Barton teacher claims retaliation by principal

Online petition urges mediation in school dispute

Sommers' supporters, including Barton parent Karen Lindholm, center, packed a July 12 Board of Education meeting.
Sommers' supporters, including Barton parent Karen Lindholm, center, packed a July 12 Board of Education meeting.

EAST HARRIET — A Barton Open School teacher and union steward said her month-long administrative leave in March was “retaliation” after she challenged the principal’s decision to release another teacher.

The incident has some Barton parents calling for the ouster of Jonas Beugen, the school’s third principal in as many years. The teacher, Flory Sommers, a 29-veteran of Minneapolis Public Schools, filed a union grievance against the district and in May took the matter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which forwarded her complaint to the Office of Civil Rights, Sommers’ attorney, Gregg Corwin, said.

Sommers was placed on administrative leave March 1 through March 27 “after a complaint was filed against her,” the district confirmed via email. A district investigation into the complaint is complete.

The statement concluded: “There is no change in Jonas Beugen’s status as principal of Barton Open School at this time.”

A group of Barton parents launched a change.org petition in mid-July in the form of a letter urging Beugen, Sommers and other Barton teachers swept into the controversy to resolve the issue in meditation. The petition, which garnered 139 signatures in six days, was launched after some Barton parents and students questioned Beugen’s leadership during the public comment period of the July 12 Board of Education meeting.

“He does not deserve to be back at Barton,” Mark Lindholm, a Barton parent, said through tears. “We deserve better.”

His son, Ted, said he was a pupil in Sommers’ language arts, Spanish and debate classes, describing her as an “amazing teacher.” When students weren’t given an explanation for Sommers’ absence, some wondered whether she’d had a relapse of the cancer she underwent treatment for three years ago, he said.

“This lack of communication went against the normal openness of our community and incited suspicion into the rationale behind Flory’s removal,” he told the board.

 

Put on leave

Sommers said the incident began Feb. 26 when a colleague, who is black, told Sommers her teaching position had been reclassified to one that didn’t match her licensure and that she’d been excessed, meaning she would no longer have a job at the school. Sommers, a union steward, went to Beugen.

“Administration said all decisions would be made through a racial-equity lens, and there were only two black teachers,” Sommers said.

She described their meeting as a “short conversation” during which she offered “suggestions” for ways to keep the teacher on staff. Sommers said she also contacted the union to discuss those scenarios. She said Beugen sent her a message after school released for the day.

Sommers embraced a supporter after speaking out at the July 12 Board of Education meeting.
Sommers embraced a supporter after speaking out at the July 12 Board of Education meeting.

“Later on that day I got an email that I was not to talk about this anymore and that I would need union representation,” she said.

Sommers said she was removed from her classroom at the beginning of the next school day and brought into a second meeting with Beugen. She said she was “asked questions about conversations with black employees (and) my colleague’s employment discrimination concerns” and presented with a Tennessen warning notice informing her of her data privacy rights.

Sommers was put on leave but given “no reason” for the decision, she said.

“I was told I could have no contact with anyone in MPS: no student, no teacher, no colleague — anybody in the MPS community,” she said. “And I was also told there was a provision in the Tennessen that prohibited me from talking about any of this, although on the paper I was given there was nothing saying that.”

Corwin said in pressuring a union steward to divulge private conversations with other employees the district engaged in an unfair labor practice. Its attempts to “muzzle” Sommers violated her free speech rights, he added.

Corwin said the district had expressed willingness to mediate Sommers’ complaint. The district won’t confirm that, citing state laws governing personnel data.

Ten other Barton teachers sat through interviews similar to hers, Sommers asserted, adding that those conversations were recorded by Beugen.

Both Beugen and the district said they could not provide a full response to Sommers’ complaints without her consent to reveal data considered private under state law. Asked to grant that consent for this story, Sommers and her attorney declined.

Sommers’ leave ended just before spring break, delaying her return to Barton until April 8.

“So many kids came up and gave me hugs,” she said. “My colleagues had put a welcome mat outside my door.”

 

Principal changes

If Beugen were to leave Barton, it would prolong an unusual period of instability for the popular and highly sought-after school.

For 20 years, Barton had just one person occupy the principal’s office, Steve DeLapp. When he retired in the spring of 2012, DeLapp was the district’s longest-tenured principal, and the district has struggled to find a long-term replacement for him.

DeLapp’s successor, Patrick Duffy, served for two years and then left to take a leadership role in the administration of St. Paul Public Schools. Former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson was criticized for the limited parent involvement in her decision to appoint Paul Scanlon as Duffy’s replacement.

Scanlon lasted just one year at Barton, announcing his resignation in April 2015. He spent last year as an instructional specialist at Armatage Montessori, and was recently named that school’s assistant principal.

Beugen
Beugen

Beugen became the third Barton principal in as many years when he was assigned to the school ahead of the 2015–2016 school year.

“I think that we’ve all been hoping for some stability in our leadership at Barton, so I think many parents were surprised to hear requests for his removal,” Sheila Eldred, a parent who serves on the school’s leadership council, said.

Eldred said some “overlap” in administration helped steady Barton during all the changes, but now assistant principal Holly Kleppe has left the school to take over principal duties at Jefferson Community School this fall. Eldred said most parents “want the same thing”: for the district to step in, help resolve the current conflict and be more open about the process.

Reached via email July 26 for comment, Beugen said he that day “had a productive conversation with (Chief of Schools) Michael Thomas and others.”

“This is going to help us in working with the Barton community to restore a focus on students at Barton moving forward,” Beugen wrote, adding that he “thoroughly enjoy(s) working with the students and the outstanding staff at Clara Barton.”

In a separate statement, Thomas said he “wanted to work with an outside partner to investigate district practices/processes after hearing their (Barton parents’) concerns to see how we can make improvements.”

“Based upon this, I would render a decision as to next steps with the Barton community,” he wrote. “My desire is to restore a positive culture at Barton to regain our focus of supporting students.”

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