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Minnesota nursing board considers firing its executive director after licensing, discipline delays

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The Minnesota Board of Nursing set an emergency meeting Thursday to consider replacing its executive director amid complaints of delayed licensing approvals and disciplinary actions.

Kimberly Miller became director of the nursing board in August 2021 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. That crisis and the fall 2022 nursing strike flooded the board with licensure and temporary permit requests. But complaints and the board’s own budget request suggested problems beyond those events.

While Miller “took the brunt of the COVID mess” her leadership resulted in multiple complaints from workers, many of whom quit, and even clashes with board members, said David Jiang, who resigned from the board in August 2022 to attend law school in California. Jiang in his resignation letter to Gov. Tim Walz faulted the board for a lack of oversight, and allowing Miller to handle the staffing problems she helped create.

“It’s been over a year since we’ve been aware of these issues and its always been punted,” Jiang said in an interview Wednesday.

The Star Tribune in January reported that nursing school graduates weren’t getting cleared by the board to take their licensing exams, delaying their start dates at hospitals and clinics and contributing to the statewide nursing shortage.

ProPublica and KARE 11 in April reported on the board’s delayed disciplinary actions that allowed nurses accused of dangerous practices to stay on the job. The two media outlets first reported on Tuesday that the board had scheduled the emergency meeting.

Internal documents provided by former nursing board staff showed that delays started with the use of a single, tightly-controlled email account for multiple board activities. Questions and complaints to that inbox would sit for 30 to 60 days before they were assigned to appropriate board staff. In some cases, board staff would be pressing nurses with second or third requests for information that had already been filed to the inbox.

“The delay in responding to practice questions is unprofessional and reflects poorly on the Board,” said one email from a board staff member to Miller.

The board’s most recent biennial report showed that the time to resolve disciplinary complaints had increased to 250 days, and that last June there were 320 complaints that remained unresolved after more than one year.

Eric Ray quit his job as a discipline program assistant shortly after Miller took charge of the board. In a recent email to the Star Tribune, he said the delays are even worse than reflected by the statistics. The timeline doesn’t start until Miller codes complaints for investigations, Ray said, and many of those complaints sit for weeks in the board’s inbox.

Ray said it “is truly alarming from a public safety standpoint” and that a handful of disciplinary cases remain unresolved after five years.

The Minnesota Office of Management and Budget had received and reviewed multiple complaint about Miller, but spokesperson Patrick Hogan said privacy laws prevented elaboration on them. Nursing board president Laura Elseth confirmed Thursday’s meeting but said state privacy laws prevented her from discussing the “nature of complaints” against Miller.

Walz had requested funding increases to maintain the nursing board’s current level of service, including $237,000 per year to add three staff members.

“The Board is not able to meet consumer and applicant expectations for timely licensure processing,” the budget stated.

The nursing strike led to a doubling last year of “licensure by endorsement” applications by nurses in other states who were seeking to move to Minnesota or provide temporary nursing care for short-staffed hospitals and clinics. However, state officials expect that demand to continue this year, as burnout has caused a nursing shortage statewide and a continued need for contract and temporary nurses to cover shifts in Minnesota.



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Minnesota schools caught in DEI debate over posters, flags

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“Black Lives Matter” posters spurred a lawsuit in one Minnesota school district. Pride flags came down in others. Even “All Are Welcome Here” signs have raised eyebrows and drawn criticism.

Cultural divides over diversity and equity initiatives continue to ripple across Minnesota, with posters and other displays that advocates say are designed to instill a sense of belonging still drawing ire from opponents.

So as teachers across the state head into a new school year this fall, what they hang on the walls comes with a calculation of potential hassles from disapproving parents.

In June, the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated a case alleging that Lakeville Area Schools discriminated against parents critical of district-sponsored Black Lives Matter posters. Parents had requested but couldn’t get alternative Blue Lives Matter posters installed.

Earlier this year, the 2024 Minnesota legislative session timed out without a House vote on a bill that would prohibit the banning of rainbow flags in schools and other government buildings.

Asked last week about the Lakeville case, statewide teachers union Education Minnesota shifted its attention, instead, to the kids.

“Schools should be places where all students are seen, valued and respected,” said David Aron, the union’s legal counsel. “It’s unfortunate that a far-right interest group would target a school district’s effort to demonstrate support for its Black students in the name of free speech.”

A Lakeville schools spokesperson confirmed last week that the Black Lives Matter artwork, approved by the district, still adorns the walls.

The Upper Midwest Law Center, a conservative nonprofit law firm that represents the Lakeville parents, said the district “cannot put its thumb on the scale” in favor of Black Lives Matter activists.

“Students are there to learn, not to be indoctrinated politically,” James Dickey, the firm’s senior counsel, added in an interview last week.

Dickey said the appeals court ruling has the potential to influence district action elsewhere to remove posters or make room for those with alternate viewpoints — a prospect that concerns Hannah Edwards, director of Transforming Families Minnesota, which offers services to the LGBTQ community. She knows teachers who’ve been cautioned against putting up rainbow posters or addressing students by preferred pronouns.

“Not every one of these stories ends up being school board level or newsworthy,” Edwards said. “But they are scared of these parents who are threatening to retaliate.”

To be sure, there have been headlines. The Worthington, Minn., school board voted to remove Pride flags from classrooms. Flags began disappearing in Bemidji in response to that district’s viewpoint-neutral stance on such displays. Several Anoka-Hennepin school board members threatened to hold up approval of next year’s budget due in part to concerns over matters relating to gender identity.

Rep. Leigh Finke, DFL-St. Paul, the first openly transgender member of the Legislature, cited the action in Bemidji and Worthington as inspiration for a bill this year to ban rainbow bans — a proposal that advanced past the committee stage but never received a House vote because of what she believed would be a Republican filibuster as end-of-session deadlines neared.

During the bill’s committee hearing, Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, said schools should be free of political activities. Finke countered that everything that might be considered political in nature then must be banned, adding in an interview last week: “You can’t single out the rainbow and remove it.”

Edwards said such signs and stickers are needed because transgender students like her daughter seek out “visual safety clues” to find teachers who want it to be known: “All students are safe in my classroom,” she said.

Finke plans to reintroduce the bill in 2025, and hopefully secure passage early in the session, she said, if DFLers remain in control of the House.

Posters and school board policy

The Lakeville poster dispute dates to 2020 and began with district leaders initially telling teachers not to display Black Lives Matter signs because it violated the district’s goal of maintaining political neutrality. Months later, the district approved and paid for the printing of eight inclusivity posters — two of which had the slogan Black Lives Matter and the statement:

“At Lakeville Area Schools we believe Black Lives Matter and stand with the social justice movement this statement represents. The poster is aligned to School Board policy and an unwavering commitment to our Black students, staff and community members.”

In a filing last week seeking a new hearing before the full court, the district argued that school boards are “responsive to the electorate” and that taking a different stance on an issue at first “does not mean that it cannot later change its mind or adopt the speech itself.”

Dickey, of the Upper Midwest Law Center, said: “We’re pretty confident that the 8th Circuit is not going to review or rehear its decision in this case.” He is pursuing a settlement with the district calling upon Lakeville to return to a neutral position on all political matters.

And would that mean the posters have to come down?

“That’s part of our initial offer,” he said.



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Vaudevillians played musical chairs, personally and professionally, in 1930s Winona

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The reviews were aglow but the finances pure woe for two Indiana sisters and their husbands who performed as a vaudeville troupe, crisscrossing the Midwest from Michigan to Kansas in 1911.

“The Musical Reeses are doing a novelty musical act that for cleverness beats anything,” the Wichita Beacon trumpeted, calling their performance “little short of marvelous.”

Blindfolded Babette (Betty) Reese, 21, plinked a xylophone and her 17-year-old sister Freda Christensen sang and played saxophone, while husbands Orville Reese and Walter Christensen added some sax and baritone vocals.

But the cost of train fare, food and lodging nearly eclipsed their entertainment income. So the sisters and their husbands gave up the road for Winona and purchased a furniture store there in 1918, a few blocks from the Mississippi River.

More than a century later, retired Winona music teacher Ruth Anfinson Bures has written an intriguing account of their lives, filled with surprising twists after their teenage marriages morphed far from the norms of 1930s Minnesota. In her book, “Musical Chairs: A True, Forgotten Tale of Love, Music, and Furniture,” Bures unspools a story of real-life musical chairs playing out in Depression-era Winona.

Orville Reese toiled tirelessly directing the Winona Municipal Band from 1920 until his death in 1940, developing youth programs and lobbying for tax funding all while running his furniture store. His wife, Betty, gave piano and sax lessons in a sunny upstairs office. She was nearly 14 years younger than Orville, but had married him the day after her 18th birthday in hopes of teaming up for vaudeville fame.

Those dreams fizzled. As Orville poured more time into the Winona band, Betty grew closer and closer to Freda’s husband Walter. Freda and Walter had met backstage and married quickly so his baritone could join the act. But by the late 1920s, Freda was falling for George Graham, a Winona wrestler, ski jumper, insurance salesman and her personal tennis coach — leaving Walter open to Betty’s advances.

In 1931, when Betty was 41 and Freda was 37, they took a train to Reno, Nev., where residency rules made it possible to get a divorce after six weeks. By year’s end, their divorces secured, Betty had married Walter and Freda had married George. The next summer, Orville married his furniture store’s bookkeeper, Erna Klaviter.

And through it all, they played, conducted and instructed music in Winona.

“There was always a lot of love and cohesiveness with them all,” said Sue Thurman, 72, Betty and Walter’s granddaughter. “We heard the stories, but not until they passed did we realize with some shock that my grandfather had been first married to my Aunt Freda for 20 years.”

Thurman shared scrapbooks, photos and family heirlooms with Bures, who mined the mementos for her book before donating them to the Winona County Historical Society for a display on the municipal band.

The second weddings all took place in Crown Point, Ind., where the Methodist minister was a family friend from South Bend, the city where they had launched their vaudeville careers.

“They knew there would be finger-pointing and tongues tsk-tsking when they returned to Winona,” Bures said. “But they kept their chins up and went about their lives.”

Bures, 78, has played clarinet for 35 years in the Winona Municipal Band, Orville’s old outfit. When the band turned 100 in 2015, Bures joined other band members in researching the band’s history. As she delved into the Reese years and began untangling the threads in the family’s web, she realized there was a more complex story to weave.

“But I also wanted to tell the story of how difficult it is to find musical success even if you’re very, very talented like Babette, Freda, Orville and Walter all were,” she said.

While the names and facts in her book are real, Bures created dialogue for her characters — speculating on their feelings and motivations in what comes across as believable.

Some of her research took her to Shumski’s Flooring, housed in a quaint storefront at 173 E. 3rd Av. in downtown Winona. That’s where the Reese Furniture Co. operated until the late 1960s, and where Betty gave music lessons upstairs.

Bures tracked down Thurman, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., and whose mother Gloria was one of two siblings Betty and Walter adopted in 1933. She fondly recalls her grandparents, who died in the mid-1960s when Thurman was a teenager. According to Thurman, Betty “taught classical music but also had a photo of Elvis on her piano and loved the Beatles, who had just come to America the year she died in 1964.”

Bures contacted some of Betty’s former piano students, “who loved her and found her wonderful and kind,” she said. “She was so devoted to her students, while Orville seemed more motivated for his own glory.”

They’re all complex characters whose interwoven lives have been dusted off, with respect and some wonder — and worthy of a summer read.

“Musical Chairs” is available on Amazon and at the Winona County Historical Society.

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear every other Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.



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An earthquake brought her to Minnesota, where she’s built a life teaching Haitian dance

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Djenane Saint Juste knows the rhythms of her homeland run deep. The Haitian-born artist moved to the United States in 2009 and founded Afoutayi, a local nonprofit that uses Haitian and Afro-Caribbean music and dance to educate people about her native culture.

“There were many other groups who were doing Haitian celebrations, but most of those people were not Haitian,” Saint Juste said. “It was beautiful what they were doing, but some information was missing, because none of them had been born or lived in Haiti.”

Saint Juste trained in ballet, hip hop, jazz and ballroom at her mother Florencia Pierre’s dance company in Haiti and honed her skills under Pierre Dulaine at Dancing Classrooms in New York. After winning a car in a beauty pageant contest, she moved to California with her son, fleeing targeted robberies in Haiti. But once there, she encountered significant challenges adapting to a new language and culture and the high cost of living.

She planned to return to Haiti after a few years, but the country’s earthquake in 2010 altered her plans.

“We had to start from rock bottom when we moved to the U.S., working all kinds of jobs and being treated differently,” she said. “The arts scene for an immigrant is not a good way to go, but I didn’t want to do anything else other than art.”

That opportunity presented itself when a former student of her mother’s moved to Minnesota and saw the need for Haitian cultural education in the state, after an increasing number of Haitian children were adopted by white Minnesotan families following the earthquake.

“The problem was most of the parents didn’t speak Creole or French, and didn’t know anything about Haitian culture,” Saint Juste said. “These kids, whether it was the language, food or environment, felt appreciative but disconnected.”

Saint Juste’s move to Minnesota marked the start of collaborations with several local arts organizations, including the arts education nonprofit COMPAS (Community Programs in the Arts), where she serves as a teaching artist. She joined the COMPAS roster in 2016, said Julie Strand-Blomgren, the group’s arts program director, who connects Afoutayi with educational institutions.

Through COMPAS, Saint Juste integrates Haitian and Afro-Caribbean konpa and kizomba dance styles, Creole language and folklore into educational programs at schools, libraries and recreational centers in the Twin Cities and Minnesota. This summer, she is leading daily sessions in Haitian and Afro-Caribbean dance at the Center for Performing Arts’ summer camp in Minneapolis.

“I always think somebody’s easier to connect with when you can see pieces of yourself in them,” Strand-Blomgren said. “Maybe kids don’t always see themselves as a dancer, but they can maybe relate to her through something else because she brings so much of herself to every room.”

Saint Juste’s work addresses the cultural challenges faced by Haitian students in American classrooms. In Haiti, children learn through “song, drumming and movement,” she said. “But in American classrooms, you have to sit down, be quiet and listen. That is a big cultural shock for them.”

That disconnect became more apparent when Saint Juste noticed her son, then 4, struggling in the structured classroom. “For him, everything in school was dancing and drumming,” she said. “Here, there’s not that much space to move around, and teachers at school would tell me he had an issue.”

Saint Juste knew her son wasn’t alone; many Haitian children were facing similar struggles. Determined to bridge the gap, she visited her son’s school and performed Haitian dances. She explained the cultural context of movement and rhythm in Haitian education and how teachers there incorporate it into the curriculum. Not only did Saint Juste’s son begin to thrive, but other students benefited from the more engaging learning environment.

“The kids who identify as troublemakers or have fallen behind a grade level suddenly shine because they have a space to show their energy,” she said.

In 2020 she published “The Mermaid and the Whale,” a children’s book that celebrates Haitian folklore. The book — available in English, Haitian-Creole, French and Spanish — highlights the historical significance of Creole as a language of Haitian resistance and identity.

“For many years, Creole was prohibited in schools,” Saint Juste said. “Children were required to learn French, even though they thought, felt and communicated in Creole at home. This created a gap between those who attended school and those who didn’t.”

The book also challenges stereotypes about Haiti. “A lot of Haitian kids, when they come [to the U.S.], feel frustrated,” she said. “They feel like they are the bad guys because the news only spreads about the economy of Haiti, or violence. We need to value and keep alive the positive aspects of our history so that our children feel proud to be Haitian.”

The local Haitian Flag Day festival, founded by Saint Juste and her mother in 2017, serves as a platform to celebrate Haitian heritage every May 18.

“We celebrate with everybody,” Saint Juste said. “Our suffering is the suffering of all Black Caribbean cultures. We hope people attending the festival see the struggles we face in Haiti and look at us with hope. … I feel so proud, because we’re creating a group of ambassadors who are going to advocate not only for Haiti but for all Afro-Caribbean culture.”



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