WDC School Board sued over Open Meeting Law
(Editor's note: The following story contains references to vulgar language and upsetting statements.) All six current Wadena-Deer Creek School Board members are being sued for breaking the Minnesota Open Meeting Law by a long-time employee of the...
(Editor's note: The following story contains references to vulgar language and upsetting statements.)
All six current Wadena-Deer Creek School Board members are being sued for breaking the Minnesota Open Meeting Law by a long-time employee of the district. The court complaint filed in Wadena County District Court Nov. 27 also alleges a pattern of favoring men over women and harassment by the current superintendent, Jerome Enget, though Enget isn't named in the suit.
Karla Kupfer, who was the administrative assistant to Enget and the superintendents before him for the last 21 years, also alleged the board and administration broke rules laid down in the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. Kupfer also has a case pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which she filed shortly after her termination in June.
WDC board members Judy Taves, Mark Stone, Ann Pate, John Moenkedick and Wayne Perkins all declined comment when reached by the Pioneer Journal, and referred any communication to the board attorney, Sue Torgerson. Board member Kathy Yelle did not return a phone call last week on her cell phone seeking comment.
Enget also declined to comment on the allegations.
Torgerson issued a statement Monday that said: "On November 21, 2007, a former employee of the school district, Karla Kupfer, filed suit against the school district and the school board of Wadena-Deer Creek Schools. The suit alleges violations of the Open Meeting law and the Minnesota Data Practices Act. The district and board will file legal responses in December of 2007 with the Wadena County Court. The detailed legal response of the district and school board will deny all of the allegations of wrongdoing."
Board members refused to answer any other questions on the suit.
Kupfer and her attorney, Lori Beck, granted the Pioneer Journal's request for an interview, and detailed what she believed was Enget's misogyny and a pattern of intimidation with his employees.
Meanwhile, a current district employee, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, confirmed many of the allegations in Kupfer's suit.
How it started
Kupfer started working for the WDC district in 1986, serving as the confidential administrative assistant to the superintendent.
"Ms. Kupfer was, as a consequence of her job duties, the sole district employee who would or could interact with the current Superintendent, Jerome Enget, on confidential district matters," said the court complaint. "As such, she and Superintendent Enget had a close and exclusive working relationship. That relationship was characterized by Superintendent Enget's use of vulgar, discriminatory and harassing language."
The complaint alleges Enget called women, including Kupfer, names like "pig-face," "b----," "fat," "ugly" and "nosey."
Kupfer said in an interview it hadn't always been that way with Enget.
"He was good to me for four years," she said.
In fact, Kupfer and her husband had a close relationship with Enget and his ex-wife away from work, she said. That soured when Enget and his wife split, and Enget learned Kupfer was still keeping in contact with his ex-wife. Kupfer said Enget became disillusioned with women in general while he was having relationship problems with women in his personal life.
"I think when he was divorced this last time, I think he had a lot of anger issues about how women have treated him in the past or relationships gone sour or whatever," she said. "I really felt like I was a whipping post for him in between relationships."
'No woman is ever going
to tell me what to do'
Kupfer said Enget and Taves, the school board chairwoman, were both strong-willed and often clashed.
"Him and Judy Taves -- I was always throwing water on the fire with those two," Kupfer said.
She recounted an incident in 2006 shortly after the school board met. Kupfer was typing up the minutes she took at the board meeting, and was contacted by Taves, who insisted the minutes reflect that the discussion determined there would, in fact, be a homecoming parade in 2007.
When Kupfer told this to Enget, she said, he refused to allow her to send out minutes that contained that language. Taves repeated instructions to add the phrase into the minutes, Kupfer said, and told her not to send the minutes without. Enget again instructed Kupfer to take the sentence out.
Kupfer said she pleaded with Enget to talk to Taves directly to resolve the matter.
"He yelled at her, 'No! No woman is going to tell me what to do -- not Judy Taves, not you, no woman!" the court complaint said.
Kupfer also says in her complaint that Enget commented during the filing period for the Wadena-Deer Creek School Board Election in 2006: "We have too many women on the school board now! Women micro-manage everything."
A second source
The Pioneer Journal contacted a second source -- a current district employee with direct knowledge of the inner workings of Enget's district office. (We granted her anonymity, which is only given in extreme cases where the information cannot be verified through normal channels, and when the source could face retaliation for speaking with the PJ.)
The source said she witnessed preferential treatment toward men by Enget, and derogatory treatment of women.
The source said she also witnessed conflict between Enget and the female members of the WDC school board.
"He does not like women in charge on that board," the source said.
Asked directly if she believes the allegations contained in Kupfer's court complaint, the source responded: "Oh, yes."
She said she often witnessed angry and vulgar action by the superintendent toward Kupfer.
The source said she also knows school board members would regularly meet in groups in Enget's office after hours or before school.
"They'd be in Jerry's office behind closed doors," she said. "Early in the morning, they'd be in there, two or three at a time."
Kupfer goes to
the school board
By November 2006, Kupfer said, she had taken all the harassment she could take. She approached school board member Ann Pate while Enget was on vacation, complaining of gender-based harassment and intimidation.
The next month, Kupfer's suit alleges, Enget began to withhold some of Kupfer's job duties, stopped communicating regularly with her, and assigned her menial tasks. Kupfer said the board assured her the harassment would stop.
In March 2007, Enget proposed to a newly formed Finance Committee of the school board that Kupfer's position be cut to balance the budget. The board refused, the complaint said, but Enget still informed Kupfer on March 23 that she would be cut without the board's consent.
The board passed a cut list that contained several teachers and other district professionals, but Kupfer's position was not on that list.
Then in a letter dated April 17, Kupfer said, she was informed her position would be cut to 80 percent of full-time.
During this time -- on March 29, April 27 and June 1 -- Kupfer said she requested copies of her own personnel file, which is allowed under state law and must be provided within 10 days, Beck said. That file, obtained later, had only two job performance evaluations -- in 1986 and 1993 -- both positive.
On June 21, Kupfer said board members Taves and Stone entered her office and told Kupfer her "job performance was slipping."
"I was shocked," Kupfer said.
She said she asked for specific examples, and was only told there had been typos in school board minutes, which Kupfer denied.
Kupfer said even on that date, she was told she would be brought back at an 80 percent contract.
On June 27, Taves, Stone and Perkins returned with an attorney and told Kupfer they wouldn't be offering her a letter of assignment for the 2007-08 school year. They asked her to turn in her keys, seized her hard drive from her work computer, and told her to leave.
Kupfer said district employees are automatically renewed each year with the letter of assignment, which is comparable to a one-year contract.
Open meeting violations?
Kupfer's suit alleges the school board broke the Minnesota Open Meeting Law on three occasions, by discussing her employment status over the telephone, going so far as taking a vote over the phone, one by one.
The law requires all public bodies in Minnesota to conduct all business in meetings that are open to the public. Elected officials are prohibited from establishing a quorum any time or anywhere unless proper notice has been given to the public. Taking votes, by phone or e-mail, would constitute a "serial meeting" and an open meeting violation in Minnesota, according to an opinion published by media law expert Mark Anfinson. The board could have called a meeting and then closed the meeting to discuss a personnel issue or pending litigation, and afterward reported the result.
No such meeting was ever called, Kupfer said in her complaint, nor has any reference to a vote or discussion about her job ever appeared in any school board minutes -- to this day.
not sexual harassment
Kupfer's attorney said it's important to understand Kupfer isn't alleging sexual harassment against Enget, but preference based on gender.
"This is sex-based harassment, not [sexual harassment]," Beck said. "She was treated differently because she was a woman. She wasn't given the respect that he would have given a man. She was abused and basically bullied, and he wouldn't have treated a man that way."
Kupfer denied there's ever been any sexual component to her friendship with Enget.
"He has never laid a hand on me," she said. "There has never been anything sexual, ever. And I'd go to my grave saying that, and he'd better too."
The EEOC claim
While Kupfer said she was reluctant to cloud the issue of a proposed levy referendum by filing her open meeting lawsuit before that vote, she proceeded in secrecy with a complaint through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On July 6, just days after her termination at the district, she filed that complaint.
An EEOC investigator is currently looking at Kupfer's allegations, and will decide whether her suit has merit, and whether the EEOC will file suit against the district, or endorse her action to proceed with that suit at her own expense.
"Then we can bring a complaint based on Title VII, the Civil Rights Act, or the Minnesota Human Rights Act," for sex discrimination, harassment and retaliation, Beck said.
Beck said it's likely there's another shoe to drop in this case.
"There very likely will be an additional legal action taken after the EEOC investigation is completed, but we have to wait for that administrative procedure to run its course," she said.
Kupfer said it could take up to a year for the EEOC administrator to rule.
A former board
Former WDC School Board Member Charlie Oakes, contacted by phone last week at his new job in Willmar, said when he was on the board, he was very aware of where the line was as far as the Open Meeting Law and so-called "serial meetings." And Oakes said he never personally witnessed any open meeting violation while he was on the board here.
"Part of that may have been that I was pretty careful about that, and I made it known that I was pretty careful about that," he said. "I always felt the rules mattered."
Oakes said if he ever received an e-mail or phone call from a board member who wanted to discuss district business, he would excuse himself.
"I would just respond with, 'We have to discuss this at the meeting,'" Oakes said.
Oakes said he was surprised to learn there was any problem with Kupfer.
"My experience with Karla was that she was always an excellent employee, very professional and very competent," Oakes said of Kupfer's employment.
What she hopes to gain
Kupfer said she isn't looking to get rich from the lawsuit, but wants those who made mistakes to admit them. The penalty, for instance, for each violation of the Open Meeting Law is a $300 fee. Even if she wins that part of the suit, it's unlikely to cover Kupfer's expenses in bringing the suit.
"I decided when I was terminated that I'm going to walk with my head high, and fight for any justice I have coming," she said. "I feel that I've been wronged with 21 years of experience I have. I know that mistakes have been made. All I want out of this is for [the school board] to prove that they did it legally."
Kupfer said she feels she has the facts on her side.
"If I had anything to hide or be embarrassed about, I wouldn't have pursued this," Kupfer said. "It would have been much easier to walk."
"This has really taken an emotional toll on Karla and her family, too," Beck said. "She had a good job that she loved, and she loved the people there."
Beck said Kupfer wanted to fight based on principle, too.
"I want them to start acting ethically as school board members, doing things legally as other boards have to do," Kupfer said. "There's definitely laws and a code of ethics for board members. They are not following them."
"The public has a right to know what the school board is discussing," Beck added. "They need to do their business in open meetings -- not have all their business decided before they come to the meeting. That seems to be the way they do things."
Kupfer said she believes the district has already spent in the neighborhood of $30,000 in legal fees connected with this case.
She said she feels she's been wronged, and looks forward to proving it in court.
"I feel they got rid of the wrong person," Kupfer said. "They got rid of the victim, not the harasser."