Private dispute, public issue?

One school’s problems inspired a statewide bill; legislators struggle with limits of local control

Photo by Diane Newberry, NDNA Members of the Belcourt Community High School Student Council testified last month at the Legislature in favor of a bill that would bar felons from serving on school boards. They are, from left to right, Tucker Bercier, Jeryn Marcellais, Aiyana Jollie-Trottier, Beyonce Marcellais, Jerzey Parisien, Robin Poitra, Erin Keplin, Nevaeh Davis and Marchetta Bercier.

North Dakota’s famous embrace of Theodore Roosevelt is only one example of the state’s penchant for “rugged individualism,” and in policymaking, this value often translates to a desire for “local control.”

Lawmakers are wary of restricting the powers of local cities, counties and schools, whose problems feel far from the bright lights of Bismarck.

“Everyone believes in local control,” said Rep Terry Jones, R-New Town, “until the locals are out of control,”

Jones’ comment came last week during a hearing on SB 2230, which would prohibit Class A felons from sitting on school boards. The bill is at the center of debate about when the state should step in if political subdivisions are not running smoothly, or whether it is appropriate to pass wide-sweeping bills to address local problems.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the school board that inspired the bill, Belcourt, is on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, already challenged by the intersection of state, federal and tribal law.

Proponents from the Turtle Mountain community say SB 2230 is the only way to quickly remove bad actors and give the district a fresh start, but some Belcourt School Board members say they are being unfairly targeted by the Legislature.

The allegations

Scott Davis, director of the state Indian Affairs Commission, said he has received “hundreds and hundreds of calls” about abuses of power by the Belcourt School Board. Two of its 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.

Davis worked with Sen. Nicole Poolman, R-Bismarck, and Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt, to introduce SB 2230 following a successful community petition for a financial audit of the school district. The audit is in its preliminary stages and will begin in early April.

The student council from Turtle Mountain Community High School traveled to Bismarck to testify in favor of the bill. Their advisor, social studies teacher Daniel Bean, said they organized independently and he had not seen any of their testimony ahead of time.

“The adults were not so willing to step up so we decided we needed to take the action,” Aiyana Jollie-Trottier, student council president, testified.

The students and Davis said many in the community disapprove of board members’ behavior but are too afraid of retaliation to speak up. Davis testified that critics fear physical violence or the loss of a job with the school district, one of the larger employers in the area. He testified that five people with knowledge of the issue “blew (his) phone up” to participate in initial audit interviews but did not continue because they had been intimidated.

Jollie-Trottier said to the committee that she and other student council members attended school board meetings and were disheartened by what they said is an unprofessional atmosphere, rife with political infighting and little regard for students.

“I felt embarrassed because I realized when other people think of my school, they think of these arguments,” said Jeryn Marcellais, student council member and granddaughter of Sen. Marcellais, a former tribal chairman.

The other side

One case besides Belcourt cited by proponents of the bill is the Twin Buttes School District, which in November re-elected a member who had been convicted of a felony for defrauding the district. Also, Rep. Shannon Roers-Jones, R-Fargo, said she co-sponsored the bill after one of her constituents approached her about felons on school boards as a general issue.

But the proposed restriction is “not equal protection and it’s not equal rights,” Doug Delorme, a Belcourt School Board member with felony convictions, said in an interview. “I believe that if you commit a crime as a board member, you shouldn’t have the right to sit on that position and I support that,” he said. “But to use somebody’s past against them, (something) that doesn’t pertain to the school or district that you represent – Scott (Davis) is trying to use that issue in Twin Buttes to go after certain people here.”

Several times in committee, the bill’s proponents argued that felons should not be able to serve on school boards because people with felonies cannot teach or work in schools. Davis said the question of felons on school boards is “not just a tribal issue” and “could easily happen in your back yard, too.”

However, in a February interview, Delorme and Jeremy Laducer, a school board member who does not have any felony convictions but does feel he is being publicly targeted by Davis’s actions and the financial audit petition, said they believe the primary reason the Belcourt district is being singled out is because of their personal disagreements with district superintendent Lana DeCoteau.

Delorme and Laducer agreed that school board meetings are unorganized and contentious, but they said the disagreements are a result of DeCoteau’s politics.

“You can talk about mutiny. This is a form of it, where she was creating division,” Laducer said. “I go back to the old (Bureau of Indian Affairs) concept: division. Let’s keep them fighting.”

Laducer and Delorme allege that DeCoteau acts independently of the board and does not have a good working relationship with them, undermining their ability to get a quorum for meetings. Laducer said DeCoteau creates a hostile working environment for those who appear to be their personal allies, such as his wife, Khara Laducer, who has been on suspension from her technology job at the high school since the beginning of this school year.

“It’s all political stuff and look at who’s suffering,” Khara Laducer said. “I’ve worked at the school almost 20 years, never even had a reprimand.”

DeCoteau did not respond to several telephone and email requests for comment for this story. Laducer also said Marcellais, one of the sponsors of the bill, would like spots to open up on the school board so he could sit on it once again. Marcellais previously served 18 years on three different Turtle Mountain school boards.

“He can’t beat us so he’s creating a law to subjugate us to political scrutiny,” Laducer said.

Marcellais said he has no interest in running for school board as he is concentrated on his role in the state Senate.

Seeking a solution

“The types of things we’re hearing about today, which are just incredible – stranger than fiction – don’t happen, not often,” Alexis Baxley, director of the North Dakota School Board’s Association, said in her testimony against SB 2230.

The debate that occurred following testimony on the bill indicated that many lawmakers agreed with her. “The more I listen, the more concerned I am,” committee Chairman Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said. As discussion continued, Koppelman and other members searched for alternative avenues for addressing Belcourt’s concerns.

One problem brought up by Davis, Marcellais and community members was the practice of “hauling votes,” which they said is “very common” and makes fair elections difficult.

“They’ll go to the bad parts, the poor parts of the tribe, buy them cigarettes, buy them booze, just buy their votes,” Davis said in an interview. “They say, ‘Hey, I’ll give you twenty bucks, I’ll give you a ride. Let’s go vote for me.'”

However, Davis said to the committee any sort of election reform would be complicated to enforce and slow to enact change. Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, said in her experience, there is “danger” in allowing too much intervention in reservation issues from a nontribal entity.

Committee members also wondered if the financial audit would reveal enough to justify removal proceedings for board members, rendering the bill unnecessary.

“This current school board, they’re very good at finding a way out,” Davis said in an interview. “One of the (tribal) council members came here and he said if you ever want to test something – a policy or something – give it to Belcourt because they’ll find a loophole.”

Although SB 2230 received a Do Not Pass recommendation from the Senate Judiciary Committee because of its broad nature, it passed the Senate 32-15 after impassioned speeches from sponsors Marcellais and Poolman.

Since the vote, Poolman has worked on an amendment that restricted the felony crimes one could be excluded for to only Class A felonies. According to Roers-Jones and Davis, a subcommittee will consider other ways to make the process more flexible for political subdivisions.

Davis said that for the past nine months, he has looked into “every option” to address Belcourt’s problems. Though he believes the ongoing financial audit could expose deeper problems within the district, he still feels a swift removal of felons on the board is important for the district’s future.

“Like, OK, now we can clean the slate,” Davis said. “Now the school board association and our offices can come and say, ‘Let’s develop better policies for separation of powers, checks and balances.’ “