, all the constitutional officers are on the ballot, as well as the entire state legislature.

It’s always difficult to predict the outcome of the election, but it is safe to say that elections up and down the ballot will be competitive this year. Many hope the majority will shift in their favor. In the Minnesota Senate, republicans have a 36-31 majority over their democratic counterparts. In the Minnesota House, democrats have a 70-64 majority over their republican counterparts.

One thing we know is that due to many retirements in both the House and Senate, the legislature will look quite different in 2023. This year 58 lawmakers have either announced their retirement or are running for other offices. In addition, five legislators lost their primary election bids. This changing makeup of the legislature marks the most significant shift since 1972!

This shifting landscape underscores the need locally to develop and strengthen your legislative relationships. Elected officials running for re-election and candidates running for the first time appreciate opportunities to connect with their community to get to know the needs in their district. Now is a great time to begin developing those relationships. Here is an updated list of state legislative candidates to help with your outreach.

State budget update

Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) announced in mid-July that Minnesota’s net general fund receipts for FY22 are now estimated to total $30.329 billion, $2.927 billion (10.7 percent) more than projected in the February 2022 forecast. However, MMB noted that most of the higher-than-expected revenue reflects the timing of payments from Pass-Through-Entities which MMB expects will be offset by related tax credits and refunds. As a result, MMB estimates that at the close of FY22, state revenues associated with tax year 2021 could be at least $1 billion over forecast.

MASA Fall Conference Registration


Register to attend the
2022 MASA Fall Conference
October 2-4  •. Madden’s on Gull Lake, Brainerd, MN

Living Our Purpose

What is your purpose?  Throughout the last several years, amid unforeseen leadership challenges, it wasn’t always easy to keep our “Why” at the forefront.  Yet, in that context, many of us were motivated to revisit our senses of purpose and recommit to the core of why we lead our schools.  Clarity in our purpose is key to alignment with mission and vision while providing the agility that helps to navigate any challenges that arise.  Purposeful leaders communicate, spoken and unspoken, their passion for the work that leads to success for each student.  Join your colleagues this fall to explore Living Our Purpose.

Register for the conference as a participant by clicking here 
Arrange your lodging online here or by calling 800-642-5363.

Conference Highlights…
On Sunday afternoon, golfers will enjoy the Dale G. Jensen Classic Golf Tournament, benefiting the MASA Foundation. All conference participants are invited to play, no matter your skill level! To register click here.  

What better way to kick off the conference—and the new school year—than by greeting old friends and meeting our new members?  Sunday evening after dinner, we’ll gather for a casual Welcome Reception.  We will announce the golf tournament results, so all the winners will get their bragging rights early in the conference!

Throughout the conference, we will celebrate the service of our honored colleagues. In addition to celebrating our members’ years of service with recognition marking their milestone years, we will present the 2022 Richard Green scholarship to Dr. Jeff Burgess, Superintendent, Mesabi East School District and the Polaris Award to Sandra Lewandowski, Retired Superintendent of Intermediate School District 287.

We are grateful to Ehlers for sponsoring the Polaris Award and Cuningham for sponsoring the Richard Green Scholars program.

Would you like to receive a service pin or certificate?
Members who have completed 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40 or 45 years of administrative service and five years as MASA members may receive service pins.  Eligibility years are counted as school fiscal years. If you qualify for both a superintendent pin and an administrator pin in the same year, you may get both. To receive a service pin or certificate please click here to complete a brief form.  Congratulations!

Joe Schmit says, “Bullies are forgotten. Kindness can become legendary. You never know when someone at your school needs you to acknowledge them, say hi to them. When in doubt, do the right thing.”  Join Joe for our Monday keynote presentation and discover how to ramp up the profound power of your influence. When you become more aware and intentional with the impact you have as a leader, it will improve your bottom line and your R.O.I.– Return on Impact. Through research, Joe has discovered that, “we make our biggest impressions when we are not trying to be impressive.” Explore what “Impact Resolutions” you can make to become a leader of purpose, persistence and passion.

Our Executive Development Committee leaders have chosen three sets of compelling concurrent sessions giving you the opportunity to choose sessions to best meet your needs.

The Exhibit Fair is a convenient way to visit with representatives of companies offering the latest products and services of value to school leaders.  Our exhibitors’ participation also helps us reduce conference tuition for our members, so let’s thank them for being with us by visiting with them!

Our Monday afternoon program features the work of our 2022 Richard Green Scholar Dr. Jeff Burgess, Superintendent, Mesabi East School District.  Jeff’s work, entitled, “Standard Specific Student Achievement Scores and the Impact on Teacher Incorporation 

of Standards, Knowledge of Standards, and Student Achievement,” will inform us about whether standard specific student achievement data is impactful for teachers to improve their own knowledge of standards, the incorporation of standards, and the resultant impact on student achievement. 

Join Jeff and hear the findings of this important work.

On Monday afternoon, come and celebrate our colleagues who are women leaders.  It will be a great chance to relax and enjoy refreshments with colleagues at the end of the conference day. This event is for ALL of our participants regardless of gender! 

Again this year, we have many new leaders, including many new school board members, in our state.  Our closing keynote speaker Joe Donovan will present perspective on and strategies for engaging and communicating effectively with your school board.  Whether or not you are new to your district or have new school board members, join Joe and learn how you can enhance your relationships to better support your students and staff.

Health and Safety at Madden’s

Madden’s is committed to providing guests with a safe and enjoyable experience. Find details about what you can expect when you visit Madden’s including hours of operation for golf, dining, and other outlets at Madden’s Cares at https://www.maddens.com/covid-19/. Protocols and practices are updated as new state and local guidelines emerge. For further assistance, please call 800-642-5363. 

Conference Fees

MASA Member … 299.00 
MASA Member after September 26 … 349.00 
Non-member … 349.00
Partner who is not also a member … $69
Retired member not representing a business … $69

Abbreviated Agenda

Sunday, October 2

11 am…  Golf Tournament Registration

12 noon  …  Golf Tournament Shotgun Start

6 – 8 pm  …  Dinner

8 – 10 pm  …  Welcome Reception

Monday, October 3

7:30 am  …  Registration Open

8:30 – 10:45 am  …  General Session

                            …  Award Presentations

                             …  Opening Keynote Joe Schmit

10:45 am – 3:30 pm  …  Exhibit Fair

11:15 – 12:15  …  Breakout Sessions

12:45 – 1:45  …  Dessert Reception

1:45 – 3  …  General Session

               …  2022 Richard Green Scholar Jeff Burgess

3 – 3:30  …  Break in Exhibit Area

                …  3:15 Prize Drawings

3:30 – 5  …  Women’s Leadership Reception

Tuesday, October 4

8:30 am  …  Registration Open

9 – 10  …  Breakout Sessions

10:15 – 11:15  …  Breakout Sessions

11:30 – 12:30  …  General Session: Joe Donovan

We look forward to seeing you at Madden’s!