During their regularly scheduled board meeting, the Cloquet School Board had an agenda item that was seemingly benign, but upon further inspection doesn’t bode well for one board member up for re-election. The agenda item in question was about spouses of board members working for the district. According to the rule provided during the school board meeting, an employee spouse of a board member should “receive no special monetary or other benefit that is substantially different from the benefits that other members of the class receive under the employment contract.” The problem is that historically this hasn’t been the case for board member Nate Sandman and his wife Nicole Sandman.
On August 14th, 2017, Mrs. Sandman’s employment contract as the Student Data Specialist was up for renewal. Presented to the board was a newly negotiated contract for Mrs. Sandman that gave her almost an 8% pay increase in addition to other new benefits in the contract. Compared to other pay raises approved by the board that year, no other individual contract or union contract came anywhere close to an 8% pay raise. As is typical of school districts, most pay raises are equal to what the teachers receive each year, which was only 2% in Cloquet that year. Why is it that Mrs. Sandman received such a substantial raise compared to other employees in the district? While Mr. Sandman abstained from voting on his wife’s employment contract, it doesn’t change that her contract included a monetary benefit that was substantially greater than any other employee of the district.
In the spring of 2019, the Head Secretary of Cloquet High School position opened up to internal applicants and Mrs. Sandman was quick to apply, despite her having no experience as a secretary at all. By the time the internal job posting had closed, another employee applied for the position in addition to Mrs. Sandman. Unlike Mrs. Sandman, this other employee not only had extensive experience as a secretary but at the time was the head secretary in a different school within the district. A glance at the applicants’ resumes clearly showed that Mrs. Sandman lacked the experience necessary to take on this position, however after the interviews were conducted it was Mrs. Sandman who was selected for the position over the more experienced applicant.
On April 1st, 2019 the school board voted to approve Mrs. Sandman’s hire as the Head Secretary of Cloquet High School. While her husband Nate Sandman was absent during this board meeting, board Member Gary Huard questioned why Mrs. Sandman was selected over the more experienced applicant. Board member Jim Crowley replied that Mrs. Sandman was “good with technology”, and that was apparently a good enough reason for the board. Mrs. Sandman lacked the experience necessary for the job, especially compared to the other applicant, but the board voted to approve her hire anyway. Gaining a new position with an increase in pay while lacking qualifications compared to other applicants is clearly a “special benefit that is substantially different from the benefits that other members of the class receive.” Had Mrs. Sandman not been the wife of a board member it is doubtful she would have been considered for the position.
After being notified that they were not selected, the other applicant to Mrs. Sandman’s new position filed a grievance with AFSCMS Council 65 alleging that under the union contract with the school district, the job should have defaulted to a member of the union, of which Mrs. Sandman was not a member. The union agreed with its member and filed a grievance with the school board. On April 18th, 2019, the school board held a special board meeting in which it denied the grievance filed. Neither side saw the need for any kind of mediation due to the fact that neither side saw a compromise that was acceptable, and elected to go to arbitration. Due to the grievance filed, Mrs. Sandman did not resign from her position as the Student Data Specialist but was able to accept the position as the Head Secretary of Cloquet High School anyway. For months, Mrs. Sandman was able to occupy two different employment positions in the district to ensure that no matter which way the grievance was resolved, Mrs. Sandman would still have a job. Rather than place its students first and ensure that they were taken care of by filling all vacant positions, the district chose to protect a board member’s wife from losing her job if a union grievance didn’t go her way. Yet again, Mrs. Sandman received special benefits that no other employee has received.
The grievance eventually went to arbitration where both the union and the district were able to argue their perspective on the issue of Mrs. Sandman getting a job as a Head Secretary over another employee that was already a Head Secretary. After months of waiting the arbitrator agreed with the union and ruled that the employee that was already a head secretary should have been selected for the position over Mrs. Sandman. In a settlement, Mrs. Sandman was able to keep her new position as the Head Secretary of Cloquet High School, and the employee that did not get the position received a monetary settlement that the district had to pay for. All-in-all, the district giving a board member’s wife a job she was not qualified for, cost the district over $15,000 in attorney fees to present the case. When year after year schools are forced to squeeze more and more out of their budgets, it is shocking that a district would spend an excess of $15,000 to protect the job of a board members wife.
It is Cloquet School District policy to ensure that board members’ spouses receive no special treatment as employees of the district. It is likely that the public has no idea just how much special treatment Nicole and Nate Sandman have received at the public’s expense. Nepotism is nothing new in the City of Cloquet and the community has worked hard to root it out, but there still exists pockets of nepotism that have yet to be eliminated. Unfortunately, the nepotism is strong on the Cloquet School Board. Nate Sandman used his position to secure an almost 8% pay increase for his wife when all other employees received less than 3% pay increases. After getting away with that, Nate Sandman used his position to get his wife a new job, with an increase in pay, over a more qualified employee. Then when a grievance was filed, Nate & Nicole Sandman’s nepotism cost the district $15,000 and the district went without a Student Data Specialist so they could protect Mrs. Sandman’s job no matter which way the grievance was resolved. Instead of focusing on educating students and serving his constituents, it seems like Mr. Sandman is more concerned with making sure his wife makes more money. Perhaps in November, the public should consider Mr. Sandman’s actions throughout his tenure as a board member.