News Story

Bans And Bad Feelings After ‘Stealth’ Odd-Year, August School Tax Hike Election

Superintendent bans two residents from U.P. school property without prior notice

Heated disputes over a $4.7 million school bond election in the Dollar Bay–Tamarack City school district last August have persisted, and in October they led Superintendent-Principal Christina Norland to ban two local residents from the school building.

Norland told Michigan Capitol Confidential in an emailed statement that the banned individuals – Cindy Barth, 72, and Kristin Lortie, 48 – may still enter school property under certain conditions.

The limited no-trespass directive requires the women to request permission, in writing, three days in advance of the day they want to visit the school, which is located on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. That includes shows, events or athletic events held on school property when school is not in session.

Barth, a former substitute teacher for the school district, and Lortie are allowed in the school for school board meetings. But they may not arrive more than 15 minutes before the start of the meeting and must leave immediately after it ends, according to the notification letter the school board sent them.

They may also enter the school to vote on election day but must only use the designated polling location and leave immediately after voting.

Norland told Michigan Capitol Confidential in an email that she issued the directive in late October only after Barth and Lortie had made several unorthodox visits to the school.

The superintendent said that on at least two occasions, the women failed to enter through the correct door, didn’t sign in at the office, and wandered unsupervised throughout student areas of the school building.

“As you can imagine, having visitors repeatedly enter the school through unauthorized doors or during unauthorized hours represents safety concerns for students and staff,” Norland said.

The letter advising Barth and Lortie of their limited ban said their behavior had been disruptive to the learning environment.

“Unfortunately, KL and CB simply cannot be trusted to behave as other visitors do,” Norland told Michigan Capitol Confidential in an email. “KL and CB have not acknowledged posted signs or followed standard school protocols. Our families have expressed concern for their children based on behaviors witnessed by the community. Our employees have been treated rudely. KL and CB have demanded an incredible amount of time from school personnel, which takes time away from the students and staff and daily operations of DB-TC Area Schools.”

Barth and Lortie said they visited the school on several occasions to request public records related to the proposed debt and district spending. They said they were never asked to use a specific door or sign in on those occasions.

Lortie said they got lost in the district building going from the empty superintendent’s office to the principal’s office.

“We got lost,” Lortie said. “This paints us as unreasonable and can’t be trusted. She gave us no warning there was any concern about our behavior. They are making no gesture to work with us. ... They immediately jump to, ‘Our lawyer said we can ban you.’”

Barth and Lortie told Michigan Capitol Confidential the real problem was what they call a “stealth election” for a property tax hike that was scheduled in an odd-year election in the month of August. The measure passed with little more than 25% voter turnout.

They say that many in the community did not know about the vote, and that one of them only learned about the election through whispers at a public meeting.

The women see the ban on their spontaneous visits as a political response to their opposition to the school’s bond election.

In a memo sent to the school board after being notified of the partial ban, the pair called the directive “inappropriate,” and said the reasons for instituting the order were “unfounded and without merit.”

In the memo, they asked for security video that showed them doing what Norland had accused them of doing in the letter. They also said that she hadn’t personally witnessed them doing the things she banned them for doing.

“School districts have the right to determine the time, place, and manner by which individuals are permitted on District property,” Norland said in her reply to the memo. “The no-trespass letter I sent to you was due to concerning behavior on October 16 and before. Since August, you have behaved in ways which have been interpreted by many district personnel and parents as hostile.”

“Because of this, your entry through an unmonitored door (in your case, a friendly student unknowingly let you in through an unmonitored entrance—this means a door that is not monitored by staff with video/intercom/buzz-in/unlocking controls) and unaccompanied route through the school, including being on the third floor and asking personal questions of teachers, was alarming, and caused a disturbance resulting in phone conversations with concerned staff that afternoon,” she wrote.

“People, both staff and parents, are not comfortable with your presence in our school, especially during school hours, and/or at times students are present,” the superintendent continued. “For this reason, after your visit on October 16, I called a lawyer to discuss the situation; her immediate recommendation was a no-trespass letter, being alarmed at the thought of visitors entering a school building through an unmonitored entrance and, rather than waiting in the appropriate office (with doors open and lights on) for the secretary to return, walking unaccompanied through student areas of the building.”

Barth and Lortie said that Norland’s use of the word “interpreted” meant the superintendent had made “nonspecific assumptions leading to a very specific punishment.”

Norland could not provide video of the women’s entire visit to the school – only footage of them leaving.

She told Barth and Lortie, in her response to their memo, that it was the first time the school had ever asked the video surveillance vendor to capture video for them and that “some kind of a tech glitch occurred.”

Lortie stated that the school board has not answered the question about its ban and if it may have violated the Michigan Open Meetings Act. Lortie said Barth has attended all public meetings and neither she nor Barth are aware of the ban being discussed in public.

As residents and voters in the school district, Barth and Lortie say they their goal is accountability from the school superintendent.

“Lack of accountability toward the community has been a pattern in [the superintendent’s] communication and decisions,” Lortie said in her reply to the superintendent’s response to the memo.

The women appealed the ban to the school board and requested a response from each individual school board member explaining why the member voted to ban them. Lortie said nobody responded.

“You have made your position desiring the directive to be lifted known to me and the board, and we have heard,” the superintendent wrote. “But further than this, and confirmed by the lawyer, there is no appeal process. This aspect of the no-trespass directive will remain in effect until further notice.”

Lortie said schools are using security concerns as a reason to ban local citizens concerned about school practices. Lortie said it was an abuse of power and people should be concerned.

“This is a retaliation for following state Sunshine laws,” Lortie said. “We have spoken. We have not been heard.”