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Should Brainerd’s School Board have 7 members? Pros, cons of odd number weighed

Brainerd has six members on its School Board right now but could increase to seven with a ballot question.

School Board members discuss around a table in the boardroom
Brainerd School Board Chair Ruth Nelson, center, speaks Thursday night, April 14, 2022, as board members deliberate who to choose as the next superintendent of Brainerd Public Schools.
Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Earlier this year, Brainerd School Board members deliberated for more than three hours on who to hire as the next superintendent.

The decision came after midnight on a Thursday night in April, only after one board member changed her mind.

The reason for the long hours of debate? A tie vote.

The Brainerd School Board has six members, and three of them chose one candidate, while three chose another. In normal circumstances, a measure receiving a tie vote would fail for lack of majority. That outcome, however, was not an option in April, as the district needed to fill the superintendent role after Laine Larson’s retirement.

That event, coupled with the multitude of candidates who ran for the board this year, prompted the question about why the board doesn’t have an odd number of members.

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According to Minnesota state statute, school boards must have at least six members but can increase to seven with voter approval. A board made of up of six members can choose to put a question about raising the number to seven on the ballot during a regular or special election. If that measure passes, a seventh seat would be added to the ballot for the next regular election.

According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, there are 142 six-member boards in the state and 180 seven-member boards. The remaining nine boards, Communications Director Greg Abbott said, have received an exception created by special legislation. Cook County Public Schools, for example, only has five members, as Abbott said the district has a difficult time getting enough people to file for six seats.

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Minneapolis Public Schools, on the other hand, has nine board members because of the city’s large population.

Locally, school boards in Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus have seven members, while those in Crosby-Ironton and Pillager operate with six.

In Brainerd, seven members on the board would eliminate tie votes for issues on which all members voted, and the district has not had a difficult time in recent years finding enough people to run for the six seats.

This year’s election saw seven people vie for the three open four-year seats and nine people run for the two special two-year seats on the ballot. The elections in 2020 and 2018 each had seven candidates file for the available three seats those years.

Had he earned a seat on the School Board in this year’s election, Tony Bonsante said his first order of business would have been proposing the board increase to seven members.

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Man sitting at a table
Tony Bonsante
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch

“It makes no sense to have six board members — none. The Supreme Court doesn’t have eight judges,” Bonsante said in an interview after the Nov. 8 election. “... Because who breaks the tie? The superintendent doesn’t break the die. They sit there, and they battle three-on-three until somebody caves and goes to the other side.”

When deciding who to hire as the next superintendent, three board members were in favor of Heidi Hahn — the assistant superintendent at the time — while three wanted to go with a different candidate, Eric Schneider. After the hours of deliberation , during which board members highlighted not only their choice’s positive qualities but also what they saw as negatives in the other candidate, Board Chair Ruth Nelson switched her vote, making the final tally 4-2 in favor of Hahn. There were sullen faces in the boardroom that night, after Hahn did not immediately accept the job, saying she felt the district deserved a superintendent the entire board could get behind.

While Hahn ultimately accepted the job and took over the post in July, the process outlined a situation in which an odd number of board members might have been beneficial.

Nelson, who is retiring from the board at the end of the year after 16 years of service, said earlier this month she has thought about increasing to seven members. While she said split votes don’t happen very often, she pointed to the superintendent measure as an example of one that did.

Charles Black Lance.jpg
Charles Black Lance

Charles Black Lance, who is set to leave the board at the end of the year after one four-year term, said the issue is definitely one for the new board to discuss. Beyond taking away the possibility of a tie vote, a larger board, Black Lance, said, would ensure a broader voice representing the district when not all board members are able to vote on a specific issue.

Because Brainerd is a small community, Black Lance said it is not uncommon for board members to have to abstain from voting on certain items. He, for example, does not vote on measures related to contracts with Central Lakes College because he is employed at the college. Board member Sarah Speer works for Sourcewell and abstains from voting on items related to the organization, while board member Tom Haglin did not vote on any of the contracts with Thelen Heating and Roofing during the referendum building projects because his brother is the company’s president.

Board member Kevin Boyles agrees seven members would make sense, though maybe not right now. Boyles was the only member not on the ballot this year. He will return next year alongside Speer, but the rest of the board will be made up of four new members, which means there will be a steep learning curve. Boyles said he would rather give the newcomers time to get settled and bring the matter up in a couple years.

23267-10 Kevin Boyles (1).jpg
Kevin Boyles

“I’d be interested to hear arguments against it because I haven’t heard any yet,” Boyles said. “I always want to know why somebody wouldn’t want it to make sure I’m not one-dimensional in my own thinking.

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Haglin has that argument.

“It just seems the bigger the board, the more complex it gets to be in trying to get things done,” he said.

As it stands, the six-member board needs four people — or two-thirds — to pass a measure. A seven-member board, however, would require a smaller majority, Haglin said, needing only four out of seven members instead of four out of six to approve an item.

If getting the board to an odd number is the main issue, Haglin said he would rather see it shrink down to five members. That would not be possible under state statute, though, without the passage of special legislation.

If board members were to decide to put the question to voters, they could do so as early as 2023 with a special election, then having the seventh person on the ballot in 2024.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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