Published June 18 2010
Former Oak Grove teachers blame leaders
Oak Grove Lutheran School has seen a shakeup in staffing during the past year.
Five top school administrators have left the Fargo private school since last summer, and several teachers have either voluntarily left or been cut due to declining tuition revenue.
Former teachers who were willing to comment publicly say the turnover is largely due to past leadership at the school.
“Some people left because they were sick of not being heard,” former teacher Joel Swanson said. “I think some of the frustration is with the poor leadership we had a couple years back.”
Former teacher Mindy Johnson added that top leaders’ management style was to use “intimidation and fear.”
“It wasn’t great working conditions,” she said.
Both former teachers, however, commended interim President Marilyn Guy, adding that she could be the one to turn things around for Oak Grove.
“The school needs to get the confidence of the parents back and get the confidence of the staff back,” Swanson said. “They’re teetering on the edge of a sword.”
The former teachers say about a dozen Oak Grove teachers voluntarily left the school this year, and another five to six teachers were notified a few months ago that their positions were cut due to declining enrollment.
Swanson was one of the teachers let go.
The single father of two is unemployed and searching for a job for fall.
“I loved teaching there,” he said. “I’m starting to get in panic mode … whether I’ll have a job. It’s tough.”
Officials understand that.
“It’s hard on people to think that they’ve been riffed,” Guy said this week referring to the reduction in force. “They’re not riffed because they’re not good teachers. They’re riffed because of enrollment.”
She declined to specify how many teachers were cut, saying that “a couple” of teachers were affected.
“We can’t give you exactly a number because … when there’s an increase in enrollment, we hire someone back,” Guy said. “As we get more enrollment … then we will be hiring back, but you always want to plan for a lower number (of students) so financially the school is sound.”
Swanson said the teachers who were let go understand that, but not all will return if they’re offered a job.
While Johnson, a former marketing teacher at Oak Grove, loved her first year teaching at the small private school, she said the next two years were “uncomfortable” to work in.
She left last year and has since taught in West Fargo.
Joining her in West Fargo this fall is Bob Noel, who taught Spanish at Oak Grove for eight years until resigning this spring.
Noel, who was also the mission trip leader and girls track and field coach, said West Fargo was a “new opportunity” in a progressive school district with strong foreign language programs.
“I wish the students and the families at Oak Grove very well,” he said. “Oak Grove has had … issues with transition just like any other school district. But for me, there’s a real pull to West Fargo.”
Oak Grove officials are in the process of hiring replacements for those who have left.
Two elementary school staff members were recently hired, and math, science and part-time computer teachers will also be hired.
New administrators are Beverly Bjertness, a teacher in the New London-Spicer School District near Willmar, Minn., who was hired this week to replace high school Principal Morgan Forness, and Middle School Principal David Ness.
Forness’ wife, Kim, was the elementary school principal until she resigned last summer. The couple now work for Shiloh Christian School in Bismarck.
Admissions Director Terry Haus resigned after nearly three years at Oak Grove. He took a job in Detroit Lakes to be the development coordinator of the community center. Guy said this week that they’re close to filling the position.
Bruce Messelt, the former president who left last summer, was replaced by Guy last July.
Having her at the helm of the school gives some teachers hope for its future.
“She’s definitely the right person to turn it around,” Swanson said. “They’re on the verge of sinking or swimming.”
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515