Tensions boil at Lyle Public Schools

Published 10:58 am Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Lyle Public School board vice chair Carl Truckenmiller, left, leaves the boardÕs monthly meeting followed by Superintendent Jim Dusso after board member Dan King tries to read from a confidential letter suggesting he should resign Monday night. - Trey Mewes/trey.mewes@austindailyherald.com

Simmering discontent with Lyle Public Schools boiled over at Monday night’s school board meeting. Amidst heckling from an audience of more than 70, board members adjourned the meeting and most left the room as another board member tried to speak.

“What are you running from?!” Lyle bus driver Dawn Block yelled as Superintendent Jim Dusso and all board members except Dan King, who was speaking at the time, left the meeting in the school library. Block’s was one of several protests. Board Chairman Dean Rohne was not at the meeting.

“Let the public speak,” other people shouted.

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Much of the dissension relates to Dusso’s tenure as principal and superintendent. The board’s choice of Dusso as an administrator and its continued support for him have angered community members who disagree with the superintendent’s management style.

Dusso has been Lyle Principal for the past two years and was hired as superintendent in April, about a week after superintendent Jerry Reshetar resigned due to “differing philosophies” with the school board.

Events came to a head Monday night as board member King, who is at odds with other members over Dusso, was talking about a letter sent to him by board members accusing him of violating board ethics codes.

In the letter, other board members asked King to resign if he continued to speak out against Dusso.

King asked each board member whether he or she had signed and received a copy of the letter and all told King their signatures were real and that the letter reflected the board’s views.

Dusso and Carl Truckenmiller, vice chair, repeatedly warned King against revealing the letter’s contents and told him that it could mean liability and litigation risks for the district.

“Who’s going to sue?!” King said after the meeting. “It’s a letter to me. It’s about me.”

Lyle resident Ron Frank accuses the Lyle Public School board and Lyle Superintendent Jim Dusso of mismanaging the Lyle school system at the board meeting Monday.

At that point Gary Harrison, a Lyle City Council member and Lyle Schools bus driver who was among those in the audience, said the board was suppressing people’s right to speak and said Dusso was mismanaging the Lyle school system. Once it became clear Harrison would not stop speaking, board members hurriedly adjourned as King, Harrison and several residents in the audience tried to speak.

“I wasn’t that surprised,” King said afterward of the sudden outburst by community members.

Dusso appeared calm when audience members shouted accusations Monday night, never directly responding to the audience and answering board member’s questions.

On Tuesday, Dusso said many community members were misinformed about the direction Lyle schools are heading and that much of the rumors stem from staff angry over personnel shifts made last year.

“It meant making change,” Dusso said Tuesday morning. “That’s what I was asked to do and all of the change I’ve made in the district are changes that every board member supported.

“Not one board member disagreed with the changes made to our staff,” he added. “They all agreed it was the right thing to do.”

It was not the first time that night that people had voiced their dissent over Dusso and the school board’s actions.

During the meeting, King had asked why a special board session scheduled for last Saturday was canceled. The meeting, intended for board training, had two additional agenda items on board policy 209, which deals with ethics, and another ethics-related discussion. Dusso told King the meeting hadn’t been posted with enough advance time, as an agenda was posted about 67 hours before the meeting.

Dusso said that though about 70 percent of the lawyers he talked to thought the posting met Minnesota’s open meeting law requirements, 30 percent didn’t think it was enough time.

Several audience members shouted at the board during a discussion about bus repairs, asking what happened to Lyle’s bus drivers. King asked Dusso to address the situation

More than 70 residents attended the Lyle Public School board meeting Monday to show discontent with the Lyle administration and school board.

but Dusso refused, citing the employees’ data privacy rights.

“It’s wrong and it’s against the law,” Dusso said Tuesday morning. “When I react to that, it only makes the problem worse.”

One bus driver was suspended Monday for allegedly texting while driving and another quit, forcing Lyle officials to hire Palmer Bus Service to drive students home Monday afternoon, according to several Lyle employees.

Also during the meeting, two residents spoke about Dusso and the board’s actions. Frank did not parse words as he accused the board of shutting out public opinion about Dusso.

The board changed its public comment policy in May after several meetings at which audience members spoke boisterously.

“It appears the board thinks it’s the best interest to stifle any comments or discussion,” Frank said. “There is never a good reason for hiding or discouraging this stuff.

“A healthy discussion is central in arriving to a good solution (to) the many problems that face the board every month,” he added.

Dusso said he didn’t know why Frank felt that way as he never spoke to him before, though Frank said he had “limited contact” with Dusso.

“I had no idea who this gentleman was,” Dusso said.

“He refused to even talk to me,” he added. “So how do I deal with that when people won’t talk to me?”

Dusso said audience members complaints that Lyle’s administration misinformed the community were unfounded.

“I’m the one that’s out there trying to build communication,” he said.

To speak at a Lyle meeting, delegates must sign up at least 10 days in advance. According to Rohne in May, Lyle puts out public notice of its board meetings a week in advance, and 10 days would give school staff plenty of time to put delegations on the agenda. The past three public meetings were posted about three days in advance per Minnesota’s open meeting law, not a week in advance.

Resident Connie Branchaud told the board she was going to give a positive speech at first, but as the meeting went on she “(doesn’t) feel so much that way anymore.

“This board has unfortunately demonstrated that the value of the community’s and the students’ opinions and rights are not very valuable,” Branchaud said, fighting back tears. Branchaud accused board members of taking criticism as a personal attack, then refusing to discuss things further.

“We don’t all have a happy feel-good opinion,” Branchaud said. “You’re trying to control what people are allowed to say and are allowed to feel, and that’s not right.”

Dusso believes it’s unfair for community members to spread rumors about him as he begins his first full year as Lyle Principal and Superintendent.

“We’re one week into the school year and yet I’m being held accountable for the last 12, 15 years and for the next 20 years,” he said.

Dusso hopes Lyle school can get back to business in spite of all the rumors.

“This is not about me, it’s about our students,” Dusso said.

Rohne said he spoke with Mr. Dusso and other board members about what happened, but couldn’t give a comment as he wasn’t there.

“I think the public is not adapting well to the change that our education system is requiring us to make,” Rohne said.

Calls to Truckenmiller were not immediately returned Tuesday morning.