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Two bills target felons on school boards

The first place one might look for seediness and corruption in a small community might not be the school board, but Ella Davis says she has no trust in those overseeing her son’s school on the Turtle Mountain Reservation.

“We have a quorum of felons on the school board and it’s more like a syndicate,” Davis said. “That’s the way they’re operating.”

Three of the Belcourt School Board’s members are convicted felons, according to records at U.S. District Court in Bismarck. Douglas Delorme was convicted in 2007 of assault. He was convicted of embezzlement from the tribe, witness tampering and subornation of perjury in 2003.

Bruce Morin was also convicted of embezzlement from the tribe in 2003, and Jeremy Laducer was convicted of assault resulting in serious bodily injury in 2014, according to the federal court records.

Concerned community members say their primary complaints are for what they call a disregard of parliamentary procedure by the board, the hiring of family members for “exorbitant” salaries and board members purportedly giving grant money to companies and organizations they are personally involved with. Officials with the Belcourt School District did not respond to requests for comment.

Davis said she has disagreed with the conduct and actions of board members in the district for several years, but it was only last fall when she felt there was enough agitation in the community to organize a petition for a forensic financial audit. The petition, which got 394 signatures according to fellow organizer Craig Lunday, has been submitted to the state and the community awaits an audit.

In the meantime, concerns about members of the school district’s board were brought to the attention of Scott Davis, executive director of the state Indian Affairs Commission. Davis worked with Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, and Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt, to introduce Senate Bill 2230 that would prohibit felons from serving on school boards.

“In all my years of looking at that community – and I graduated from there – I would agree there’s a lot of concerns,” Davis said. “If you can’t pass a background check to work at a school then why is it OK to govern a school system with multimillion dollars of funding?”

On the Senate floor, Sen. Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, said the Judiciary Committee recommended the bill not pass. While “the committee does not support any morally deficient or felons being on school boards,” Myrdal said the bill was too broad, and the committee had concerns about “taking power away from local citizens.” She pointed to two existing mechanisms that allow voters to recall school board members. Despite the committee’s recommendation, the bill passed the Senate 32-15.

Poolman said that she understood the committee’s concerns that the bill was too broad. She said she did offer an amendment that would narrow the section on theft to embezzlement specifically, but she believes that it got brushed aside because the committee did not believe the bill would pass.

In an interview, Ella Davis said that while felons on school boards are not strictly a tribal issue, there are unique characteristics of a tribal school district that hinder traditional means of ousting bad agents. Davis, a member of the tribe, said that power and influence can be concentrated in a few large extended families on the reservation, intimidating others less organized.

Craig Lunday, whose children attend Belcourt schools though he lives just outside the reservation and district, said in an interview that people were afraid to speak up because of the power of the School Board, which he described as “untouchable.”

“They’re intimidated at the fact that the school in our community is one of the biggest employers in the whole community and either somebody works there, or their family works there,” Lunday said. He said he started to get many more signatures on the financial audit petition when he made it clear to signers that their information would be kept anonymous.

A separate bill to address school board members’ conduct, House Bill 1501, would allow a superintendent of public instruction to suspend a member of a school board pending the results of a forensic, fiscal or performance audit. It has passed the House 59-34.

After introducing her bill, Poolman said, she heard from numerous administrators across the state who were troubled by similar issues in their districts.

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