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Citizens, teachers blast Grand Forks School District for not showing Obama speech

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news Perham, 56573
Perham Minnesota 222 2nd Avenue SE 56573

GRAND FORKS -- Monday's Grand Forks School Board meeting became heated even before members began to discuss agenda items.

That's because 10 teachers, former teachers, attorneys and area residents had a problem with how the School District handled President Barack Obama's back-to-school speech last week, and used the citizen comments portion of the meeting to express their disappointment to the board.

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People took turns voicing their opinions to the board, which listened to the comments but didn't respond.

Administrators sent out an e-mail Sept. 4 informing principals and teachers that the Sept. 8 speech would not be broadcast live, and could be shown later in the week if teachers decided it fit with their curriculum.

Censorship

Many of those who spoke Monday said the district's decision caused students to miss a unique event, and some said this action could open the door to future censorship in the schools.

One woman told the board that the district missed an opportunity to show students that politics do involve them because Obama's speech was directed toward them and their role in the country.

Troy Morley, a Grand Forks attorney, said he moved from Las Vegas back to North Dakota when his daughter was born because of the state's values. "Censorship was not one of them," he said.

Jim Schothorst, father of two Central High School graduates, said it was interesting that his comments to the board were being broadcast live on the school's TV station but the district had decided to not show the president's speech live.

He said he was "very, very saddened" that administrators had made the decision to not show the speech, and said it was upsetting that this was the only district in the state to do so when smaller, more conservative areas such as the Midway Public School District, near Inkster, N.D., showed it.

"I'm baffled by how this decision came about," he said.

Who decided?

David Thompson, another Grand Forks attorney, demanded accountability for the decision and said he planned to present Superintendent Larry Nybladh with a North Dakota public records law request for copies of all e-mails, notes and recordings related to the decision.

Thompson pressed Nybladh for answers, asking if he consulted with the school board before making the policy. Nybladh said the board was not involved, and board president Eric Lunn said he wasn't consulted.

Thompson pointed out that the past three Republican presidents delivered similar back-to-school speeches and didn't draw controversy, but said a few right-wing activists in Grand Forks were able to block Obama's speech because of fear.

"When we obtain information about what happened here ... there will be information for which people and voters in this city can make a determination of what type of person they want on their school board and what type of person has no business whatsoever serving on this board," he said.

'A dark day'

Thompson said last Tuesday was "a dark day" in the history of Grand Forks' school administration, and said the district's actions make the city "stick out in North Dakota like the racist sore thumb that we are" unless the board passes a resolution that strongly condemns the decision.

Becky Ronkowski, who taught in the district for 20 years, said Grand Forks' response to the speech was "cowardly" and said the decision should have been up to individual teachers. She added that Grand Forks is a more progressive city than most others in the state, and should have responded better to the situation.

"We are not some tiny village where people are out banning books," she said. "Citizens in a democracy like ours need to think very critically."

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