CIHS principal decision not expected until May

More details are being made public regarding the incident that led to
Cambridge-Isanti High School Principal Mitch Clausen being placed on
paid administrative leave in mid-July.

Rachel Kytonen
[email protected]

More details are being made public regarding the incident that led to Cambridge-Isanti High School Principal Mitch Clausen (pictured) being placed on paid administrative leave in mid-July.

Clausen, who has been principal at CIHS since the summer of 2006, was placed on paid administrative leave July 13, 2010 as a result of Clausen’s three-hour absence on June 16 during a Model Schools Conference held June 14-17 in Orlando, Fla. 

Clausen attended the conference with 43 other administrators and teachers from the school district. The convention cost approximately $70,000, and was paid by the district through federal stimulus funds—approximately $1,600 per attendee.

On Aug. 2, by unanimous vote, the school board took action to propose the immediate termination of Clausen. Clausen then filed a grievance in response to that action.

A grievance arbitration hearing was held Friday, Jan. 21 at the Cambridge City Center from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The hearing involved the presentation of exhibits from both the district and Clausen, and testimony from school district representatives, teachers and Clausen. The hearing was the result of a continuance granted Dec. 16, and open to the public as requested by Clausen.

Arbitrator James Reynolds, from Florida, led the meeting. Representing Clausen was his attorney Roger Aronson, and representing the district was attorney Joseph Flynn.

Following the hearing, Reynolds ruled both parties have until Feb. 25 to file closing arguments with the arbitrator. Reynolds will then hand-down his decision, which will take a minimum of 60 days. Reynolds has the right to enforce the termination, impose a lesser penalty, or propose whatever decision he feels is just.

Clausen testifies

During the hearing, Clausen testified on Wednesday, June 16, he left the conference convention center to visit Universal Studios.

He said he had a working lunch at a restaurant off-site from the convention center from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then left for Universal Studios. He said there had been sessions scheduled from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. that day that he did not attend.

Clausen said he worked approximately 50 hours the week of the convention, and had attended 13 to 14 sessions by Wednesday afternoon. He said he attended around three to four sessions again on Thursday, with the convention ending around noon that day.

Prior to attending the session, Clausen said he attended one of two meetings led by Susan Burris, director of teaching and learning, regarding the “rules” of the conference. Clausen said Burris told them they could not charge any alcoholic purchases to the district; to notify others if you would not be riding the bus to and from the convention center; and since the conference would be very intense, it would be okay to take personal time.

“I felt I had the ability to adjust my schedule, and felt I could take some personal time,” Clausen said.

Clausen said he made a mistake by leaving the convention.

“I did not go to three sessions the afternoon of June 16 because I felt I needed some time off, and we were in Orlando and I knew we needed a break. It was all we talked about 24/7,” Clausen said. “At the time, I never even thought … In hindsight, I shouldn’t have done that.”

Clausen said he did participate in five hours of webinars following the convention.

In his 24 years in education prior to being hired by District 911, Clausen said he had never been disciplined for any reason.

Clausen said he met briefly with Cambridge-Isanti Superintendent Bruce Novak at the beginning of July, when Novak told Clausen to give him his keys and key code. Clausen said he told Novak at the time that Burris told the conference attendees that prior to the conference it would be okay to use personal time if they needed a break from the conference.

Clausen said he attended Universal Studios with five other teachers from the district. He said as high school principal, he doesn’t have any authority over teachers from other schools. He said he didn’t authorize the three middle school teachers who went with him, but he did give authorization to one high school teacher.

When asked point-blank by Aronson if he believed he disobeyed a directive by missing three, one-hour sessions during the conference, Clausen replied, “No.”

Clausen said during a meeting on July 26 at the district office, he was told he would remain on paid administrative leave. He said he shooks hands with Flynn at the beginning of the meeting, and then was taken into a different room separate from Flynn and district officials.

Clausen said during that meeting he was never asked any questions.

“Were you ever asked your side of the story in this matter prior to Aug. 2?” asked Aronson.

“No,” replied Clausen. “And that has been the biggest frustration in this process—not being able to defend myself.”

During cross examination, Flynn asked Clausen, due to his years of experience in education, if he should have known better than to miss conference sessions.

“Because of the judgement that you and others made, don’t you think another conference is dead in the water?” Flynn asked.

“I don’t think it’s dead in the water,” Clausen responded.

Even though Flynn brought up the fact that Clausen was the highest paid principal at the convention with a salary and benefits package of $150,000 per year for 2009-10, Clausen said according to the district’s organizational chart, he has equal-ranking with the six other district principals, and only has a supervisory role over high school teachers.

Superintendent gives district perspective

Novak, who testified for three hours, said he has been superintendent of Cambridge-Isanti Schools for five and one-half years, and has been in education for 34 years.

Novak said he did not attend the two meetings led by Burris prior to the conference, but said he was told Burris did say the conference sessions would be intense, long days, and attendees had permission to use personal time if needed.

“She [Burris] never instructed them to leave the conference for a half-day to visit a theme park,” Novak said. “The intent of personal time was if the group needed to take time away from the conference to meet with their leadership teams, they could do it.”

Novak acknowledged that besides Clausen, five other teachers missed some part of the convention; however there is a discrepancy in the number of sessions missed.

“We investigated the other teachers on the list and confirmed their absences, and dealt with them appropriately,” Novak said.

Novak said the district interviewed the five teachers at the end of September that went with Clausen to Universal Studios. He said the district sent a letter to Clausen dated Sept. 9 asking for information on the other teachers who missed conference sessions. Novak said after the district received a response from Clausen’s attorney dated Sept. 21, the district moved forward with its investigation into the five other teachers.

Novak said he didn’t have any idea who went with Clausen to Universal Studios prior to receiving the Sept. 21 letter.

“There were a lot of rumors floating around,” Novak said. “We needed to wait until we had actual facts to proceed.”

Novak said after Clausen was placed on paid administrative leave July 13, he did send out a memorandum to high school staff explaining to them the reason for Clausen’s absence, and appointing the two assistant high school principals as acting principals.

Novak said Clausen has prior deficiencies, and that was part of the discharge. In a notice of deficiency dated June 28, 2007, during a time when Clausen was on probation, he was cited for failure to wear proper attire at the 2007 graduation ceremony; repeatedly mispronounced names at the graduation ceremony; failed to stand erect at the high school’s scholarship banquet in 2007; and failed to communicate with a business person in town looking to put a soda fountain in at the school.

During his testimony, in response to the notice of deficiency, Clausen said even though the letter was dated June 28, 2007, he did not receive it until Aug. 13, 2007.

Clausen said he did everything that was asked of him regarding the letter of deficiency, and it hasn’t been brought up since that time.

Clausen said he did wear a casual shirt underneath his graduation robe, not realizing he was supposed to wear a suit.

As far as the mispronunciation of names, Clausen said there were over 400 names and it wasn’t mandatory for seniors to attend the graduation rehearsal. Clausen said he didn’t realize he was pronouncing a last name wrong, if the student wasn’t there to correct him during rehearsal. He said since that time, he has made rehearsals mandatory, and names have been divided up with the assistant principals.

As far as the business person, Clausen said he met with the person on two occasions. After discussions, Clausen said he felt it wouldn’t be a good business venture.

Novak also acknowledged that in the notice of deficiency, it said he agreed to continue to work with and support Clausen.

Novak said Clausen’s actions at the conference has reflected negatively on the district, and a program the district has been initiating for four years that is based on the Rigor, Relevance and Relationships framework.

“Within the educational community, there has been some upheaval and unrest, which has made for a negative perception of the program the district has focused on for the last four years,” Novak said. “Our colleagues and district administrative team are very concerned about the lack of trust and teamwork concept. A lot of damage has been done by the initiative put forth in our school buildings.”

When questioned by Flynn, Novak said he’s heard differing opinions from teachers.

“I’ve had staff visit with me on both sides,” Novak said. “Some are very unhappy with what has happened, and others have asked me to sweep the charges under the rug and have the board reverse its decision, and make the charges go away.”

Novak noted Clausen is responsible for the supervision of 145 high school employees, 1,600 high school students, and a high school budget of $8.5 million. Flynn asked about repercussions if Clausen’s job was reinstated.

“If Mr. Clausen was reinstated, discipline can’t be enforced at any level … I’m not sure how it would go on,” Novak said. “Mistakes were made, bad choices were made, and consequences need to be enforced. When the group came back from the convention on Thursday night, people within the community were already hearing about this by Friday.”

Flynn asked Novak if Clausen could return to his position with any degree of effectiveness within the school district or community.

“In my opinion, no,” Novak said. “So much damage has been done within the administrative team and there’s a huge public image of distrust that I’m not sure we can overcome. With the accusations of misusing taxpayer funds—those are hurdles that are terrible to try to reconcile within the community.”

Novak said he’s heard plenty from the community on the Clausen matter, and said one community member said if Clausen is reinstated, there isn’t any chance an operating levy would get approved.

School Board Member Dan Fosse, who served on the school board for the past six and half years, said he received phone calls from community members about the conference that same weekend.

“The comments I received were of disbelief,” Fosse said. “People were outraged, and wondered how this could happen.”

Fosse said the school board did have adequate information to propose Clausen’s discharge at the Aug. 2 meeting.

Fosse, in a prepared statement, talked about the character traits of the school district— Respect, Compassion, Responsibility, Self-Discipline and Honesty.

“It’s sad to say, but Mitch Clausen hasn’t displayed any of those,” Fosse said.

Teachers voice support of Clausen

Brenda Oslund, a teacher at CIHS, has worked for Clausen since he was hired by the district. Oslund said she has worked for six to seven principals throughout her career.

“Mr. Clausen was a very effective leader, and very approachable,” Oslund said. “He always had an open door, and was respectful during differences of opinion. Mitch always looked at the big picture, and realized we have families, life outside of high school.”

Oslund said she did not go to the Orlando conference. She said she felt Clausen could come back to CIHS.

“We need his leadership right now … He has proven he can lead,” Oslund said. “We have had a lot of crises the past few years with accidents, students’ deaths and budgets. But he has handled every problem very effectively.”

Bruce Danielson, a teacher at CIHS for the past 26 years, also said he didn’t go to the Orlando workshop, but feels he is an authority on leadership. Danielson said he spent 32 years in the National Guard and rose to the rank of Sgt. Major, and taught leadership in the Guard.

Danielson has worked with Clausen since he was hired by the district.

“I feel Mr. Clausen is a great leader, compassionate, open, and feels he goes to bat for us,” Danielson said. “We all can’t wait to get him back.”

Danielson said at Clausen’s first graduation in 2007 he didn’t notice the issues mentioned in the letter of deficiency—he noticed something else.

“At Clausen’s first graduation there was a special education student who walked with some difficulty,” Danielson said. “If the student was going to be allowed to walk across the stage it would have brought the entire procedure to a standstill. Mr. Clausen allowed the student to walk across the stage that took three to four minutes. He is the five character traits in my opinion.”