An employee of the Stillwater Area School District is claiming the district and the school board chair violated the Minnesota Open Meeting Law, the statute protecting whistleblowers and the Minnesota Data Practices Act in a lawsuit filed May 5 in Washington County District Court.

Kristen Hoheisel, the district executive director of finance and operations, laid out three counts of alleged wrongdoing by the district and school board chair Sarah Stivland in the lawsuit.

During the March 19 board meeting, Hoheisel was placed on administrative leave — identifying her during the meeting as “employee A” due to data privacy laws. This action by the school board is the latest in a series of actions by board members that Hoheisel alleges have created a hostile work environment.

In 2017, Hoheisel filed a hostile work environment complaint alleging gender discrimination and harassment by two school board members including Stivland, who joined the school board in January 2017. The lawsuit states that the complaint was investigated by a third part investigator appointed by the school board, who found merit in Hoheisels’s complaint in their report to the board on Nov. 22, 2017. However, Hoehisel’s lawsuit claims that no action was taken by the school board to punish the wrongdoing found in the report.

“Since then the harassment continued,” the lawsuit claims.

Hoheisel formally filed another complaint in February 2020, asking for “measures be taken to stop the hostile work environment that had again been created by certain school board directors.”

The lawsuit alleges that Stivland knew about the second hostile work environment complaint during the March 19 school board meeting where Hoheisel was placed on administrative leave. During the meeting, board member Mark Burns “conveyed to Chair Stivland and the rest of the board his concerns that the school board had not complied with the legal requirement of holding a closed meeting to consider allegations” against Hoheisel, the lawsuit alleges. Because there was not a closed meeting to discuss the leave and Hoheisel was not allowed to request that the meeting be open for the public to hear the allegations, the lawsuit claims the school board violated the state’s open meeting law.

The second count against the school board alleges a violation of Minnesota’s whistleblower statute by placing Hoheisel on administrative leave three weeks after she filed a hostile work environment complaint.

“Hoheisel was penalized, threatened and disciplined regarding the terms and conditions of her employment because she had, in good faith, reported violations of suspected violations of federal, state common law or rule adopted pursuant to law to her employer,” the lawsuit alleges.

The third count alleges a violation of the Minnesota Data Practices act by the school board for using language that identifies her as “Employee A” while the board placed her on administrative leave. The lawsuit claims the board was “woefully careless, haphazard, and, at times, entirely intentional with identifying Hoheisel as Employee A in the ongoing school board investigations.”

During its April 9 boardcast, a news story by KSTP-TV showed Hoheisel’s photo and name on screen while stating that the Stillwater school board “voted to place a top administrator on paid leave in March, but didn’t publicly disclose who the employee was, citing private personnel laws,” the lawsuit states, quoting from the accompanying text from the new stations online story. “However, multiple sources told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that Hoheisel, the district’s top financier, is the employee on paid leave.”

The lawsuit alleges that the “‘multiple sources’ were members of the school board or persons who learned about Hoheisel’s identity through members of the school board.”

The lawsuit alleges that the actions of the school board and Stivland as an individual were “willful and intentional and intended to damage Hoheisel in the eyes of the community and in the eyes of her profession.”

In the lawsuit, Hoheisel is seeking damages in excess of $50,000, expungement of any record of her being placed on administrative leave and an immediate return to work, and cost and attorney’s fees. Hoheisel is also seeking the Stivland be found personally liable for failure to abide by the Minnesota Open Meeting Law.

Contact Alicia Lebens at alicia.lebens@ecm-inc.com

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