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Frazee superintendent cleared of discriminiation and harassment claims

FRAZEE -- Frazee-Vergas School Superintendent Deron Stender has been cleared of any discrimination or harassment claims against him.

A third-party investigator was brought in to look into claims of "hostile work environment harassment," brought on by Education Minnesota, AFSCME Council 65 and Minnesota School Employees Association unions.

The investigator not only found no wrongdoing, but Trevor Helmers of Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, said the unions had no intention of filing a claim in the first place, that it was a misunderstanding of words.

"Based on my communications and interviews with the three union representatives, the charges of hostile work environment were not substantiated," he said in a letter to board chair Dana Laine. "Further, there are no reported complaints from any District employees regarding Superintendent Stender's conduct."

According to Helmers, the investigation came about when the three unions drafted a letter to the school district about the hostile work environment. Using the term "hostile" caused an investigation, which later was said to be unwarranted.

Helmers said in his letter that when speaking with Michelle Goos of Education Minnesota, the union "did not mean to trigger an investigation." A lawyer for the union called Helmers soon after and explained that the union never meant for a claim to be filed and that it does not even file claims on members' behalf.

The letter was instead meant to "to open a dialogue regarding the 'climate issues' at the District," he wrote.

Helmers also contacted Lori Carlson of Minnesota School Employees Association and was told that the letter was crafted by non-lawyers to use an "attention getting phrase," and that there were no complaints of harassment by Stender.

Finally, he talked with Ginger Thrasher of AFSCME, he wrote, and she also said the letter was not intended to trigger an investigation.

"While the employees she represents have problems with Superintendent Stender's leadership abilities and attitude, there have been no harassment claims by her members."

He said that Thrasher also said the letter was meant to open dialogue, not instigate an investigation.

"One complaint that she has filed is that employees are told that there is no money for raises, but then the district finds money to provide raises to favored employees," he wrote.

In conclusion, Helmers said, Stender is not at fault for any harassment, discrimination or other misconduct.

"How much did we waste on this," questioned board member Dwight Cook after the letter was read aloud during the school board meeting Monday evening.

Stender said the cost of having the lawyer look into the allegations was $720.

Laine added that when union members plan to bring complaints up, they should "have merit," otherwise they are wasting the district's time and money.

"They didn't understand what they were getting into," board member Rich Zeigler said of the unions' use of the term "hostile."

He added that he didn't see it as a waste of time, but rather as a discussion for the labor management committee.

Stender asked that a copy of the report be placed in his personnel file.