The St. Francis school board voted Monday night to oust first-term board member Matthew Rustad, the subject of controversy after he admitted plagiarizing a column he'd submitted for the north metro school district's newsletter.
Rustad, 22, was removed by a 4-2 vote of the board.
Only once before in Minnesota has a sitting school board member been voted off the board by his peers. In 2009, Curt Rude was removed from the Austin school board after he sued the district and the superintendent. The St. Francis move is in step with a recommendation from an independent hearing officer who last month heard testimony from the district and from Rustad and his attorney.
Before the vote, Rustad tried to have it removed from the agenda, arguing his privacy rights had been violated in a question of whether school board members are district employees or elected officials, who are treated differently under the law. There also was a protracted discussion about whether Rustad could make a motion or vote on an item that concerned him by name. (He voted, but his vote wasn't included in the 4-2 tally.)
Once the motion came up, school board members who voted against the motion to remove Rustad said they were concerned that an administrative hearing last month was unfair to Rustad because the district had chosen a hearing officer without his input, and because district funds were used to pay for its attorney, whereas Rustad had to provide his own attorney.
"I do not believe his due process was served," board chairwoman Marsha Van Denburgh said after the meeting. "In today's litigious society, we as a school district bear the responsibility of making sure everything was impartial."
Board member Suzanne Erkel, who has supported Rustad since the start, said again that she thought the issue had been overblown.
"This is ridiculous," she said. "It isn't that big of a deal. He didn't plagiarize to be malicious. He thought he was educating the public. ... Then everyone turned around and made it evil."
'About someone's character'
But those who supported the motion said the district had gone through the required procedures, and they held that the act of plagiarism -- committed in the course of Rustad's duties as a school board member -- and the coverup that followed it were the "proper cause" needed to remove him.
Board member Amy Kelly said her opinion evolved as she learned more about what actually happened.
"The lies continued to snowball, and then this isn't just about plagiarism," she said. "It's about someone's character, and what they did after the plagiarism plays a role here."
Member Harry Grams said he wished the issue had never come up.
"I think there was enough time and money and energy and emotion spent on it that needs to be spent," he said. "My opinion hasn't changed since we first learned about this."
Rustad admitted last month that he had plagiarized an article he submitted for the September issue of the district newsletter. The file he sent to district offices was nearly identical to a blog post written by a New Mexico school official.
He was censured by the board Sept. 24. In October, board members, some of whom thought censure was not a strong enough discipline, revoked the censure to start investigating whether he should be removed from the board.
At last month's hearing, Rustad's attorney, Luke Enno, said his client thought the ordeal was finished when he was censured -- a measure he introduced to the board and joined them in approving unanimously. To continue to belabor the issue constituted harassment, Enno said.
He also said Rustad, who was home-schooled, was being targeted by his ideological opponents on the board, but in questioning, Rustad brought up only one instance of strong disagreement with the board. The issue was the same as the topic of his column: paperless school districts.
In the end, Kelly, Grams, David Anderson and Janet Glover voted to remove Rustad. Van Denburgh and Erkel voted to let him remain on the board.
Van Denburgh said she worries the ordeal isn't over. "I think we could find ourselves in a long, protracted legal battle," she said.
After the hearing, Rustad said he has not decided whether he will appeal or whether he will run for the board again.
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409