COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Members of the Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education debate the proposed guidelines for classroom displays during their meeting Monday.

No decision on TRCS classroom display guidelines

School board to review again with law firm, consultants

THREE RIVERS — Three Rivers Community Schools will seek more guidance on proposed guidelines for classroom displays before making a final decision.

No action was taken Monday by the TRCS Board of Education on the proposed guidelines for Three Rivers Community Schools buildings, instead opting to go back to its law firm, Thrun Law Firm, and policy consultant, Neola, for more guidance before discussing again at the board’s next regular meeting Tuesday, Sept. 6.

“We started some really good conversation; I think we have a good starting point with the administrative guideline,” Board President Erin Nowak said. “I do think if anything’s come out of this, we realize the importance of the administrative guideline, now the question is do we tie it into a new board policy, do we tie it into a changed or updated board policy, or do we tie it into an existing board policy?”

The board has been considering guidelines for classroom displays that could have fallen under either an existing policy on “controversial issues,” Policy 2240 for the district, or become a new board policy by itself, the topic being brought up following a highly-publicized Pride flag controversy at Three Rivers Middle School back in November.

The proposed guidelines did not explicitly ban any display in particular, nor explicitly allow any type of display, however they would lay out “expectations” for classroom displays. Those expectations included that displays should “align with the district’s mission statement” and “create a learning environment that stimulates interest and discussion to challenge children’s knowledge and understanding of the world,” among others. Building administration would be responsible for ensuring classroom display expectations are met, with an appeals process in place if a situation is not resolved to a party’s satisfaction.

During discussion at Monday’s meeting, Trustee Linda Baker said the policy committee and Superintendent Nikki Nash reviewed previous guidance from Neola and Thrun and found that no formal policies for classroom displays exist in the state. However, Baker said that any guidelines or policy should be “broad and simple” and look at the “bigger picture.”

“We know what we want to have as a mission, we know what we want to have as values, we know what we want our student outcomes to be, and all those things are encompassing what we think a proper classroom display to be,” Baker said. “I think this is something that’s going to allow appropriate displays that allow our students to become critical thinkers, because they have the ability to discuss some things that don’t necessarily come up, to bring these things forward.”

Baker noted that the guidelines are in a draft form right now and are not finalized as of yet, but that the majority of the policy committee recommended having the guideline be added to an existing policy. Board Secretary Ben Karle said the reason the board is reviewing this subject now is because it is a “follow-up” to the meeting back in December, where the board said they would review the issue.

“We said we were going to get back to the table and discuss this. Why now? It’s just that’s just the way things go in education,” Karle said.

“And we also took some time to find what was out there, touch base with other districts, do some background, plus everything out there,” Nash added.

Nowak said she had some issues with the guidelines as they were written, adding the broader point that she was “uncomfortable” with the controversial issues policy the district has now. She said it “did nothing to protect the board” with the Pride flag controversy in November, and that it made her “judge and jury” in the situation. Baker said if the policies, such as the controversial issues policy, are “broad and simple,” then “a lot of things” fall into that category. However, Nowak pointed out that it still didn’t work in November.

“This controversial issues policy we have had, this isn’t new. We had this in November. How did the Board of Education use the policy we already had developed to make our decision in November without consulting and spending literally thousands of dollars on legal opinions to make sure we’re doing this right,” Nowak said. “We have a policy that’s so tight-knit that you know if you bring an issue to the Board of Education, we are going to follow Policy 2240 to make that decision. Why did we have to employ and go to legal over and over and over and meetings and education and everything when we already had a policy?

“Do we have a policy that is going to protect the decision that we’re making? I didn’t feel like we did back in November when I had community members come up and threaten the Board of Education with a lawsuit. I didn’t have a policy to stand behind. That’s my issue with administrative guidelines versus having a board policy. The guideline, when it gets through all this, guess where it’s going? To the Board of Education, who has 2240, that we had in November, and we didn’t stand behind it, or it wasn’t enough to guide us without having to engage in multiple legal conversations.”

Nash pointed out the policy in question was written in 1996, prompting Nowak to suggest possibly updating the policy itself. Karle said, from his experience, the reason there isn’t a classroom display policy in many districts is because the guidance has been to not have a policy on the subject and “go back to the mission and vision statement” of the district. He noted that the administrative team would take issues to look at, and said he liked that part of the guidelines, but also did not like putting the guidelines under “controversial issues,” later suggesting the guidelines be put under another policy.

Trustee Kevin Hamilton said he was concerned there had been little community involvement in the process of creating the administrative guidelines, comparing it with the strategic planning process, where he said there was “dialogue” between the community and administration and board members. Baker noted the public comment from the Aug. 8 Policy Committee meeting being an example of community involvement.

A statement from the board read out by Nowak back at the Dec. 6 meeting where Pride flags were reinstated mentioned the board would “take community feedback on a classroom displays policy and any additional ideas that will allow the district to move forward as a united school community.” The public comment on Aug. 8, in which only three people spoke on the issue, was the only example given of public input on the guidelines.

Nowak responded to Hamilton with the difference between public feedback on the district’s strategic plan and public feedback on administrative guidelines.

“The strategic plan was a document that was adopted and set forth by the board of education. Administrative guidelines are not,” Nowak said. “I don’t think it’s a good expectation of us to ask for public input on administrative guidelines because there are administrative guidelines on everything the administrators do to run a district.”

However, Nowak said if the board thinks the administrative guidelines aren’t enough and wants to create a policy, that would be “a much more appropriate time” to ask for public feedback because it’s making a policy.

Trustee Nichole Cover weighed in on the issue, also opining that the controversial issues policy was not the place for the proposed guidelines, and that “controversial” may not be the right word for the policy. She also wondered whether there was a policy that dictates or discusses the district’s mission statement. She said any guidelines or policy should be tied to the mission statement of the district.

Baker said the district could look at a policy that could encompass classroom displays, but said such a policy “can’t stand by itself.”

“I think it needs to be a broader thing,” Baker said.

After some more discussion, Nowak said the district should go back to Neola and Thrun for guidance.

“I don’t want to be judge and jury. I don’t want to be the one that says, ‘yes, this can go,’ or ‘no, this cannot,’ which is why I’m pushing for making sure that our administrative guideline is giving power to those running the building, but if it does come back here, I want something that I can push policy at and not my personal opinion,” Nowak said.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 22 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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