Welcome to the 2023-24 school year and what I hope has been a strong and smooth opening for you and your school communities.
I am honored to serve as MASA President over the course of this school year. I moved to Minnesota in 2013 as a first-year superintendent for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage ISD One91 School District. Then MASA Executive Director, Gary Amoroso, was one of my first calls after accepting the job. Participating in the Great Start Cohort, one of the early presenters was our current Executive Director, Dr. Deb Henton, and she was amazing. I remember saying: “I want to be like her someday.” I’m still trying. Thank you Deb and MASA staff for your ongoing guidance and support. As I reflect on the biggest challenges we face as superintendents and school leaders, MASA and your voice is always at the forefront.
Colleagues, a special thank you to each of you. As we all continue to navigate complex and complicated tasks, having each other’s support has never been more important. We most certainly learned this during the pandemic, and I am thankful that our networks remain connected and have continued to grow even stronger since that tumultuous time.
As we enter this new year, I continue to circle back to one essential question: How are the children?Perhaps it depends on who you ask or where you look. Maybe your answer can be found in student achievement data. An experience a student had in a unique summer program. A senior leading her team to their school’s first conference championship. Frequently, it may be found in what I call the “life backpack” of a new student enrolling in your district. The life backpack contains the compilation of experiences that shape the individuals we assign to our classrooms.
Last year, like so many of you, I faced some of the most difficult safety incidents of my 30-year career working in public education. We set out to collect information about safety from students, families and staff in our school community. This was an important step in providing stakeholders a chance to share how they felt, provide recommendations for consideration, and to address the themes we heard from them.
I also developed the urge to learn more from our students. We distributed 10,575 surveys to students in our high schools and 6-12 campuses. 3,557 students (34%) completed the survey. While the response rate was relatively high, there was a lot more to learn.
I asked our leadership team to put together a series of student meetings with me at our high schools. Not for pictures or PR, but because I wanted to hear directly from them about their experiences in our schools. These student convenings turned into nine full-day meetings with students at the Irreducible Grace Foundation – Black Youth Healing Arts Center in St. Paul. Each session included a brief presentation and grounding from me before we transitioned into grade-level groups for facilitated discussions with staff from our Office of Equity.
The students spent time building community, sitting in restorative circles, and reflecting on their experiences in SPPS. As I visited with each group, they presented posters to me, invited me into their circles, or took me on gallery walks of student-created posters. The same notetaker followed me each day to capture important information. At the end of each day, I reported out “What I heard…What I wonder…What I understood” to the full group so the students knew that I took what they had to say to heart.
Perhaps the most important learning of all was how broadly our community defines “safety.” A lot of what I heard was not about emergency preparedness or physical safety but about school climate and culture, mental health, and the importance of trusted relationships. At the end of the day, students who have strong relationships with their peers and trusted adults at school feel safer. It is so important that our students feel seen, heard and valued. Creating an environment where this is not only possible but expected is our real work as leaders.
I met so many amazing students as part of this process. Just last week, I brought one of them to the State Fair to join me for some live TV interviews. You can watch one of the clips HERE. Bobby Arnold is a senior at Johnson High School who is interested in becoming a teacher and is already a leader in his school. Bobby stood out to me at the student convenings and I thought he would be an excellent representative of SPPS students for the viewers to see.
Our children are at times misunderstood, often feel dismissed, and would like to have more voice in the decisions that impact them. The nearly 850,000 students we have the privilege of serving in Minnesota are amazing. And, they need our leadership more than ever before. As my colleague AJ Crabill says: “School districts exist to improve student outcomes.” Asking and finding the answer to “How are the children?” in your district is an essential first step.
Some time ago I had the pleasure of hearing Amit Sood, M.D. speak about resilience and well-being. Dr. Sood is a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic of Medicine, has earned worldwide recognition for his work, is the executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, and author of a number of papers and books.
After hearing Dr. Sood speak, I purchased his book The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living for a team I led while superintendent. We used the guide for the year and implemented many of the concepts long after we had filled the pages with post-it notes for later reminders of how to train our brains to pay joyful attention and refine our interpretations to the positive.
It is very likely that many of you are working long hours, experiencing some level of stress and may benefit from Dr. Sood’s “7-Point Program for Increasing Energy.” His practical tips include:
Eat healthy nourishing food.
Sleep seven to eight hours a day.
Keep company with good people.
Avoid news overdose.
Follow an exercise routine.
Do something meaningful each day.
Think good thoughts for others.
Dr. Sood also recommends having a daily theme to stay focused such as finding gratitude on Mondays, compassion on Tuesdays, acceptance on Wednesdays, higher meaning on Thursdays, forgiveness on Fridays, celebration on Saturdays and reflection on Sundays.
We’ve heard this all before, yet combining Dr. Sood’s 7 Points and daily themes, and making them routine may help retain the pep that we feel on the first day of school. Our kids and staff will benefit greatly from resilient leaders who attend to their own wellbeing.
The 2024 legislative session begins on February 12. With a two-year state budget in place, the DFL trifecta will likely focus on passing a bonding bill, fixing errors from the last session, and looking at other priorities that did not advance in the 2023 session. And depending on the state budget outlook, passing a supplemental budget bill.
A glimpse into the state budget outlook
Regarding the budget outlook, Minnesota Management and Budget (MMB) announced in July that Minnesota’s net general fund receipts for FY23 are now estimated to total $30.384 billion, $528 million (more than projected in the February 2023 forecast. Promising news, but that could change throughout the summer as we await MMB to release the official budget forecast in December.
Sustaining the momentum of our advocacy
Thank you for your advocacy during the last legislative session, which was key to advancing MASA’s legislative priorities. However, advocacy is a year-round effort – the legislative interim is a great time to build new relationships and strengthen existing relationships. Over the fall and winter, please reach out to your elected officials, meet with them to talk about what’s happening in your school district, and invite them to visit or tour the district.
Next steps in MASA’s legislative planning
MASA’s legislative committee will meet later this year to draft the legislative priorities. If you have ideas or suggestions about topics to consider, please email Deb Henton (firstname.lastname@example.org) or our lobbyist, Valerie Dosland (email@example.com) who will bring your ideas to the legislative committee.
For nearly 100 years, the common-law rule was that the state, as sovereign, could not be sued without its consent. However, in 1976, the Minnesota legislature passed the Minnesota State Tort Claims Act (“MSTCA”), which waives the state’s tort immunity “for personal injury . . . caused by an act or omission of an employee of the state while acting within the scope of office or employment.” The MSTCA defines “scope of office or employment” to mean that “the employee was acting on behalf of the state in the performance of duties or tasks lawfully assigned by competent authority.” This statutory definition was the focus of the Minnesota Court of Appeals’ decision in Sterry v. Minnesota Department of Corrections, issued in March 2023, in which the court held that the MSTCA’s definition of “scope of office or employment” mirrors the common-law understanding of that phrase. The Sterry decision, which will be reviewed by the Minnesota Supreme Court this term, has the potential to broaden school district tort liability under the MSTCA’s counterpart for local units of government, the Municipal Tort Claims Act.
In Sterry, a formerly incarcerated individual—Nicholas Sterry (“Sterry”)—sued the Minnesota Department of Corrections (“DOC”), alleging that a correctional officer had sexually harassed and assaulted him, and that the DOC was vicariously liable for the officer’s conduct. The DOC moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that it was immune from tort liability under the MSTCA, and the district court granted the motion. Considering the statutory language, the district court found that the correctional officer had not acted “within the scope of office or employment” under the MSTCA because the misconduct “was not part of [the officer’s] duty as a DOC employee and it certainly was not a lawful task performed at the behest of the DOC.” In reaching that finding, the district court reasoned that “the precise language of the [MSCTA’s definition of scope of employment] narrows the scope of employment for government employees more than the general scope that would apply under the common law to private-sector employees.”
On review, the Minnesota Court of Appeals interpreted the MSTCA’s definition of the scope of office or employment. As an initial matter, the court emphasized the general presumption that statutes are consistent with common law and noted the absence of any language in the MSTCA expressly abrogating the common-law concept of the scope of office or employment. Next, the court held that the only reasonable interpretation of the MSTCA’s scope-of-employment definition is consistent with the common law. Specifically, the court held that an employee acts within the scope of employment under both the statute and the common law when (1) the employee was acting as a representative or agent of their employer, (2) the act is related to the duties of the employee and occurs within work-related limits of time and place, and (3) the employee committed the tortious act while engaged in duties or tasks lawfully assigned by competent authority. Concerning the third part of the definition, the court clarified that “lawfully assigned by competent authority” means that the duties and tasks were lawfully assigned, not that the tortious act itself was an assigned duty or task.
The Court of Appeals then turned its focus to whether Sterry’s complaint stated legally sufficient tort claims against the DOC. The court held that it did, holding that Sterry had alleged facts relevant to all three parts of the statutory scope-of-employment definition: (1) at the time of the alleged sexual assault, the correctional officer was supervising Sterry as a representative of the DOC; (2) the officer was on duty, performing duties and tasks assigned by DOC; and (3) the officer was authorized, by virtue of her position, to order Sterry into the room where the assault occurred and to conduct bodily searches, and the officer used her authority to threaten Sterry with discipline and criminal charges if Sterry reported her. While the court noted that facts could develop that would undermine one or more parts of the scope-of-employment definition, the court held that Sterry’s allegations were sufficient to survive the DOC’s motion to dismiss. The Court of Appeals therefore reversed the dismissal of Sterry’s claims and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings.
The Sterry decision is on appeal before the Minnesota Supreme Court, but its holding remains in effect for now. This holding has implications for school districts because the Minnesota Court of Appeals has previously held that the Municipal Tort Claims Act borrows its “scope of office or employment” definition from the MSTCA. As a result, the Sterry decision has the potential to increase the number of lawsuits brought against school districts arising out of their employees’ conduct and may heighten the risk of liability in such cases. School districts should keep this decision in mind and, if they become involved in such a lawsuit, analyze the specific facts of the case with the assistance of legal counsel to determine whether the employee’s alleged tortious conduct fell within the “scope of office or employment.”
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.
Shannon M. Smith is an attorney with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact her at (612) 337-9302 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alemayehu Z. Ditamo is an attorney with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9306 or email@example.com.
“Pick up any city newspaper and you will read it. Listen to any major talk radio station and you will hear it. Attend any school board meeting and you will live it: the telltale signs of a national tug-of-war over the selection of curriculum and the delivery of instruction. The key players are public school parents and educators. The key issues are who will control what is taught and how it is taught.”
While this quote no doubt resonates with your experience with the public schools circa 2023, you might be surprised to learn that this frustrating portrayal is from an article I wrote for the American School Board Journal in 2000. “What Do Parents Want?” goes on to frame the seminal challenge still facing our public schools today: “Can public schools and teachers retain an appropriate level of professional autonomy in a confrontational, in-your-face-world?”
My answer – 23 years after framing the question in “What Do Parents Want?” – is a resounding maybe!
Liberty, Bonds, and Battlefields
While “What Do Parents Want? lamented significant threats impacting public schools more than two decades ago, there is no doubt these same forces represent the landmines of today’s divisive school politics. Fueled by the power of social media, these barriers to success are more impactful and explosive than what I experienced as a public school superintendent in 2000. These challenges are also charged by the hot button power of a new vocabulary omnipresent in the media and on the Internet: CRT, perceived woke issues, and LGBTQIA+ to name three. While these issues are increasingly spurred to a gallop through their nexus with partisan politics at the national level, the battlefields have shifted to local school boardrooms.
This reality is represented in the references to liberty and bonds in the title of this article, foreshadowing two contemporary approaches public school critics have harnessed to galvanize their advocacy at the local level.
“Bonds for the Win” (bondsforthewin.com) represents one such organization that aligns with partisan politics at the national level but focuses its advocacy locally. Bonds for the Win targets the surety bonds of their local public officials, required in some states for school board members or superintendents. The organization claims school officials have violated the law or their oaths of office and seek to hold the surety bond holders financially liable for their actions.
The impetus for Bonds for the Win was largely driven by families who opposed mask mandates during the pandemic, which the organization claimed was outside the power of school boards and therefore a violation of their oath of office. A quote from their website states, “It’s a daunting and overwhelming task to take on public officials in an attempt to open their eyes. But the fact is, they are BREAKING THE LAW with their actions and it is impacting YOUR CHILDREN!”The Bonds for the Win website also provides step-by-step guidance and tutorials on how to file a legal claim. One of the unfortunate realities for school officials is that when a surety bond action is filed properly – even when the veracity of the claim is likely without merit – meeting legal requirements to respond appropriately still requires an investment of time and money by the school district and its public officials.
A more recent example of public school critics organizing to challenge school board members and superintendents is manifested in the “Moms for Liberty” (momsforliberty.org) movement. A July 2, 2023, Associated Press headline, frames up one front of this battle: “Moms for Liberty’s focus on school races nationwide sets up political clash with teachers unions.” According to its website, “Moms for Liberty is dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” Similar to Bonds for the Win, opposition to mask mandates is highlighted on their website, although curriculum-based challenges (e.g., CRT, gender issues and perceived woke issues) are currently more central to their advocacy. Similar to Bonds for the Win, Moms for Liberty is fueled by partisan politics at the national level but channels the organization’s resources into local politics. The website states, “We activate liberty-minded leaders to serve in elected positions.”
Bonds for the Win and Moms for Liberty are just two examples of how parents and other stakeholders are organizing, raising money, and challenging local school boards, administrators, and staff. What they have in common is close alignment with partisan political agendas at the national level, but strategies and advocacy aimed at local governance – in this context school board elections. Both also gain significant momentum through effective use of the Internet and social media.
One consequence of these broad and entrenched controversies is increasingly contentious school board elections. According to Ballotpedia, the number of contested school board elections has increased nearly 24% from 2018 – 2022. There is also an increase in slates of school board members – linked by common politics or desired reforms – running in school board elections as a bloc hoping to gain immediate quorums to control school board policy decisions. A related consequence is heightened stress for school leaders and school boards. A 2023 RAND Corporation (rand.org) survey found that “…the intrusion of political issues and opinions” as the number one job stressor for superintendents.
What to Do?
It is critical that school leaders find a pathway through this turbulence that balances the legitimate perspectives of families and community members with the need to effectively govern and respect the professional autonomy of those charged with delivering public education. Given the unprecedented and divisive challenges facing public schools today – and the likelihood that conditions will get worse before they get better – I offer two fundamental strategies designed to build that pathway in these turbulent times. Both strategies – a relentless and intense focus on core academic skills and a robust commitment to improved decision-making – are largely within the control of public schools.
In the opening paragraph, the “What Do Parents Want?” article referenced a core finding in a report published by Public Agenda (publicagenda.org) stressing that public schools must put first things first. In this context, the report asserts that the first things families want are safety, order, and mastery of basic skills. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) amplified this core challenge in 2023 stating, “U.S. students are struggling across the board. Educators, policymakers, and families need to work together urgently and decisively to address this generation’s learning needs.” Note the compelling language in NAEP’s charge: urgently and decisively. This crisis is reinforced in a July 2023 report by NWEA (www.nwea.org) stating, “…most students would now need, on average, an additional 4.5 months of mathematics instruction and 4.1 months of reading instruction to recover in these two subjects. Both reports go on to suggest that significant academic decline – most concerning in reading and mathematics – was exasperated, but not born by the pandemic. Andrew Ho, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, summed up these sobering data saying, “It’s a generation’s worth of progress lost.”
Faced with ongoing culture wars and challenges to professional autonomy, committing to putting first things first has important implications for school board policies, how money is spent, school board agendas, purpose and focus of advisory committees, content of school district websites and newsletters, collaboration with teachers, and what school leaders talk about in public meetings. Consistent with the Public Agenda, NAEP, and NWEA call to arms, it must be abundantly clear to everyone – including your harshest critics – that achieving high levels of academic achievement in basic skills (i.e., reading and mathematics) is Job 1…for every student…every day…in every classroom. And the actions of the school board and staff in this steadfast focus must align with their words. (Note: This commitment is not intended to imply that other academic subjects are unimportant.)
A second fundamental strategy focuses on doing a better job – no matter how well the school district believes it has done historically – to improve stakeholder engagement and ultimately the quality of the decisions made. This commitment to better decision-making – both in terms of process and outcome – complements the laser focus on reading and mathematics achievement, effectively adding another bulwark to a public school’s foundation for a better future. In order to effectively harness this strategy, school leaders need to think about decision-making as a research-based process rather than a series of unrelated actions.
One excellent model can be found in the book, Homerun Leadership, by Dr. Dave Webb. (homerunleadership.com) His research-based framework outlines what Webb characterizes as the IROD (information, reactions, options, decision) process. “As a leader, moving your team from point A to point B can feel overwhelming,” Webb states. The path of good leadership, sound decision-making, and real change is predicable – and attainable.” IROD prepares one to act on what research says about how people naturally make decisions. In Webb’s words, “You will implement the wisdom of all the major change-management systems.” While there are many models designed to improve decision-making, it is important to commit to an approach that is research-based and produces excellent results, and then use it consistently. Your internal audit in this context can be framed with a question: What decision-making model do you consistently use when engaging stakeholders and making important decisions affecting students, parents, staff and other stakeholders?
First Things First
Public schools are experiencing unprecedented challenges. Divisive issues fueled by the convergence of partisan politics and ongoing challenges at the local school board level, challenge school leaders, school boards, teachers, families, and the broader community. Efforts to weather the storm and build a stronger foundation for the future can be enhanced with consistent focus on two strategies. First, understand what families fundamentally want: safety, order, and mastery of basic skills. Understanding this charge should take the form of an unwavering commitment to a system-wide focus to improve achievement in core academics – particularly reading and mathematics. Second, harness the power and consistently use a research-based decision-making model designed to improve the quality of engagement and decision-making over time. While these two strategies will not eliminate the deep-rooted contentiousness and resulting stress in our current political environment, they will enhance support from parents and other stakeholders and narrow the district’s exposure to attack. In combination, they will provide a firmer pathway to pursue its core mission of teaching and learning.
DON LIFTO, a superintendent for 25 years, is a former director with Baker Tilly Virchow and currently consults as School Election Strategies and in collaboration with the Morris and Leatherman Company, Minneapolis, MN, providing school districts with referendum planning and survey research. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @LiftoDon