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A district divided

With cracks beginning to show, the task at Lyle Schools now turns to how can things can be fixed before the cracks get too long. -- Illustration by Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Lyle community split over leadership at its public school

A debate over school management has turned into a consuming disagreement in Lyle.

School district residents are divided over their school’s management, a division that appears to be fueled by leadership changes, rumors and communication breakdowns.

“It’s a soap opera here,” said Wendy King, a Lyle resident whose husband is a school board member. “It’s crazy. It truly is.”

For right or wrong, the lightning rod has been Jim Dusso. Dusso was the district’s principal until April when he was appointed superintendent after the sudden resignation of his predecessor, Jerry Reshetar.

School board meetings have drawn groups eager to complain about how Dusso and the board are managing the district. Those who support Dusso and the school board are starting to speak out about the positive changes they say Dusso has brought to the district.

Although each side has pointed fingers, there are common threads to all of the complaints. Many in each camp think the other side isn’t listening to them. Each side believes the other spreads rumors and misinformation. Each believes it is fighting for its children’s education and the other side is not.

And some on each side say if Lyle Schools’ issues aren’t resolved soon, it will damage the community and school district, perhaps beyond repair.

A new approach

Rumors, minor missteps and curriculum restructuring have followed since Dusso was hired as principal in 2009. Yet Dusso has also led the charge to improve Lyle’s Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores, resulting in about 92 percent of Lyle’s 10th-graders meeting or exceeding MCA reading requirements last year.

“The morale has changed,” said Julie Ruis, pre-K teacher. “It’s more positive, everybody seems excited.”

Not everyone on staff has been pleased, however. Several teachers resigned last school year and at least two bus drivers have quit in recent weeks.

“He’s a liability,” said Gary Harrison, Lyle City Councilman and former Lyle bus driver after the school board’s September meeting. “He’s a walking litigation risk.”

The staffing issues began when Dusso implemented curriculum changes in February, part of a three-year plan to increase MCA scores. Changes included teacher shifts, instructional critiques by Dusso and a clearer chain of command. Dusso’s hands-on approach irked some teachers, because the previous principal wasn’t as disciplined.

“There are things here that have needed to be changed for a long time and Mr. Dusso has been willing to make those changes,” said Amy Thuesen, high school language arts teacher. “The majority of those changes have been positive.”

Sometimes those changes have required Dusso to enforce accountability standards, which upset some teachers. In an interview last week, Dusso said he always tried to listen to teachers’ complaints. But after multiple meetings, some teachers opted to only meet with Dusso when union representatives were present.

“Why?” Dusso asked about that decision. “I’m totally dumfounded by that.”

Dusso said he sent out e-mails in December asking for collaboration on planned curriculum changes, but only got one response.

Dusso knew the shifts and the accountability measures were going to shake things up. He said he spent several sleepless nights before enacting the changes in February.

“I knew I was going to disrupt lives,” he said. “I knew I was going to make change for some people that was decades’ old. I did not arrive at that easily.”

Building incidents

Three years ago, Dusso was a high school social studies teacher in Dover-Eyota Public Schools. He enjoyed the classroom, but wanted to work with teachers, to help them find a connection with students.

“It’s about that connection,” he said.

The principal position at Lyle is Dusso’s first administrative job. There were no complaints about Dusso’s first year but rumors about his management style began to circulate before he was offered the superintendent job.

Many supporters of Lyle’s administration say the trouble began a year ago when Lyle changed the color scheme of its sports uniforms, replacing black with green, blue and white for the combined Lyle/Pacelli teams.

“We wanted to make sure we were consistent in our colors,” said Reid Olson, Lyle athletic director. “Some people were not happy with how that happened.”

Some people still wanted black as part of the uniforms, yet Pacelli’s athletic board didn’t want black in any uniforms. The conversation was dropped once Lyle’s athletic board heard from Pacelli, which irked several residents who wanted to continue the discussion.

From there, Dusso went through several incidents involving students, from challenging a middle school class on its MCA scores (a meeting at which he was accused of making racial comments and swearing at the students) to catching students violating the school’s cell phone policy by using a student’s confiscated phone.

Each of the incidents were largely taken out of context, according to Dusso and several others.

Dusso said he used the word “hell” in asking what happened to the middle schoolers’ MCA scores from the previous year. He also told students Lyle’s performance shouldn’t be worse than districts with large socio-economic and racial gaps, since Lyle is largely white and doesn’t have English-as-a-second-language issues and other student sub-categories which tend to affect test scores.

In the cell phone incident, Dusso confiscated a phone in front of many students one day in October 2010. The phone rang two or three times throughout the day with new text messages from a fellow student. Dusso said he looked at the phone, texted “hi” to the other student, and later spoke to that student about using his phone during school. Students are not allowed to use cell phones during the day except in special circumstances.

“That’s what I did and I apologized for it,” Dusso said. “I called parents in and students in. It’s my perception they accepted my apology.”

In many of these cases, Dusso said, the stories were overblown, and he was simply trying to make himself more personable to students. In the cell phone case, he said, he was trying to build a connection with the student, an inside joke of sorts. The attempt backfired.

“It’s become folklore or an urban legend,” Dusso said.

Another widely reported rumor — a student claimed to have been strip-searched — was false, the student’s father told the Herald. The father said that he had given his permission for Dusso to search his son, who was suspected of carrying marijuana, in accordance with school policy. The search did reveal marijuana but instead of expelling the student, Dusso found a Mower County program which would help the student get back on track.

“(Dusso) bent over backwards to ensure that (the student) was going to get all the help he could get,” the boy’s father said. “The rumors going around there are just crazy.”

Facing the board

Dusso’s struggles with board member Dan King are widely reported, ever since King began criticizing Dusso for taking a staff development trip to Texas without notifying the board. King said he learned about the trip from someone who used to work for the school.

“I don’t think I would have ever known (otherwise),” King said.

Dusso was not required to notify the board of the trip beforehand, although Dusso let board members know what the training would be about in a weekly e-mail update. The trip, which cost about $2,500, happened during the summer.

Since then, King has become a voice for residents and staff members who aren’t satisfied with Dusso’s performance. Dusso and King aren’t able to meet eye to eye on several fiscal issues concerning the district. King believes Dusso overstepped his boundaries as superintendent by not reporting more fully to the board about financial questions that King thinks are public information.

“It’s frustrating,” King said.

Dusso and King have met privately once and while King thought the meeting went well, Dusso said it was his perception that King wasn’t sticking to board policy. Since then, Dusso has refused to meet privately with King without another board member present. Dusso said he has tried to meet with King with another board member present, but said King has refused.

Most board members don’t share King’s views on Dusso. Dean Rohne, Scott Nelson and Carl Truckenmiller have all said they support Dusso’s management and initiatives. Jessie Meyer and Kent Goldberg could not be reached for comment.

“There’s a line between governance and management,” said Nelson. “Those two lines don’t need to be crossed. A board’s role is to set the vision of the school and have the administration carry that out.”

The board itself is under criticism for enacting a communications policy which prevents people from speaking out of turn at meetings, which many say was in response to several residents going to meetings to complain about Dusso.

The communication policy was needed to prevent data privacy violations, said Rohne, the board chairman. Residents must now sign up 10 days in advance if they want to speak to the board about an issue.

Many in the community see the new policy as a measure designed to stifle talk between the public and the board. Board members say that isn’t true.

“The whole thing’s turned into a mystery that no one wants to talk about,” said Ron Frank. Frank spoke to the board at its September meeting after trying to see the district’s detailed financial information for the past year and after asking Dusso via phone for the records. Frank wasn’t happy with Dusso’s response and criticized the board for allowing negativity to build. Dusso said he never met Frank before and didn’t know why he would have reservations about the direction Lyle Public Schools is going.

Frank sees Dusso as a source of negativity in the district based on his decisions and his heavy-handed reputation amongst critics.

“In a small school district, you can’t afford to have those people,” Frank said. “Everybody’s got to work together, and people have to feel they want to give the extra effort to get things done.”

Board members are behind Dusso because of his MCA results and his leadership, which several board members say is exemplary. They hear the complaints about Dusso, but are in full support of his administration thus far.

“All board members are hearing exactly what the public is saying,” Rohne said. “What the public needs to realize is we may not give them what they want.

“The board as a whole is making decisions to do what’s best for educating kids, which might not necessarily be what the public wants,” Rohne said.

No solution in sight

There are few solutions in sight for the situation, which many believe will get worse before it gets better. Dusso’s superintendent contract is up at the end of June, when a new superintendent will take over Lyle, Grand Meadow and Glenville/Emmons Public Schools if the consortium superintendent Jerry Reshetar retires. Dusso will go back to being principal, which he says excites him as he loves being an instructional leader.

“He hasn’t been superintendent long enough to judge him in my opinion,” board member Truckenmiller said. “We threw him into it. He’s very capable of doing the job, and I think we’ve got to give him a chance to see him work out.”

It seems critics would like increased communication and more transparency from the district, even if data privacy laws do place some limits on the information officials can give out. Board members aren’t sure how to solve the issue but believe more board training is necessary. Firing Dusso, they say, would create more issues than it solves.

“Firing Mr. Dusso’s not the solution,” Truckenmiller said. “If we fire him, we’re out a superintendent, we’re out a principal. Anyone good has been gotten right now.

“No matter what we do, somebody’s going to be mad. We have to do what we think is best, as a board,” he added.

Dan King is accused of violating board ethics policies by allegedly sharing confidential information from closed board meetings with the public. King said he has never violated board ethics policies but that several staff members have shared information with him and with each other.

Rohne could not name a specific infraction King has committed but said there were many little instances. He said there hasn’t been discussion of officially censuring King, but didn’t rule out the possibility.

Without some resolution, many district officials fear parents will pull their children out of Lyle schools. Lyle’s has 224 students this year, up eight from last year and typical of Lyle’s enrollment for the past 10 years. In addition, Lyle’s $158,000 operating levy is up for renewal this year. Lyle residents pay about $58,000 in taxes toward that levy, with the rest coming from the state. Though the levy is about 5 percent of Lyle’s $3.2 million budget, its loss would mean more than $1 million in funding for the next 10 years.

“We’re a bare-bones district,” Dusso said. “We need to pass that levy.”

If enough students leave the district, Lyle’s overall budget could shrink enough from the lack of per-pupil funding that the district might have to shut down.

No one, on either side, wants that to happen. While critics believe Dusso could bring that about, supporters are confident in his abilities.

“He tries to do what’s best for education and he likes to push hard,” Rohne said. “He has high expectations.”