Williston District 7 School Board members had a spirited discussion prior to going into executive session on Friday to discuss upcoming negotiations with Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Thake.
Questions have been swirling in the district about financials after an Oct. 7 board meeting, in which the district’s business manager Sherri Heser told the board she sees a $2 to $4 million discrepancy in the reconciliation of accounts held by District 1 and transferred to District 7.
Auditors, meanwhile, had told board members there is just a $400,000 reconciliation discrepancy, which could have been due to a clerical error. The district’s overall budget is around $38 million.
These questions appear to have prompted a one-on-one meeting between Thake and board member John Kasmer recently, after which other board members learned through the grapevine that it appeared the superintendent had packed up all his office things and left.
Superintendent Thake was called for comment on the matter, but has not yet returned the call. His comments will be added to this article if and when received.
Members of the public filled the room as Board President Chris Jundt called the meeting to order, leaving standing room only. A motion was made and seconded to enter executive session, but, prior to taking the vote, board member Tom Kalil insisted on a public discussion of the matters driving them into executive session, saying that members of the public in the room deserved to understand what is going on.
“I’ve spoken to Dr. (Jeff) Thake,” he said. “My understanding is that he was told that he would be terminated, no matter what, and that there are already votes against him sufficient to do that. And so I think we owe the public some sort of explanation as to what’s going on here.”
Kalil asked board member John Kasmer to describe what he told Thake during a recent meeting between the two of them.
Kamser denied that he had told Thake he was definitely gone.
“I told him, in light of the financial information that we had gotten, that it’s going to be a very tough road for him,” he said. “That’s what I told him. I did not tell him that with a guarantee that he was going to get non-renewed or anything like that.”
Kasmer said the financial information about the discrepancies is something he feels any superintendent should have known about and been on top of.
“And so it wasn’t appropriate to wait for the report that this board said we’d go and get before having that conversation with him?” Kalil asked.
“Well, I mean, it looked awful no matter what,” Kasmer replied. “You may have believed that it was maybe appropriate to wait farther down the road. I thought I didn’t see any way that this looks good. At any rate, it was all up to him. I didn’t tell him he was going to get anything for sure. I told him what I thought.”
Jundt, meanwhile, pointed out that the board as a whole hasn’t yet made any decisions related to Thake. The board president also said he had been approached by Thake with some questions, which prompted the need for the meeting on Friday, Oct. 22.
“The purpose of today’s meeting, and disclosed on the agenda, is to discuss potential negotiations with the superintendent,” he said.
Resignation is not the agenda item, Jundt added.
“I have not received any sort of resignation,” he said. “He has not given me an indication that he is resigning this position.”
Jundt said Thake is concerned about the upcoming evaluation cycle in November, and is asking for the board to consider other options.
“He values his career,” Jundt said. “He did inform me that he has applied elsewhere, and may be a finalist.”
The evaluation is ordinarily due November 15.
“He does not want that to have a detrimental impact on potentially his ability to secure employment with other districts,” Jundt said.
Board member Sarah Williams, meanwhile, said she had a problem with Thake’s response to the meeting with Kasmer.
“It’s inappropriate as our leader, and what does it show the employees?” she asked. “It shows that Dr. Thake doesn’t want to be here.”
She also questioned discussions Thake recently had with Heser, which she said were, per board direction, supposed to be “on record.”
Kallil said that particular condition was prior to completion of the merger.
“We’re district 7 now,” he said.
“And now we found that there might be discrepancies,” Williams said, interrupting Kalil. “Before it was there might be discrepancies. Now you have discrepancies, and you’re saying we can just go around, anything that the board wants, anything that the public wants, Tom, and as long as Dr. Thake says it’s OK, the rest of the board has to suffer.”
Williams added she is finding out about things going on in the district from media reports instead of hearing about it first from Dr. Thake or her fellow board members.
“I feel like there’s a leak on this board,” she said.
“So again, he can’t go talk to somebody when you’re accusing him of stuff,” Kalil countered. “Like, it just seems like you don’t want him to defend himself.”
Board member Cory Swint objected to characterizing the board’s questions as accusations.
“There were issues with reconciliation, and we owe it to the public to verify that,” he said. “If a single board member walks in and says something to Dr. Thake, his responsibility is to go to Mr. Jundt and tell him what happened, not walk out, pack his office. That is not the reaction of a leader.”
Swint added that so far it doesn’t look like the problem is related to any sort of theft, but may simply be reconciliation errors that the board needs to get sorted out.
“We need to fix it for the community to know,” he said. “Actions after that that have taken place, that’s what you’ll be held liable for and responsible for are your actions and how you respond to a little bit of conflict. And that’s why we’re having this meeting today.”
Board member Heather Wheeler said she would like more details about what was said between Thake and Kasmer. She also called for action at the next board meeting to hire a third party auditor.
Jundt said he intends to invite the auditing firm for the June 30, 2020, audit to the next board meeting, and indicated the company will begin work on the June 30, 2021 audit in December.
The board took no action after returning from executive session, and Jundt said discussion was limited to only questions surrounding upcoming negotiations with Thake.
Eric Rooke, president of the Williston Education Association, told the Williston Herald while the executive session was still going on that he has already requested all of the district’s financials and that he is going through them to try and figure out what is going on.
He said he has so far verified that the District did have the funds to make payroll. He is still evaluating all the figures, however, and did not want to get too detailed yet.
“We don’t officially represent Dr. Thake, but we represent the teachers association here in Williston,” he added. “And our job is to make sure that we are doing what’s in the best interest of teachers. We feel by this situation happening to our leader that we’re concerned about what’s going to happen after the fact.”
Rooke said that for the teachers and for his organization, educating kids comes first.
“We’re going to keep teaching your kids, we’re going to keep being the best teachers we can be,” he said. “And we’re going to do everything we can to keep the quality education that we have here in Williston going.”