MENNO SCHOOL PATRONS SHARE CONCERNS ABOUT UPCOMING CHANGES
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
Meeting in regular session Monday night, March 14, leadership at Menno Public School heard from a number of patrons who had gathered to question two recent administrative decisions that will change how things have traditionally been done:
1. Moving baccalaureate from the school’s main gymnasium to the old city/school auditorium, and;
2. The decision to move fifth graders into the 6-8 middle school structure.
Because of the anticipated size of the crowd — about 35 patrons and staff members were there — the public input portion of the meeting was moved into the old school gym, where Jennifer Vaith addressed the board regarding baccalaureate and Ron Schaeffer represented parents speaking out in opposition to the 5-8 middle school plan.
The decision to move the location of baccalaureate follows the threat of a lawsuit from a group called Freedom From Religion — the same group that threated Freeman Public almost 10 years ago. That’s what prompted the district to turn the religions service for graduates over to the Freeman Ministerial Association, which has been hosting baccalaureate in the Freeman Community Center since 2012.
While the Menno-Olivet Ministerial Association hosts Menno’s baccalaureate, and while it has historically been held just prior to Saturday afternoon’s commencement and not mandatory for the students, the fact that it was held inside the main school gym was problematic, Menno Superintendent Tom Rice said.
Starting baccalaureate at 1:45 p.m. in the old auditorium, which functions as a community center, would offer the district protection.
But Vaith, who said she was there representing many others both present and absent from the meeting, said the district needs to stand up for its “very deep Christian roots.”
“For the majority of us, God is a big deal,” she said. “He is our foundation.”
If the school gives in to this, Vaith said, “what are we going to be asked to give up next?”
Furthermore, she said, the written notice on the program that baccalaureate is sponsored by the Menno-Olivet Ministerial Association, and that there is adequate separation from when baccalaureate ends and when graduation begins, “should be an adequate separation from church and school, according to constitutional standards.”
That was the word from the American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ), a Washington, D.C.-based group that fights for religious freedom. And should it come to a lawsuit, Vaith said ACLJ fends off “scare tactics” like those of Freedom From Religion and would pay for legal fees if necessary.
“Their services would be free,” she said.
Rice said he was made aware of the ACLJ late last November but did not reach out to them, citing multiple unpleasant conversations with representatives from Freedom From Religion.
“I’ll show you my dialogue with these guys,” he said. “It was heated.”
“I do not have an appetite to poke the bear anymore,” Rice continued, citing advice from school attorney Rodney Freeman. “The last thing I want to do is bring this school into litigation.”
Rev. Michael Hecht, pastor at the Salem Reformed Church who had talked with Rice about the baccalaureate situation, wishes the administration would have done more.
“My regret is that the ACLJ was not contacted,” he said.
Those speaking out also expressed concern about the lack of communication after the decision was made. Some parents already had graduation invitations printed with baccalaureate incorrectly starting at 2 p.m. “No final word was ever given,” Vaith said.
“If there’s anybody to blame (for that), it’s obviously me,” Rice responded.
And while he took ownership for a lack of communication, he stood by the decision to move the location of baccalaureate.
“We are in a different day and age,” Rice said. “Unfortunately, a lot of schools are changing the way they do things. This is the way we need to go.”
EDITORIAL: CREDIT TO PATRONS, LEADERS FOR HEALTHY DISCUSSION
Middle school structure
As for the decision to add fifth grade to the middle school structure, the fact that parents weren’t notified of the decision when it was first brought up last year is problematic.
“The No. 1 concern we have had is lack of communication,” Schaffer said in his remarks at Monday’s meeting. “We’re concerned about the lack of transparency.”
But parents also spoke out against the move because they felt fifth graders weren’t ready for the more demanding school structure that middle school requires. Recess, their own bathrooms, learning from inside a single classroom — with multiple teachers coming to them — all behoove better learning at that age level, parents said.
Parents also expressed concern about their children being emotionally ready for the move.
“I’ve been very concerned about her emotional status and throwing her into this,” said Melissa Sayler, who has a daughter being impacted by this decision. “I cannot teach her to be a middle schooler in three months. Some people don’t have the resources to help (their children) grow up in a heartbeat.”
But Rice said including fifth graders in the middle school curriculum will offer considerable benefits through an expanded curriculum that will better prepare them for their years ahead. And having fifth graders move through the hallways from class to class “is not a bad thing, guys. That’s not bad at all.”
But, as was the case with the baccalaureate discussion, Rice admitted he should have done a better job of communicating, and that he would work to address some of the concerns. “We’re moving forward, he said, “but we can make some tweaks.”
More on this discussion will be published next week.