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Kelly Smith, Published February 11 2009

Bill would put power to dismiss some school personnel in judge’s hands

New North Dakota legislation may transfer the power of firing teachers from school boards to an administrative law judge.

Currently in the state, school boards are charged with dismissing teachers, principals or assistant superintendents. And the public knows because the information is presented in an open meeting. The new legislation, however, would give that power to an administrative judge who would make the decision during a closed hearing – a change that alarms media and school board officials.

“The public should care about it because the people that they have elected will not be in the position to make the decision on discharge if this bill is passed,” said North Dakota School Boards Association Executive Director Jon Martinson, who will testify against the bill today. “It’s out of elected

officials’ hands.”

N.D. Senate Bill 2357, which the Senate education committee will hear at 10 a.m. today, would give the power to an administrative law judge to determine whether sufficient grounds exist for the school board to discharge an individual.

The bill is sponsored by several local legislators – Sens. Tim Flakoll of Fargo and Judy Lee of West Fargo as well as Reps. Blair Thoreson and Don Clark, both of Fargo.

The bill stems from a 2006 West Fargo incident when then-music teacher Mavis Tjon was fired for allegedly hitting a student.

Thoreson, Lee, Clark and Flakoll all vowed earlier this year to address Tjon’s case. They’re also sponsors on Senate Bill 2289, revising policies on how districts deal with corporal punishment policies.

“I think (this bill) would have helped that situation,” North Dakota Education Association Executive Director Greg Burns said about the Tjon case. “At first it appeared that the problem was with the corporal punishment law in North Dakota … (but) the problem was with the dismissal process. It was not a quasi-judicial type hearing, which is what this brings.”

The state’s teachers union will testify in support of the bill at today’s hearing. Tjon also may be there, Burns said.

“It’s a much fairer process when it becomes necessary to bring a teacher up on dismissal charges,” Burns said. “A law judge has no stake in the outcome of this; the school board does.”

The bill won’t just help the process for teachers, Burns said, but also those testifying – especially students. That’s why, Burns said, he’s not concerned that closed hearings won’t be open to the public.

“(The public will) know what the decision was, they’ll know what the charges were and they’ll know what the outcome was,” Burns said.

They just won’t get to hear evidence. And that concerns North Dakota Newspaper Association lawyer Jack McDonald, who is testifying today against the bill.

“It’s a bad bill for a lot of reasons,” McDonald said. “Our main objection, really, is closing administrative law hearings that are traditionally open. You’re dealing with issues … that the public should be aware of.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515