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Steven and Deb Montplaisir of Moorhead pose with their two children, Cole, 9, and Rylee, 5. (Dave Wallis/ The Forum)

Frazee teacher who lost job claims superintendent has conflict of interest

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FRAZEE - A Frazee-Vergas special education teacher is vowing to challenge his contract nonrenewal all the way to the courts after budget cuts this spring claimed his job.

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At issue here is a bedeviling dispute over whether teachers get to keep their tenure rights in a district when they leave - the subject of several court cases. But the teacher, Steven Montplaisir, also sees a blatant conflict of interest: He says his departure allows the district to spare the position of Superintendent Deron Stender's wife, a probationary special education teacher.

Education Minnesota, the state's largest teacher's union, has taken on Montplaisir's cause. However, the district's administration says it took a straightforward approach to deciding whom to cut, and Stender was not directly involved.

Montplaisir joined the Frazee-Vergas district in 2000. When he was deployed with the National Guard in 2006, his family moved to Moorhead so his wife Deb would no longer have to commute to her job in Fargo. On his return from Iraq, Steven taught in Frazee until he resigned in 2007 to teach in Moorhead.

When Moorhead did not renew his contract the following year, Montplaisir got back his job in Frazee. He says he never pushed the question of whether he was back on probation: "I didn't want to create any waves or hassles. I just wanted my position back."

In Minnesota, a new teacher attains tenure after three years with a district. If that teacher moves to a new district, she gains tenure after a year. In case of budget cuts, districts need to let probationary teachers go before tenured ones in positions slated for the chopping block.

In a bid to cut cost, the district decided earlier this year to trim several positions, including a high school special education teacher. Soon, Montplaisir found out he was that teacher.

"I asked what the decision process was," he said. "They told me that because they saw me as a non-tenured teacher, they didn't owe me any explanation."

But when he contacted his local Education Minnesota rep, Michelle Goos, she didn't think he was a probationary teacher. The union says teachers don't relinquish their tenured rights in a district when they resign and are automatically tenured on day one if they return.

The Minnesota School Board Association agrees.

"Once I have earned tenure in the district, I can go away and return as many times as I want, and I am still a tenured teacher," Associate Deputy Director Bob Lowe said.

The Minnesota Association of School Administrators disagrees, saying teachers only keep their tenure if they take paid or unpaid leave.

The Frazee district and Education Minnesota both cite Minnesota Court of Appeals tenure cases with different outcomes - all in some substantial way different from Montplaisir's.

Marcy Matson, Frazee special ed director, said to keep things straightforward, the district generally follows a last-one-in-first-one-out policy in reducing probationary positions. And technically, Montplaisir was the last one in.

Jacqueline Stender and an elementary special ed teacher are both in their second year of teaching.

Montplaisir and his wife say his longer experience and his value as a rare male role model in special education should have played into the decision.

"Mr. Stender has a big financial conflict of interest in this decision-making," Deb Montplaisir said.

Stender denies the charge, pointing out his administrative team signed off on Matson's recommendation and the school board - in a 5-2 vote - approved the cut.

Montplaisir said he's determined to take the issue to court if he and the district can't resolve it otherwise. He has 60 days from receiving his notice on April 14 to file a suit.

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