Belcourt students

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, left to right, Tucker Bercier, Jeryn Marcellais, Aiyana Jollie-Trottier, Beyoncé 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 shared his comments last week during a hearing on Senate Bill 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 SB2230 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 SB2230 following a successful community petition for a financial audit of the school district. The audit 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 adviser, social studies teacher Daniel Bean, said the group organized independently and he had not seen any of the 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. 

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.

Twin Buttes problem

Another case cited by proponents of the bill is in 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.

“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,” Delorme 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.”

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.

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

Though SB2230 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.

Though Davis said 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.

“Now we can clean the slate,” Davis said of actions that could result from the bill's passage. “Now the school board association and our offices can come and say, ‘Let’s develop better policies for separation of powers, checks and balances.’”

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