No Freedom of Speech Rights During ISD 833 School Board Meeting

No Freedom of Speech for Parents

South Washington County School District ISD 833 is once again the center of controversy. This time the school board’s treatment of parents and community members attending the January 21, 2016 school board meeting is at issue.  That evening, Chairman Ron Kath and the board removed the Public Comment from the meeting agenda and ejected two parents from the meeting.

Due to proposed elementary school boundary changes, along with potential changes to a choice program’s curriculum and/or location (Valley Crossing Community School), and a planned closed session for teacher contract negotiations, the meeting room was packed with over 140 people in attendance – some being forced into the overflow area in the District Service Center’s lobby.  Many of the teachers in attendance wore red shirts, while parents opposing the boundary changes held up signs asking that the district “slow down” on its proposed boundary plans.

Two groups of parents are at odds over the proposed boundaries plan:  One group supports Valley Crossing Community School remaining a “Choice Program.” Valley Crossing school has housed a choice program for ISDs 833, 622 and 834 students (834 has utilized the school as regular attendance school for the past few years while preparing to build a new elementary school in northern Woodbury) since 1996.  Beginning as a year-round school (now on ISD 833’s regular school year calendar), VCCS was built to utilize a “Responsive Classroom” approach, which means that its architecture differs from traditional schools in that it has open classroom learning spaces, multiple grade levels sharing classroom areas, and the emphasis is on social development as much as it is on academics.  For the parents supporting VCCS, it is an educational model that not only works well for their children, but has also shown great academic and award-winning results.

VCCS parent, Mary Yapp, told Alpha News, “We tried traditional school and it was awful.  If Valley Crossing leaves, we will be forced to go out (of District 833),” and, “For my kid, this programming works well.  It is my choice. If you take away Valley Crossing, you’ve taken away my choice altogether.  If this is how my child learns the best, and they change VCCS to a traditional school, then my only choice is to go out of the district – I am forced out.”  According to Yapp, all fifty of VCCS open-enrolled families would leave, adding to the 70 families who have already left the school due to the uncertainty surrounding it.

The group, “Forced 5,” supports a traditional education delivery system for their children, and are opposed to being forced to move into a school that isn’t traditionally designed nor has a traditional learning environment.  They maintain that the proposed boundaries take away their ability to choose the educational delivery system for their children, and if they opt to go to another district school, they lose district-provided transportation.  Forced 5 parent, Sarah Turner told KSTP, “They’ve told me that it doesn’t matter if it’s multi-grade or single grade, it depends on the teacher. But if multi-grade is so great, how come nobody else is doing it? My kids are happy where they are. They are thriving in a neighborhood traditional school, so I can’t in good faith as a mom switch that for them.”

In a situation that sounds similar to the STOP BOLD COLD group’s in Stillwater, both groups seem to agree that the ISD 833 School Board and Administration have not communicated the plans or really listened to the concerned parents in either group. And while the district was waiting for the outcome of the $96 million bond election contest, it put the boundaries discussion on hold, but did not seem make plans for the VCCS community other than to “wait and see.”  During the board members’ discussion on the topic, the need for a Strategic Plan was brought up by several board members, but the need to decide the boundaries was their priority.

Both groups are also passionate about advocating for their children’s education, which caused tempers to run high during the meeting.

That evening, as the people waited for the meeting to begin, many in attendance filled out and handed in “Comment Requests” for the Public Comment portion of the meeting.  They were instructed that their comments could not be on the boundary changes as that was an item on the evening’s agenda (which is district policy); however, many felt that they had other topics on which to speak, and were shocked when Chairman Ron Kath, chose to “amend the agenda,” with a motion to remove “Item 5.0: Public Comment” from the Agenda that evening, claiming that it was necessary to do so in order to “help better regulate our meeting.”

“Forced 5” parent Sarah Turner commented that the removal of the Public Comment off the agenda not only eliminated the opportunity for those in her group to address the board about “choice for our kids” but also silenced the teachers and VCCS supporters attending the meeting as well.

Their voices silenced by Chairman Kath’s decision, the groups of concerned parents nevertheless sat through about thirty-five minutes of district business, until the board moved to “Item 10.1” on the agenda: “The Approval of the North Elementary Boundary Plan.”  Starting with a presentation by Assistant Superintendent of Operations, Mike Vogel, outlining the plan and how it was determined to be the best fit, the board then moved into discussion, during which audience outbursts of applause or disgust can be vaguely heard on the district video of the event.

An early disruption was caused by District 833 Communications Director Barbara Brown‘s attempt to remove one of the parents’ signs:

About midway through the discussion, board member Michelle Witte referred to a flier distributed by parents opposed to the boundary plans.  Many parents in the crowd objected and asked for clarification when Witte said the flier “hurt people” and put other children down.  Kath stopped the meeting and asked Cottage Grove police to remove Sarah Turner’s husband, Robert Turner, from the meeting.

"Forced 5 Boundary Change Flier"

 

Throughout the meeting, board member Katie Schwartz lectured parents that their “outbursts and disruptions are not helping your case,” finally telling them that if her children behaved like they were behaving, that her children would “be out of the room.”  Sarah Turner told Alpha News that it felt as if “Schwartz was speaking down to all the people” during the meeting.

Frustrated by the removal of the Public Comment time, and the board’s treatment of the audience, some people loudly responded to the board’s comments regarding future transportation which resulted in Kath requesting that the police remove another parent (Sarah Turner) from the meeting.  “I went in knowing that I was going to get kicked out,” Turner said when asked about being ejected from the meeting.

Following the removal of Sarah Turner, the board decided to vote on the boundary changes, passing the plan on a 4-3 vote to be implemented for the 2017-18 school year.

Alpha News was provided the audience video by meeting attendees who commented on the evening’s events but who wished to remain anonymous:

“After the vote, we asked Brown for our Public Comment requests to be returned to the parents.  She told us that she couldn’t get them back because Kath still had them and had moved into the Closed Session part of the meeting.  She suggested that we ask Superintendent Jacobus’s assistant to send the comment requests to us, which we did.  After the closed session, we asked Mr. Kath why he decided to remove the Public Comment time from the agenda that night.  He said that he felt that we were ‘disingenuous’ about what we wanted to talk about, that we were all going to get up there and discuss the boundaries issue.   That wasn’t true. We wanted to talk about equity, neighborhood schools and educational delivery models.”

Board members and ISD 833 administration maintain that the future of VCCS will be determined by the groups attending the school, whether that means that one area of the school continues as a choice program, another area while another area is a traditional model, and a third area is dedicated to the Gateway program (currently housed at Bailey Elementary), the ISD 833 gifted and talented program.  Also brought up during the discussion by Assistant Superintendent Julie Nielson was the plan to add 40-80 PreK children to the building as well.  Some parents from both groups have questioned the idea of multiple programs housed under one roof, contending that all other “neighborhood schools” were composed at least 90% of the students coming from the same general neighborhood area.  Board members, arguing for the multiple program plan, cited the fact that Nuevas Fronteras Spanish Immersion elementary school and Crestview (neighborhood) Elementary school share the same building in Cottage Grove, with good results.  However, in citing NFSI and CES, they failed to mention that a large part of the rationale for the contested $96 million bond was to build a new Oltman Middle School in northern Cottage Grove and then renovate the current Oltman Middle School into a new building for NFSI, something Spanish Immersion supporters have been attempting to achieve since 2010.

Now that the board has voted to pass the proposed elementary boundaries plan, Alpha News was told by both VCCS and Forced 5 parents that potentially there would be families leaving the district, either to find other alternative educational systems for their children if VCCS became a traditional school model, or “that there will be a lot of houses going up for sale in the Dancing Waters/Powers Lake areas of Woodbury.”  One parent said, “Stillwater’s new elementary school is practically in my backyard; I wonder how hard it will be to open enroll there?”

Updated Jan. 26, 9:47am

Updated Jan. 25, 2016 7:20pm