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Stanley County School Superintendent Says What I Said: Zakahi Firing Not About Flags

Well, somebody's wrong in Stanley County. Monday evening, Pat Powers wrapped himself in a couple of rumpled flags to gin up patriotic fervor against an acquaintance's firing. The story ran that janitor Cesar Zakahi got fired by the Stanley County School District for posting photos of improperly stored flags, along with the name of the fellow custodian he held responsible for said improper storage.

While I find flag hysteria as distasteful as public prayer, my underdog sympathies initially wanted to jump on the bandwagon and lend some First Amendment support to Zakahi. But the details as first published seemed to add up to a case that the school would easily win on policy grounds. Mr. Zakahi was a new hire, still in his probationary period, subject to firing for pretty much any reason. By posting a complaint about a co-worker online, he appeared to have violated standard school complaint procedure. (Worth noting: Mr. Zakahi has since removed that damning complaint from his Facebook timeline.)

The Stanley County School District's tongues are tied by the preference not to discuss personnel matters publicly (although I will remind the school board that South Dakota's open meetings law says that you may discuss personnel matters in executive session, not that you must). But the superintendent out in Fort Pierre is putting it on the record that the flag wavers have the story wrong:

Stanley County School Superintendent Don Hotalling says a fired school custodian’s story of how he lost his job in Fort Pierre for posting photos of the American flag being treated disrespectfully is flat out “not true.”

“It’s a personnel matter and I can’t comment on it, but I will say it is not about treatment of the flag,” Hotalling said... [Lance Nixon, "Stanley County School Official Disputes Flag Desecration Story," Pierre Capital Journal, 2013.02.05].

But what about those photos of rumpled flags?

“That picture is pretty nasty and I wholeheartedly agree,” Hotalling said. “All I can say is, whoever arranged that flag in that condition should be ashamed of themselves. But I have no evidence that it was one of our current employees” [Nixon, 2013.02.05].

Local folks don't seem too ginned up. Nobody but roving reporter David Montgomery attended the Stanley County School Board meeting yesterday. The only board action was to issue a statement reinforcing what Superintendent Hotalling said:

“The result of our investigation did not reflect a mishandling of either flag,” the statement says. “We question the circumstances surrounding this matter and whether the pictures currently circulating are an accurate reflection of how the flags were stored. Regardless, we have taken measures to ensure that each flag is properly cared for on a daily basis. The Stanley County School District does not now, nor has it ever tolerated disrespect of either flag” [Stanley County School Board, quoted by Lance Nixon, "Flag Incident Continues at Stanley County," Pierre Capital Journal, 2013.02.06].

I'm disappointed that the school board feels the need to match the blogosphere in its emphatic assertions of patriotism, especially when they appear ready and able to make a case that their personnel action was not about patriotism but about policy.

It might not hurt to remind everyone involved that wrapping oneself in a flag is as disrespectful as wrapping it in a ball and tossing it on a shelf.

But we now have equal and opposite assertions. Mr. Zakahi says he's been fired for being a patriot. His former employer says that's not true. Somebody's telling the wrong story. We'll see if the high-powered lawyer Zakahi's Republican friends have gotten him will clarify or obfuscate the truth of the matter.


  1. larry kurtz 2013.02.07

    From the same losers that support "tort reform:" is this a great country or what?

  2. Testor15 2013.02.07

    Notice how these issues get blown out of proportion? Instead of getting upset over the loss of actual constitutional rights we once again get worked up over a symbol. If PP would have respect for or understood the the full constitution I would get interested in this non-story. When the flag first crowd becomes the constitution first crowd, they would acknowledge the flag is just a symbol not the ideal. Due process is part of the law and constitutional processes the flag represents. PP and his type only understand primary colors, not what the colors represent.

  3. Troy Jones 2013.02.07

    A couple of comments:

    1) While it is correct the flag is a symbol, it is a symbol which enjoys certain protections under the law with regard to its care.

    2) Zakahi took pictures of the flag being cared for in a way that is clearly contrary to the law.

    3) Zakahi was fired immediately after the pictures were posted on Facebook. And, as you note, it appears to be in violation to school policies which could justify a firing.

    4) Superintendent Hotaling says it was for another reason. But, he does have a credibility problem- saying the school district has never disrespected the flag when there are pictures that show otherwise and saying they have no proof it was a school employee who did it when the pictures come from a room that I assume is locked and not open to the public (or at least it should be locked). If this is a locked room, he DOES have evidence (circumstantial by definition which is evidence).

    5) Related to #4, the Superintendent hides behind "it's a personnel matter" but then says it isn't about the flag. He is trying to have it both ways and is spinning this.

    6) The innuendo Zakahi's attorney is doing some bidding of "Republican friends" is devoid of any facts. First, while I have known Zakahi for 40 years, I do not have any hint of his political views. Second, Arends has a history of taking on similar cases on behalf of the "little guy," most recently the Dr. Annette Bosworth before the state medical board.

  4. larry kurtz 2013.02.07

    for my part, i misspoke: should have read "politically-motivated opportunist Republican lawyer seeking to test local control while state blows into minnesota after a century of exploitation."

  5. larry kurtz 2013.02.07

    Troy: Turd Blossom got nuthin' on you.

  6. Douglas Wiken 2013.02.07

    South Dakota is a right to work...another name for right to fire at will state. This is a wonderful Republican idea until one of their symbol, mythology twits gets caught in the wringer. I doubt we would be reading a word about this at PP's blog if the janitor had been fired for wearing a tee shirt with a peace sign on it.

    I still don't understand why this wonderful guy did not volunteer to handle the flag raising, folding, etc. if he felt so strongly about it. Volunteering to do it would have made this more of a story.

    PP's multiple posts on this is another indicator of the absence of real GOP issues worthy of coverage.

  7. Troy Jones 2013.02.07


    I have never questioned whether the firing was legal (there are some whistleblower protections that might apply). My point it isn't just.

    Cesar is not a complex person. Firing him may have been within the law but a good manager would have handled it differently. This would be over if the Super had just asked him to come back, put something in his file, maybe suspended him, and moved on.

  8. Joan 2013.02.07

    Along with flag hysteria, and prayer in schools, I also don't like the words "under God in the pledge to the flag." They don't belong there. The words referring to God on our money could also go.

  9. grudznick 2013.02.07

    Why do the libbies continue to make excuses for a school district that allowed disrespect of the flag and then tried to hide the contact information for their elected officials?

  10. grudznick 2013.02.07

    Oh, wait. It's a whining school district and a fatcat administrator that they're cowtoeing to. I understand. School districts and fatcat administrators are above everybody else, that's why they wanted to tax ME for only THEM.

  11. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.07

    Hey, Grudz, back off, and quit dropping your tiresome memes into this discussion. I've been fired by a school district. I know how this stuff works. I know what it's like to do what I think is the right thing but to have a school board and the policy manual say contrary. I have every reason to sympathize with the guy who got fired, with the little guy in this case. You show me that he's being unjustly persecuted, and by gum, I'll be with him. But we should not wrap this story into some political flag-vs.-education-establishment red herring battle.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.07

    Troy, it does torque me off when the administration's cloak of "personnel matters" keeps us from being able to know both sides and get a definitive picture of what's happening. Your point about "having it both ways" has some merit: if the superintendent can't comment on personnel matters, then he can't comment, period. If he's going to argue the case even in part, then he's stepped from behind that curtain, and he ought to go full tilt.

    That said, perhaps we can understand why the superintendent went as far as he did in his can't-comment comments. He's being accused of harboring a flag-desecrator. Out in Stanley County, that might be cause for lynching. With Pat and me and the rest of the press ginning up the publicity, the admin may feel a lot of pressure to at least defuse that tension and assure people that they aren't disrespecting the flag.

    But if that's the case, it's funny that we feel more of a need to assure the public that we are treating a piece of fabric fairly than that we are treating a worker fairly.

  13. Douglas Wiken 2013.02.07

    I still haven't heard why the guy did not volunteer to fold the flag and handle it. Surely that would have been more likely to allow him to keep the job and earn favor in the process. He may not be complex, but he seems vindictive toward a co-worker and non-cooperative.

    For a state that finds it just to execute children and put mothers in jail for years for marijuana possession to now be concerned about whether or not a janitor getting fired is just even if legal seems like misplaced concern for "justice".

    One concept is something like "he who wants equity or justice must have clean hands." It may be the janitor's hands aren't filthy, but they do seem to be a bit smudged by his willingness to rat on a co-worker rather than do something to aid correction.

    In any case, I think the school should remove the outdoor flagpole and stop wasting time tending that flag or put a light on it and leave it up continuously.

  14. grudznick 2013.02.07

    Maybe he was folding up the flag the right way every night after his coworker heaped in in a pile. I'm just sayin...

  15. larry kurtz 2013.02.07

    Disconcerting that a veteran would not understand the chain of command especially while on a probationary status: the behavior suggests the passive-aggressive personality often disorder often comorbid with PTSD.

    His future as an armed school sentinel exist only in an alternative universe.

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.08

    Policy matters. Chain of command matters. This story wraps all the GOP's favorite anti-education memes in the flag . This story discourages thinking and promotes knee-jerk jingoism.

  17. Troy Jones 2013.02.08

    Cory, I would have had the same reaction if it wasn't about the flag and were if he posted about another potential violation of the law. It appears you are dismissing this because it is the flag.

    The characterization it is a "he said-he said" is inaccurate. Both are saying it is directly related to the posting. Cesar sees it as being over the flag (subject of the posting) while the Super is saying it is over violating a policy (posting a grievance on the internet). A distinction without a difference.

    But, the Super commenting on a personnel matter (a veil he is also hiding behind) raises a credibility issue for which I had hoped you would place more significance. But oh well.

  18. Bill Fleming 2013.02.08

    Something Cesar said that no one's talking about much kind of sticks with me. Seems like I read that he was also complaining that his co-worker was wadding the flag up like that just to get his goat, and that he was frustrated that no one was listening to him.

    Could it be that he was trying to share his respect for the flag and the corresponding etiquette with a coworker who got annoyed and was blowing him off? i.e. a personality conflict, ergo, an HR problem?

    Seems, between the lines, that's what it might really be all about.

    Trouble in the ranks.

    And, bottom line, probably none of our business.

    In other words, standard Pat Powers, DWC fare.

    I'm surprised Troy and Cory are even discussing it.

    But, oh well.

  19. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.02.10

    Bill, Pat's discussing it to wrap himself in the flag and attack public education. I'm discussing it to offer at least some counter-programming.

    Troy, there is an extent to which this story makes my radar because of the flag. I appreciate that you'd be as hot about this firing if it didn't involve a flag... but that's not what's happening with the media flare-up. This story gets Zakahi on Fox News only because it's a chance to wave the flag and display pietistic patriotism. As I said above, wrapping oneself in the flag is as disrespectful as wadding it up.

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