FARGO—Fargo Public School District is once again in the national news, this time over a letter that FPSD Superintendent Rupak Ghandi sent to teachers in Florida who resigned over the recently-passed parental rights bill.
The letter was authored by Gandhi, FPSD Director of Equity and Inclusion Dr. Tamara Uselman, Fargo City Commissioner John Strand and North Dakota state Representative John Boschee, D-District 44. It invites Florida teachers who resigned over the parental rights bill to come to Fargo. It was sent electronically to the Fargo Education Association, Equality Florida, and teacher organizations in Florida, among others.
“We are doing the work, doggedly moving toward our goal of being that place, where the uniqueness of everyone is honored and diverse backgrounds, values, and points of view aren’t only accepted but actively embraced,” the letter stated.
Ghandi attached the letter in his weekly update to the FPSD School Board on April 8. It was considered an “operational decision” and therefore did not require any input or approval from the board. As an attachment to the routine weekly report to the board, it did not generate any comment or response from board members.
But news of the letter recently gained national attention when Ethan Harsell, a Republican candidate for legislature in District 43 posted screenshots of the letter on his Twitter page.
Upon learning that Gandhi actively sought disgruntled teachers from Florida to move to North Dakota, parents and the public responded. Let Parents Decide That has 2100 members on their Facebook page. The group is comprised of parents who are concerned and speaking out on several of FPSD's policies such as mask mandates and critical race theory.
Founder Cassie Schmidt responded to the letter saying, “Fargo should not be considered a safe haven for groomers.”
Schmidt says that most parents in the group believe that “any educator leaving Florida because they've now been prohibited from teaching sexual identity and gender ideologies to children third grade and younger, have no place here in Fargo.”
Jake Schmitz, another outspoken parent in the LPDT group said, “Once again, Dr. Gandhi demonstrates his ideological philosophy with this letter. We, as a society and the school district can be 'inclusive' to other people's beliefs while at the same time not pandering to behaviors not acceptable for North Dakota.”
Two weeks ago, FPSD Board voted 7-2 to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance, a controversial decision that gained national attention. That vote prompted Governor Burgum to issue a call for “legislation to guarantee that the opportunity exists to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Last week Schmitz and another LPDT member and candidate for FPSD Board, Ollie Ollenburger, appeared on the nationally broadcast show Fox and Friends First to speak about local parents opposed to the controversial vote.
Several parents are planning to attend Thursday's special board meeting that will reconsider the board vote omitting the Pledge of Allegiance. Many of these parents intend to also voice their disapproval of Ghandi's letter.
Attempts to reach FPSD board members went unanswered. Board President Tracie Newman issued this statement:
“In April, Dr. Gandhi provided a copy of the letter he and the co-authors wrote to Florida educators with the Board at the time; the letter shares the inclusive work of the District and the welcoming environment of the city of Fargo. The mission of our District is to educate and empower all students to succeed and we aim to have a positive school climate and culture for our staff and students to experience each day. As a District, Board, and unified staff, we continue to work toward creating the most welcoming environment possible for students and staff in our schools.”
To date, the FPSD has not hired any teachers from Florida for the 2022-2023 school year.
Dear Florida Educators,
You don’t know us, so we’ll start with this important statement: we are way OK with saying gay, or straight, or LGBTQ+. Though we have a long way to go to become a fully inclusive community, we believe it is an injustice to diminish any individual’s gender identity in any way. People should be welcomed to show up as their authentic selves!
This letter is authored by the following individuals:
1) Dr. Rupak Gandhi, Superintendent, Fargo Public Schools
2) Dr. Tamara Uselman, Director of Equity and Inclusion, Fargo Public Schools
3) John Strand, City of Fargo City Commissioner, and former 8-year Fargo Public School Board member
4) Representative Josh Boschee, Minority Caucus Leader, ND House of Representatives, District 44
The purpose of our letter is two-fold: 1) to demonstrate support for Florida’s LGBTQ+ education community in response to Florida HB 1577; and 2) to share an opportunity to be embraced, welcomed, and celebrated here in Fargo, North Dakota for individuals struggling with what must be a very difficult decision about whether to stay or to leave Florida for a more supportive community. We don’t expect nor want educators to leave their state (or their warmth), but if they decide to do so, we want to share what you can expect from your supporters in North Dakota.
This letter shouldn’t imply that the Fargo community and Fargo Public Schools (FPS) are perfectly inclusive. Progress has been made, but there is more work to do. And hear us when we say we are doing the work, doggedly moving toward our goal of being “that place,” where the uniqueness of everyone is honored and diverse backgrounds, values, and points of view aren’t only accepted but actively embraced. With one of every ten North Dakota students attending Fargo Public Schools, we know we can improve outcomes for LGBTQ+ students and staff. We can build a place where all students can live as active agents in their diverse society and where all educators experience a workplace where they can live as their authentic selves.
Collective efforts are building a stronger and more inclusive community and schools and in Fargo. The following information in this letter is to provide a glimpse of what you can expect both from Fargo Public Schools as an employer and from allies in government leadership, should you choose to be an educator here in Fargo, where you can be you, with us.
• Prior to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, Fargo Public Schools became the first school district in the state of North Dakota to hire a Director of Equity and Inclusion. This act was the start to a more concentrated effort to align district resources and priorities in ensuring we are fulfilling our mission of educating and empowering ALL students to succeed.
• In Fargo Public Schools, we believe that equity is a mindset, not an end-state. That means we will always work to improve outcomes where we have evidence that some groups are being marginalized.
• A five-year plan guides the large goals of our FPS Office of Equity and Inclusion.
• The Fargo School District was the first school district in the state of North Dakota to implement fully enumerated anti-bullying and discrimination policies for staff and students, raising the bar for the others in the state to see.
• The City of Fargo recently was the first city in the state of North Dakota to enact hate crime bills at the city level, again raising the bar for others in the state to see and on the local level for us to adhere to.
• As a border city to Moorhead, Minnesota, Fargo can compare and contrast growth toward equity and inclusion both in our state and with our neighbors across the river.
• We are proud that the City of Fargo was one of the first in the nation to incorporate an LGBT liaison within the Police Department to build stronger relationships with the LGBT community and training within the Police Department, which has expanded into community liaisons focused on various underrepresented groups.
• While we have worked actively, since 2009, to pass a fully inclusive statewide nondiscrimination statute, progress has been made. The state Department of Labor and Human Rights recognizes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in housing and employment following the Bostock ruling in 2020.
• 2021 was the first-time anti-LGBT legislation was introduced by legislators in ND. While a ban on trans youth being able to participate in youth sports did pass that session, Governor Burgum vetoed the legislation, and the veto was sustained by the state Senate. Thanks to the advocacy of our local chambers of commerce, travel and tourism industry, employers from throughout the state and citizens, our Governor knows the value that each individual brings to making our state a success.
In summary, please know that Fargo Public Schools and public sectors within the greater Fargo community not only offer a welcome to you but also offer actionable examples of our commitment to becoming an inclusive community that LGBTQ+ people can call home.
Reach out if you have any questions or wish to learn more.
Dr. Rupak Gandhi
Dr. Tamara Uselman
Commissioner John Strand
ND House of Representatives, Joshua Bosche