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North Shore Community School addressing conflicts of interest

The North Shore Community School Board is working to update its nepotism and conflict-of-interest policies in light of recent concerns about a relationship between the school's executive director and a teacher.

The board is scheduled to decide on the new policies at its meeting tonight.

Some parents — while saying that the charter school located between Duluth and Two Harbors provides their children with an "excellent" education — have raised concerns in recent months that the relationship poses a conflict of interest for Executive Director Barry Wolff.

Those concerns were brought up at a parents' forum in March, along with claims that the School Board has lacked transparency in addressing them, in what some have described as a "hush-hush environment" at the school. At the forum, parents questioned the board's creation of a new supervisor structure that only applies to one teacher.

Parents also asked that the board create a new system for North Shore teachers to file complaints involving their supervisor — charter school teachers aren't members of a teachers' union — pointing out that some teachers fear discrimination after two complaints were filed over Wolff's relationship with the teacher.

Several parents contacted by the News Tribune after the forum declined to speak on the record about their concerns.

The board hired a human resources firm in February and met in a closed meeting in March to review a report from the firm, followed by two closed meetings for "preliminary consideration of allegations or charges against an individual subject to its authority," according to board meeting agendas.

However, Chris Butler said the board's actions in October, when he was board chair, to address the relationship were adequate, and he stands by Wolff, who is currently on medical leave for the second time this school year.

Butler said the board learned about the relationship last summer — when, he said, it wasn't an issue because school wasn't in session, and it took a while for the board to determine how to address it. Wolff was the teacher's supervisor until October, when the board decided that the teacher would instead report directly to the board. The board also voted to add the school's nepotism policy to the policy review schedule, and to have the school subscribe to the Minnesota School Board Association's policy service. The actions were taken on the advice of the school's legal counsel, Butler said.

"He's an excellent director and he's done a marvelous job," Butler told the News Tribune last week. "Just about everyone in that building respects him and would like him to continue to be the director and leader. I think it's unfortunate that it's turned into more of a witch hunt, in my opinion."

The teacher is scheduled to receive an evaluation this school year and a school staff member will complete the evaluation instead of Wolff, but the staff member completing the teacher's evaluation is supervised by Wolff, board member Kristi Lounsberry explained during the forum in March.

The board had three new members elected in December and since then, the work it has been doing to address the issues has been adequate, said North Shore parent Danny Frank. He said it's an issue of "growing pains" at a school that he believes has historically had a tightly knit network running it.

"Overall, we have several fresh faces on the board and people who really have a background in leadership and policy from a more neutral stance, from a legal perspective and how human resources should operate," Frank said. "I feel like they're tackling some of the problematic policies one at a time and the work that they're doing, from my perspective, is professional, getting us up to speed on where we should be."

Although the Minnesota Department of Education reported that it hasn't received any complaints about the issue, the school's authorizer — Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center — received a letter alerting the organization "to the issues that were going on at the school, which the school board was fully aware of," according to Peter Smerud of Wolf Ridge.

Wolf Ridge has been North Shore's authorizer since the school's beginning, but will no longer be its authorizer after this school year. Smerud said that decision wasn't related to the issues facing the board this year, but instead because Wolf Ridge is no longer a good fit due to legislative changes to charter schools.

"Their performance has been outstanding, academically, financially, leadership-wise, faculty," Smerud said. "It's absolutely no reflection on the school."