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School board could yet oust member over Muslim slur

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Jaylani Hussein demands Nichols' resignation
Jaylani Hussein, right, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Minnesota and a Columbia Heights High School alumnus, demanded the resignation of Grant Nichols, left, at a school board meeting on Sept. 22.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

The Columbia Heights School Board could get another chance to remove a member accused of posting an anti-Muslim comment on Facebook. 

Earlier this month, the board fell one vote short in its effort to strip Grant Nichols of his seat. But a special election in January could change the balance of power.

The controversy surrounding Nichols exploded earlier this month, when a Facebook comment attributed to his account criticized the bathroom habits of Muslims and called them "unsanitary." 

Nichols denied writing it and said it doesn't represent his beliefs. "I'm a big person about embracing diversity," he said. He claimed a co-worker used his phone to post the message.

That conflicts with the account of School Board Chair John Larkin, who said Nichols privately admitted to writing the comment. It created a huge uproar in Columbia Heights, a suburb of 20,000 on the northeast border of Minneapolis. 

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton spoke to reporters outside Columbia Heights High School on Sept. 17. Dayton has called on Grant Nichols to step down over comments appearing on Nichols' Facebook page that denigrated Muslims.
Tim Pugmire | MPR News

Last week, the board passed a resolution asking Nichols to resign. The non-binding measure echoed calls from parents, students, Superintendent Kathy Kelly and even Gov. Mark Dayton.

Nichols remained defiant. And his critics were able to muster only three of the four votes they needed to force him out.

But there's currently a vacancy on the board, with seven candidates in the running. And most of them agree: Nichols needs to go.

Scott Bardell, an attorney who's served on the school board in the past, said the issue has become a distraction.

"I think you can see just how disruptive it is," he said. "I mean, the school board right now is probably somewhat ineffective and inefficient, and for the good of the district and the administration, it just needs to end."

Bardell doesn't buy Nichols' explanation that someone else made the comment. Neither does Hala Asamarai, who's also running for the seat. She's an educator, a parent in the district and a Muslim.

Walk out
Hundreds of students walked out to demand Grant Nichols' resignation at Columbia Heights High School on Sept. 16.
KARE11 News

"I just want everybody to know that my desire to run, although it was prompted by an Islamophobic remark, my whole motivation to run is not just for Muslim kids," she said. "It's really for all kids, because teaching tolerance and embracing diversity is good for everybody."

Seventy-five percent of the students at Columbia Heights Public Schools come from minority communities. That stands in contrast to the overall population of the district, which is two-thirds white.

Asamarai said she would gladly cast the deciding vote to remove Nichols, assuming that's still what the community wants come January. But she'd rather just see him resign before then.

Naty Severson, a minister with three kids in the district, feels the same way.

"I really think the best thing for our community is for him to step down," Severson said. "It would say that he understands the hurt that's involved in saying something like that on your Facebook page, whether you said it or not."

Only one candidate has come out in support of Nichols. Tim Utz, a construction supervisor and a member of the Columbia Heights Charter Commission, said Nichols deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Returning to class
Columbia Heights High School principal Dan Wroblewski, second from right, led students Sherouk Mohamed, Karim Muse and Khadra Mohamed, back to class after the school's teachers and students walked out on Sept. 16 to demand Nichols' resignation.
Richard Tsong-Taatarii | The Star Tribune via AP

"My vote would be to not remove him, because there's accusations and charges and rebuttals from him, and so it's all hearsay," Utz said. "And to try and destroy somebody on any commission or any board or any public service because of the convoluted mess this has gotten into is irresponsible on everybody's part."

Of the remaining candidates, two — Tenecia Kirk and Cahen Barret — didn't respond to calls seeking comment in time for this story. One candidate released a written statement. Jen Laine said she has personally asked Nichols to resign, but she hopes "the outcome of this election will not be based solely on this issue."

The top two candidates from the Dec. 1 primary will face off in a special election Jan. 26.