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Controversial topics in the classroom policy approved in Ellsworth Schools

Teachers allowed to express opinions in class, with guidelines

ELLSWORTH – The Ellsworth School Board voted 4-3 to approve a revision of the district’s “controversial topics in the classroom” policy, which will allow teachers to express their opinions in the classroom but added cautionary language and guidelines.

The board had the choice of completely banning teachers from expressing personal opinions or allowing them to do so, but with the added language (in italics): “In the discussion of any controversial issue in the classroom or in the course of professional duties, a teacher may express a personal opinion, but shall identify it as such, and must not express such an opinion for the purpose of persuading students to his/her point of view and may only express a personal opinion after student discussion has concluded. Teachers should be mindful that this does not permit them to offer opinions on topics which would not be the subject of discussion in the classroom due to their appropriateness for the age(s) of the students involved. As always, teachers are expected to serve as exemplars for their students by demonstrating good judgment as professionals when discussing controversial issues and expressing personal opinions in the classroom. The classroom should not be used as a forum for the discussion of district employee issues.

Board President Doug Peterson and board members Gary Kressin and Steven Mark voted against the policy.

District Administrator Barry Cain said the policy was not brought up because of complaints; it was simply part of routine policy updates provided by Neola, the company that helps the district remain compliant with state and federal changes.

The policy allows the introduction and proper educational use of controversial issues provided their use in the instructional program does not cause a substantial disruption in the school environment. They also must be related to the curriculum, and typically occur in social studies classes, Cain said.

“Appropriateness of age is a big thing,” Cain said. “Everything we do in the classroom has to be age appropriate.

Cain said the district has had issues “here and there,” but on a large scale, receives maybe one to three complaints per year about controversial topics, which are dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

“Very rarely do we get a complaint,” Cain said. “If it needs to change, we change it.”

This week, Cain and Principal Mark Stoesz assisted a teacher in examining curriculum and how a controversial topic would come into play. A letter was sent home to parents, along with a list of resources being used in the lesson, which was in an elective social studies class. Cain said he encourages teachers to go above and beyond with communication to parents.

“The key word is being proactive and anticipating,” Stoesz said. He and high school teachers began preparing for the 2020 election one year in advance, he said. They strived to use good, balanced resources in that discussion, and during the George Floyd trial last summer.

Board member Katie Feuerhelm said she likes the policy language because “it’s not handing out a free pass but respecting their ability as professionals.”

The board unanimously passed the rest of the routine policy updates, which Cain described as “largely technical” and pertaining to language changes (legalese), statute updates and compliance.

Of note, a new bylaw outlining board member behavior and code of conduct lists expectations for board members to act professionally, ethically and responsibly. It includes several additions, such as the following general expectations: •Recognize that they should endeavor to make policy decisions only have full discussion at publicly held Board meetings.

•Render all decisions based on the available facts and independent judgment.

•Encourage all board members’ free expression of opinion and seek systematic communications between the board and students, staff and all community elements.

•Work with other board members to establish effective board policies and to delegate authority for the district administration to the district administrator.

•Communicate to other board members and the district administrator expressions of public reaction to board policies and school programs.

•Inform themselves about current educational issues by individual study and thorough participation in programs providing needed information (examples given).

•Support employment of those best qualified to serve as school staff, and insist on a regular and impartial evaluation of all staff.

•Refrain from using Board positions for personal partisan gain.

•Take no private action that will compromise the Board or administration, and respect the confidentiality of information that is privileged under applicable law.

•Remember always that their first and greatest concern must be for the educational welfare of students attending public schools.

•No board member shall act or fail to act in his/her position as a Board member regarding misconduct in office.

Personnel report

Ellsworth High School Principal Mark Stoesz announced he will retire at the end of the school year. He has been with the district 32 years and in education 35 years total.

“The gap he leaves will be bigger than most,” Cain said.

Stoesz said he had to stress how the community resonated for him and now much he loves the students.

“I just always wanted to do well for this district,” Stoesz said. “I just really love this high school. When I’m having a bad day, I just go into the hallway. I just really love the kids.”

The board also approved the following personnel changes: Hires – Sara Heile, EMS special education teacher; Susan Pollack, EMS special education teaching assistant; William Seward, district long-term substitute.

Resignations: Tascha Kinney, EMS special education teacher; Heather Petersen, EES case manager; Theresa Riewestahl, EMS special education teaching assistant; Tiffany Wiebold, EES special education teaching assistant/PKC.

Retirements: Mark Stoesz, EHS principal; Lesley Stoesz, EHS Spanish teacher.

Transfer: Lauren Burks, transfer from .40 FTE special education staff to 1.0 FTE special education staff.

Extra/co-curricular: James Georgakas, C team boys basketball coach and CT team boys baseball coach; Roarke Langer, assistant varsity wrestling coach.

2022-23 maintenance projects timeline

The middle school’s chiller (which is original to the 1994 building) replacement is targeted for July/August 2022. The district plans to use ESSER funds for the project, which is estimated to cost $275,000 to $350,000. Kraus Anderson will provide the designs, shop drawings and oversee the bidding and installation.

The district is also exploring building duct work cleaning into the schedule, either in Spring or Summer 2022 with a possible price tag of $150,000. The ducts at EMS have never been cleaned.

The high school needs 18 exterior doors replaced on the south gym. The pricing for aluminum panel doors (with a 12- to 16-week lead time) is $85,000 to $100,000. Kraus Anderson will again provide specs, bidding and oversight. The doors are from 1999.

Other business

•The board approved adding the following courses to the curriculum for 2022-23: Yearbook, AP Environmental Science and Advanced Graphic Design.

•The board approved an employee HRA plan language update.

•The board voted to pay half the cost to resurface the tennis courts at Summit Park in 2022. The total cost is $26,495, of which the village will pay half. The courts were built in 2016 and are due for a resurfacing every five to eight years.

•Candidacy forms for those interested in running for school board in the April election are due by 5 p.m .Jan. 4 at the district office. Incumbents declaring non-candidacy must do so by 5 p.m. Dec. 24. Susan Beck, Doug Peterson and Julie Lundstrom are up for re-election to threeyear terms.

•The board approved an annual short-term borrowing resolution with CCF Bank at a 2.75 interest rate. This line of credit is only used to cover expenses for a few days until state funds are received, typically in November if at all, Cain said.

•The board heard a first reading school board non-discrimination policy updates. Cain said the changes are massive, almost complete rewrites, required by the federal government and Office of Civil Rights.

November 10, 2021