Union educators in Becker are suing the central Minnesota school district over a new communications plan they say bans teachers from saying anything that is not positive about the district to the public.
The Becker school board passed the plan in May with little fanfare. But the policy, along with a different proposed policy that would ban "divisive" concepts from the school district, drew controversy this month from several local and state organizations.
The lawsuit, filed in Sherburne County District Court on Thursday, states the communications plan violates the free speech provision of the state constitution, as well as several state laws. It asks the court to prevent the district from enforcing the policy against its staff.
The policy bans educators, as a condition of employment, from offering anything other than "positive" communications to people who are not employed by the district, the lawsuit states. And the policy is so broad, the lawsuit contends, it would bar staff from complying with the state's statute on the mandatory reporting of child abuse, as well as prohibit educators from talking about the effects of budget cuts on students at school board meetings.
Jason Baune and Beny Pany — the co-presidents of the Becker Education Association, which filed the lawsuit — will not share additional comments with the media because it could expose them to disciplinary action under the policy, according to a news release by Education Minnesota, the state teachers union.
"Educators should be able to speak the truth about what's happening in their schools to parents and the rest of their communities," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in the release. "This gag order, and policies like it, are unacceptable. Our union will resist them everywhere."
Becker Superintendent Jeremy Schmidt said Friday that district leaders disagree with the lawsuit's claims.
"[We] believe the lawsuit misconstrues the purpose and effect of language in the school district's plan. Because the judicial system is the more appropriate forum in which to address these issues, the school district will respond through the legal proceedings before the court," Schmidt said in a statement to the Star Tribune.
The communications policy and the proposed policy banning "divisive" concepts, which was dubbed 471, are seen by some as a response to recent debates in the district over Pride flags in classrooms and calls for equity in regard to LGBTQ students.
Last year, students walked out of class following incidents of harassment and bullying based on race or sexual orientation. Then in March, more than 100 protesters interrupted a school board meeting during which members of the Child Protection League presented on what the group deemed a "worrisome" increase in the number of transgender youth. The Child Protection League has drawn criticism from civil rights groups for its rhetoric on LGBTQ issues.
Policy 471 first appeared on a school board agenda in July but was not discussed. After the policy was proposed, the ACLU of Minnesota sent the district a letter stating the policy interferes with the First Amendment. OutFront Minnesota, an organization supporting LGBTQ rights, also sent the district a letter stating it is troubled by the district's pattern of behavior regarding LGBTQ students, staff and community members.
The proposed policy was on the agenda again on Aug. 1. The board voted to table the policy so it could be reviewed by legal counsel and further discussed by the board's policy committee. District administration has not shared when the policy committee is scheduled to meet again.
The lawsuit filed Thursday contends Becker school district has an image problem following recent controversies. Instead of apologizing, the plaintiffs contend, the district doubled down by imposing the restrictions on staff and their ability to speak about the district.
"Predictably, these efforts have only resulted in greater scrutiny of the district," the lawsuit states. "At a time in which staff and students should be preparing to start the school year, the district is facing a fresh round of media attention about its efforts to squelch discussion and debate."