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Top 2021 Stories - No. 2: Brainerd School Board, admins deal with variety of issues

Heated public forums, difficult decisions, decreased enrollment, the chair’s resignation and a new appointee all factored into an eventful year for the board.

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Members of the public display signs at the Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, advocating against mask mandates. Signs referred to the number of people who signed a petition asking board members not to put a mask mandate in place and had phrases like "Let kids breathe" and "We the people are the people." Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

For members of the Brainerd School Board, 2021 was anything but smooth.

Heated public forums, difficult decisions, decreased enrollment, the chair’s resignation and a new appointee all factored into an eventful year for the board.

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Doug Kern wears a paper grocery bag over his head during the regular Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, at the Washington Educational Services Building. Everyone in attendance was wearing a face mask, including Kern under the bag. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

The community got riled up about critical race theory in the spring after University of Minnesota Professor Timothy Lensmire was supposed to address high school staff during a professional development day. Administrators decided to cancel what was supposed to be a state-mandated cultural competency training session after community members read about Lensmire’s work and writings that mention working through white privilege. This incident triggered various complaints during school board public forums about the district teaching critical race theory, which is a law school-level ideology board members and administrators have repeatedly said is not taught at Brainerd Public Schools.

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MORE ON CRITICAL RACE THEORY DEBATE

As summer came to a close, board members began discussing masks and put a face covering mandate in place for the upcoming school year. This decision also brought backlash by many vocal community members but also expressions of gratitude from others who thanked the school board for doing what they could to keep kids in school.

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Bob Nystrom reads his letter of resignation from the Brainerd School Board Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. Nystrom resigned, largely due to family health concerns. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

MORE ON MASKS DEBATE

Amid all the controversy, thinly veiled threats to board members and family health concerns, Bob Nystrom resigned as the board chair in August. He remained on the board until October, when he stepped down altogether, citing the ever-growing pressure placed on board members and the need to focus on a sick family member.
After interviewing five candidates, the board appointed Sarah Speer to fill Nystrom’s vacancy. She began her role in December.

While distance learning has remained a thing of the past this year and students have been able to stay in the classroom with their teachers and peers, getting to school has been difficult for some with a severe statewide bus driver shortage. A combination of COVID-19-related health concerns, tricky hours, low wages and a variety of other factors means there are not enough drivers to cover all the routes, meaning some buses are not running every day, and some parents are having to get creative in terms of getting their kids to school.

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Attendees express their opposition during a special meeting Monday, July 19, 2021, of the Brainerd School Board. Despite backlash, the board voted 4-1 to approve a letter of equity that commits the district to creating an environment of inclusivity for all students. Gabriel Lagarde / Brainerd Dispatch

MORE STORIES ON THE SCHOOL DISTRICT

Transportation for sporting events and other after-school activities has been especially difficult, with Forestview Middle School likely seeing a hybrid sports season somewhere in between intramural sports and the normal traveling schedule. Parents and community members have stepped up as best they can, getting trained to drive buses or vans to get kids where they need to go.
Even though COVID-19 hasn’t kept kids out of school this year, threats against the district did. All Brainerd Public Schools closed their doors Dec. 17, the day after two juveniles were arrested for making threats against the district. The closure came the same day as reports of a nationwide TikTok challenge allegedly urging kids to shoot up their schools. Three Morrison County school districts closed that day, citing the possibility they’d been specifically mentioned in social media posts.

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Keith Haskell, left, turns to address the public during the Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, after the board called for a recess when Haskell would not stop speaking after his time was up. Haskell identified himself as an investigator with the National Action Task Force and chastised the board for taking away citizens' rights. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

As the year continues, Brainerd teachers can look forward to a couple extra vacation and prep days, as well as stipends for sticking out the past two school years, after board members approved a plan in December to boost employee morale in the district. The move came after administrators spoke with employees and learned about high levels of fatigue, low levels of morale and concerns over learning loss and mental health issues.

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

More Top 10 stories

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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