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Rushford-Peterson catches a break; gets tangled in bully issue

By Kirsten Zoellner

Mon, May 26th, 2014
Posted in Rushford Education

“We asked for a miracle, we got one. It wasn’t what we asked for but it was exactly what we needed,” enthused Superintendent Chuck Ehler. The comments came on the heels of notification that the education piece of the Omnibus bill, HF 3172, regarding debt equalization aid, received approval May 15, before moving on to the House and Senate where the entire Omnibus bill was passed. Governor Mark Dayton signed the bill into law May 20. “We are extremely excited,” continued Ehler.

The legislation was drafted by the district in partnership with Moose Lake School District after both unsuccessfully lobbied the state for financial assistance for facilities following the impact of natural disasters. Rushford-Peterson was hit with excess of $1 million in damages to the aging facility, portions of which date to 1903 and 1936, following severe flooding in 2007. The following year, the district sought state aid in building a new $20 million facility with no result. December 2012, the district brought forth a $15 million referendum for a new pre-K to grade five facilities, but it was denied by district voters unable to bear the steep tax increase.

“We have a plan moving forward to financially address issues. We said we’d do everything in our power to secure state funding and this will help,” added Ehler. Districts will be eligible for state aid in debt related to a new facility if they meet specific criteria. This includes impact of a natural disaster with damages over $500,000 after January 1, 2005, with repair and replacement ineligible for federal aid or covered by insurance. Qualifying districts would be required to pass a bond referendum for a new facility before securing debt equalization aid. Assistance could be as much as three times the typical debt equalization aid. Funds become available July 1, 2015.

If Rushford-Peterson seeks to build a $35 million dollar early childhood to grade 12 facility, the annual debt cost for a 20-year loan would amount to $1.2 million for the district taxpayers with an additional $1.6 million provided by the State, according to Ehler. “It is my hope the board will take a serious look at utilizing this legislation to continue moving forward with our new school initiative. We secured piece of legislation that will serve our districts and others in the future, should they experience what we did.”

The district has presented and the school board approved a draft timeline for special election in anticipation of rolling out a possible referendum to voters. If moved forward, the timeline calls for a November 4, 2014 ballot. The board will need to adopt a formal resolution calling the election at least 74 days prior to that election, which is slated on the timeline for August 22. No dates are currently set to distribute informational material or hold public meetings.

Amid the long-awaited good news at the Monday, May 19 board meeting, the district found itself caught in the middle of an ongoing bullying and harassment issue. Stemming from previous disagreements and an altercation, Tracey and Trevor Auman brought forth concern and recommendation to the school board regarding the safety of students. Of particular concern were volunteers and parents, not cleared through background checks, attending student field trips. The issue was further heightened by an incident at a local, business-sponsored and school advertised event, which furthered the need for clarification over who is responsible of student safety and to what degree.

“Bullying is unwanted aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems,” said Tracey Auman. “The strategies for prevention and response are applicable to any place where youth study and play. ‘The school recognizes that early adolescence is a time of special needs and that every student has the freedom participate in school activities,’” continued Auman citing the R-P Student Handbook.

“Yet they were willing to violate my son’s right because of an unsafe environment?” she asked regarding the district allowing a parent involved in the incident to attend an upcoming field trip.

The Aumans are requesting the district create and uphold a policy for volunteers at district facilities and events. Additionally, they are requesting that all volunteers pass a background check and that families are notified prior to events, who will be acting as a volunteer. “If you can’t pass a background check to work at the district, why should you be allowed to volunteer? And volunteers can’t just show up without a check under the ‘open door’ policy,” continued Auman. “I spoke with the Minnesota Board of Education and was told that if no background check is done, parents must be notified by the district prior to an event.”

“This issue like so many bullying and intimidation issues gets swept under the rug by our office. Why should a parent feel they need to engage in a war with the superintendent to keep their children safe? How many parents have to open enroll their children and pull them out of this district before anything changes?” continued Auman.

“I’ve seen these issues arise, not just with students, but with staff; bullying or intimidation from the top down,” responded board member Taylor Peterson. “If we want our kids to be well mannered, we need to stop ourselves. Kids are never going to stop until we teach them.”

In relation to school-partnered events, advertised in the Rushford-Peterson Community Education flyer, the district maintains that some events are sponsored by a local business and that the district was a merely a partner by advertisement. At the incident in question, the event site was closed to the general public to allow the event with R-P students to take place. However, Board Chair John Linder noted that the incident was directed at another adult, despite students being present, and that the district has no authority over adult behavior, thus not being in position to make a decision. He encouraged the Aumans to file for a restraining order.

“It is the district’s responsibility,” responded Auman, who filed a report with police following the incident. “If you don’t want the responsibility, don’t advertise it through the school. As a parent, in my mind, it’s a school-related thing and the law pertains to any place a student plays or studies.”

Board member Taylor Peterson requested the district provide more disclosure for events identifying non-school affiliation there is no confusion.

The district does not currently have a policy for parent supervisor/chaperones on field trips. Background checks are conducted for all volunteers and volunteer coaches who will be working with children, but has not done checks on parents who volunteer to chaperone or supervise on field trips. For the duration of the school year, the district will be discontinuing the use of non-staff/parent chaperones on school-sponsored field trips, at the recommendation of legal counsel. However, according to a memo from the district, parents may attend an event with their child, providing their own transportation and at their own cost. Those parent volunteers will not serve in a supervisory role other than for their own child.

A policy will be drafted and presented to the school board at the June 16 meeting. The policy will be in place for the 2014-2015 school year. Superintendent Ehler has said he will take the request of notifying parents of who will be participating in school-related activities and events under consideration. “That will be challenge, but we will do our best to address this matter,” noted Ehler.

The next regularly scheduled board meeting is Monday, June 16, at 5:30 p.m., in the high school biology room. The public is encouraged to attend.

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