Chaos and resignations: Onaway school board meeting gets heated, Chaskey exits

News Photo by Steve Schulwitz Onaway Area School District Trustee Erin Chaskey is seen walking out of a school board meeting after resigning on Tuesday in this screen grab from a Facebook Live video. Onaway Superintendent Mindy Horn and Secondary Principal Marty Mix also resigned during the meeting, but Horn revoked the resignations after Chaskey resigned. Horn said the drama and actions of the board have created a hostile work environment.

ALPENA — A handful of Onaway Area School District staff, including Superintendent Mindy Horn and Secondary Principal Marty Mix, resigned during Tuesday’s Onaway Board of Education meeting.

Trustee Erin Chaskey also resigned from the board and left before the end of the meeting.

After Chaskey resigned, Horn rescinded her and Mix’s resignations, because they weren’t effective until July 26.

Also during Tuesday’s meeting, board Chairman Jim Rieger threatened to remove some people from the meeting and had several outbursts with the public.

Had Rieger forced someone to leave the meeting, it could have resulted in a Michigan Open Meetings Act violation against Rieger and the school district, attorneys from the Michigan Press Association said.

Chaskey, Horn, Mix, and Rieger did not return messages from The News seeking comment.

Both Horn and Mix have received other job offers outside of Presque Isle County and their status with the Onaway school system was still up in the air on Wednesday.

Early in the meeting, Horn read her resignation letter and made clear one of the main reasons she wanted to step down was because of the drama on the board.

She said some members of the board have worked too hard to find damning information on other board members, staff, and herself, which she called a waste of school resources and taxpayer money.

“All of these constant and intentional attempts to find a gotcha, have done nothing but waste money and create a seriously hostile work environment,” Horn said. “Protecting our district from its own board has gotten pretty old, but saving you from yourself is even worse.”

Horn went on to list the progress the school system has made in terms of finances, curriculum, sports competition, and security and infrastructure improvements.

When she announced her intent to resign, a moan from the crowd showed their disappointment with Horn’s decision, according to a Facebook video of the board meeting reviewed by The News.

As the meeting continued, residents who attended the meeting became more riled, particularly at Rieger’s behavior. Often, Rieger refused to respond to others on the board and, when the crowd would react to his refusal to answer questions, he snapped at them and threatened to have people removed from the meeting, according to the video.

At one point, Rieger asked a Presque Isle County Sheriff’s Office deputy at the meeting to come to the front of the room and also asked the deputy to remove a person, which the deputy did not do.

At times, the meeting grew chaotic, with Rieger and members of the community yelling at each other, each tossing around curse words.

Jennifer Dukarski, general counsel for the Michigan Press Association, said that, had Rieger followed through with throwing people out of the meeting, it could have opened the door to an Open Meetings Act violation. To legally remove someone from a public meeting, the situation needs to escalate to the point where there is a real threat of violence or excessive unruliness, she said. Vulgar language is not a reason to expel someone from a government meeting, she said.

“There really is a high threshold for this and case law shows that clearly,” Dukarski said. “It pretty much has to escalate to where there is chaos or fighting. Sometimes, elected officials just need to have thicker skin and show more patience. Even foul language is not enough to have someone removed.”

Dukarski added that Mix and Horn could likely withdraw their resignations because they weren’t valid until late July, but she said she was uncertain about Chaskey’s fate and if her resignation would stand because the board never voted to accept it. She said school policy may guide the balance of the board and school district administrators on the next steps.

At points during the meeting, the crowd spoke out of turn, and at times aggressively, but at no time did it appear on the video of the meeting that anyone’s safety was a concern or that physical altercations were a possibility.

After refusing to answer questions from his peers and colliding with those in the audience, a motion of no confidence in Rieger was made and seconded. The motion failed after a three-to-three vote.

Some on the board want emails between board members and attorneys to be released to the public that pertain to ethics complaints and legal fees.

Before the meeting concluded, the board voted to hire a third party investigator to look closer into the behind-the-scenes actions and behavior of the board.

That news brought a cheer from those at the meeting.

At the end of the meeting, many residents made public comment and most condemned the board and Rieger for their poor behavior. Others thanked Horn and Mix for everything they have done for the community, the school district, and the students.

Scott Hill said the meeting was a disgrace and each one of the school board members needs to take a hard look at themselves and the way they conduct business.

“I think this board meeting was horrendous, like 99% of the people in the room,” Hill said. “But this meeting, the language, the anger you have with each other, you all need to fix it. If you can’t be civil at the board meeting, you shouldn’t be in those seats, and I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on. You’re giving the example of being an animal.”

The News tried to obtain the personal contact information of the board members to question them on the events at the meeting, but a school official said school district policy does not allow for their personal phone numbers to be released.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 or sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.


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