Event bars Fargo teacher
Dale Wetzel , Associated Press
Published Monday, November 03, 2008
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BISMARCK - North Dakota's new Teacher of the Year was barred from a reception held to honor top teachers because she declined to join the North Dakota Education Association, education officials said. One denounced the move as "hurtful and vindictive."
Beth Ekre, a sixth-grade teacher at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School in Fargo, showed up for the Oct. 23 "Celebration of Excellence" social at a Fargo hotel, hours after her selection as North Dakota's Teacher of the Year was announced at an NDEA instructional conference.
The event was intended to honor award-winning teachers, including the new teacher of the year and the North Dakota winner of the Milken Educator Award, officials said.
Ekre said Dakota Draper, the NDEA's president, and Linda Harsche, a public relations staffer, met her at the door and told her she could not attend because it was limited to association members.
"It was a humiliating experience," Ekre said. "It's one of the most uncomfortable situations I've ever been in."
Draper confirmed the account, saying Ekre was told in September that the NDEA was paying for the reception and that only members could take part. He briefed her in mid-September about NDEA membership benefits as part of a pitch to have her join the association, Draper said.
Ekre said she did not remember being told of the reception because, at the time, she didn't know she would be getting the award. She said she found out about the event later, when she was searching the Web for information about when the Teacher of the Year award was being presented.
Jon Martinson, director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, recounted the story in a letter to state Sen. Layton Freborg, R-Underwood, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee.
In the letter, Martinson appealed to Freborg to introduce legislation to "remove the NDEA from playing any role whatsoever in North Dakota's Teacher of the Year program."
Martinson said he was "highly offended by the hurtful and vindictive treatment of this outstanding educator by the NDEA, an organization that demonstrated bias, prejudice and discrimination towards a nonmember."
He also accused Draper and Mark Berntson, the association's vice president, of pressuring Ekre to join the NDEA after the four Teacher of the Year finalists were interviewed in Bismarck in August.
Draper said he and Berntson met with Ekre separately to ask her to join the association, which Draper estimated would cost Ekre about $500 annually. Ekre said she was not pressured and described her meetings with Draper and Berntson as "very gracious, very cordial."
Ekre, who has been a teacher for 16 years, said she joined the association when she first began teaching but dropped out because she regards the NDEA's parent organization, the National Education Association, as too politically liberal.
NDEA members automatically are members of the NEA and provide support to the national organization. Ekre said she asked if she could opt out of NEA membership, but Draper said that option was not available.
Wayne Sanstead, North Dakota's superintendent of public instruction, said he was "greatly distressed" by news of Ekre's treatment.
Normally, the NDEA pays travel expenses for the North Dakota Teacher of the Year to attend national events for state honorees. The association will not pay Ekre's expenses, but Sanstead said the Department of Public Instruction would do so.
"It is the North Dakota Teacher of the Year, not the NDEA Teacher of the Year," Sanstead said.
Max Laird, who is opposing Sanstead's bid for a seventh term as superintendent, said the program is worthy of taxpayer support. Laird, a former NDEA president, said the organization helps coordinate the teacher program because the Department of Public Instruction does not have money to do so.
"It seems to me we ought to have a program to honor the North Dakota Teacher of the Year that is open, appropriate and sustainable, and it's in a place where everyone can sit back and admire the person that wins, regardless of where the financial support is coming from," Laird said.
The award is a project of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, of which Sanstead is a member.
The four finalists for the national award will be announced in mid-January, said Jon Quam, the program's director. The national Teacher of the Year will be announced in late April, he said.
Freborg called the incident "a real low blow."
"It certainly doesn't speak highly of the people who are in control of that organization," Freborg said. "I just cannot believe that they would stoop to something like that, and I'm sure that the membership, most of them, don't even know about it."