Goodall gets Breaking Traditions 2021 recognition

By Lorrie Jancarz

Vicksburg High School junior Haylee Goodall was recognized by the Michigan Department of Education, Office of Career and Technical Education (CTE) for her high level of competency in all areas of Mechatronics. The Breaking Traditions Award recognition is given to an outstanding student who has excelled in a CTE program that is nontraditional for their gender.

Haylee is a second-year student in Mechatronics, taught at Vicksburg High School. She has a strong knowledge of two computer-aided drawing software packages, MasterCam and Tinker CAD. Haylee has also earned many certificates for her successful completion of ToolingU, a program that promotes workforce development training modules.

Haylee is a responsible and dedicated student. She goes above and beyond the normal classroom requirements and is always ready to accept a challenging project.

COVID concerns at Vicksburg school board meeting

By Jef Rietsma

County health departments, not school districts, are responsible for declaring outbreaks of diseases, Vicksburg Supt. Keevin O’Neill told board members and the mother of a Tobey Elementary student who tested positive for COVID-19.

He defended the district’s transparency about the spread of the disease within the district.

Erin Hoekstra at the board’s April 12 meeting said O’Neill hadn’t been forthright when he neglected to mention students at her child’s K-5 school who tested positive for the disease. O’Neill in the email she cited had written that “the high school setting has proven to be safe, as we have no evidence of any outbreaks or person-to-person spread in the school.”

“Although your clever wording specifically referenced the high school, you conveniently made no reference to Tobey Elementary or the middle school,” said Hoekstra, herself a teacher. Her third grade son tested positive March 19. She said parents deserved to know of the classroom situation and that it was, in her opinion, a bona fide outbreak.

O’Neill said the declaration of an outbreak is not theirs to make. Such a declaration, he said, is made by county health officials, who report to state health officials.

The school district’s website has listed each instance of students or staff member testing positive. No names are used, the school and number of persons who tested positive is shown in a letter, signed by O’Neill. In most letters, a single student or staff member is reported. In a few, two students in a building have tested positive. The site says 33 students or staff members tested positive in April by late in the month. Another 30 tested positive in March. The site is at vicksburgschools.org/covid-19-information.

At Tobey, six students and two staff members tested positive in March. Letters posted on March 9 and 12 referred to staff members. One Tobey student tested positive in letters issued March 16, 17, 26 and 29, and two students on March 22.

A positive test resulted in contact tracing. But O’Neill said no tracing was conducted in cases where a student hadn’t been in school for several days prior to the test.

“We were transparent about every case the minute the staff member tested positive,” O’Neill said. “We immediately quarantined the entire class and as those cases came out, we notified every family in this district about those cases.”

“We’ve been transparent about every case in our schools, including providing a notification every time we have a positive case, which isn’t even required,” O’Neill said. “We try to go above and beyond to make sure every family knows every time we do have a case. We’re always going to be transparent. Always.”

In an interview after the meeting, O’Neill said his comments cited by Hoekstra had been specific and about the high school.

“The district prides itself on transparency and has worked hard to notify parents about every case.  Furthermore, all Tobey third grade families were notified of the additional student cases on March 18th.”

“In fact, Tobey Elementary principal Mike Barwegen emailed Mrs. Hoekstra specifically on March 22,” he added. “This was the first instance of apparent person-to-person transmission, which would meet the definition of an outbreak, that the school district is aware of. It is our understanding that the designation of ‘outbreak’ is determined and communicated to the state by the health department as explained at the April Board of Education meeting.”

“Importantly, all of the required steps and procedures were followed by Tobey Elementary staff and district administration.  While it is unfortunate that students appear to have been infected at school, the fact that these infections occurred after the students were quarantined offers evidence that the procedures worked effectively and exactly as they were designed.  All of these cases were reported to the health department and parents even though they occurred after the students had been quarantined at home for several days,” O’Neill continued.  

County health director Jim Rutherford acknowledged that outbreaks happen, “when two or more than two individuals from different households all test positive and have been in close contact.”
He said he has talked to O’Neill.

“They did everything correctly,” Rutherford said. “We’ve come to terms with the fact that public health at the national level doesn’t have the ability to do all contact tracing.”

VHS grad Claudia Ramsey earns medical degree

Claudia Ramsey, a 2013 Vicksburg High School graduate will receive her medical degree in May from the Medical College of Wisconsin. Ramsey graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences from Central Michigan University. During her time at CMU, she won four biology department scholarships, completed three medical/public health Global Brigades to Central American and participated in tuberculosis research. While earning her MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin, she received the Hiram Benjamin Award in Anatomy, was a Pasteur Award candidate, and was a four-time recipient of the Scott Scholarship. She managed the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Saturday Clinic for the uninsured and participated in research to increase access to fresh produce for Milwaukee residents. Ramsey will graduate as a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Society and will begin her training at the University of California San Diego and Rady Children’s Hospital Pediatric Residency Training this July.

Vicksburg bands prepare for concert, raffle

After a challenging year, Vicksburg Middle School and High School bands are preparing for their spring concert. The event will be held outdoors in the Vicksburg Stadium at 7 p.m. May 25.

During the concert, the winners of the annual spring raffle will be drawn. Tickets are $5 with a chance to win $2,500, $1,000, or $500. They’re available for purchase from band students, band parents or at Craig Rolfe’s office at 328 West Prairie Street, Vicksburg.

As Band Director Ben Rosier reflects on the year, he’s proud of his students and their continued striving for excellence; he is also thankful for the help of the administration’s safety protocols that “kept our student musicians healthy throughout our music making.” Rosier is planning a full calendar of events for summer as well as the return of the Big Red Machine in the fall.

VCS union leader seeks more input for coming year

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg Education Association President Jennifer Rodas wants the union to be involved in administrative discussions centering on the 2021-22 academic year, she told School Board members at an April 12 meeting.

“We are asking that the district include us in the process. We are hoping that decisions and discussions will be made with us and not communicated to us later,” Rodas said. “We are hoping to have a better return to school than we did in the 2020 fall.”

She also implored board members to consider hiring more school counselors to help students who are struggling with stress and other issues wrought by COVID-19. She said more school counselors would provide relief for a five-person team of counselors that, she said, is overworked and at risk of burnout.

“We are hoping that the district and the school board will invest in the emotional well-being of our students and give our counseling staff realistic expectations with the amount of students they can service effectively,” she said.

The district took the first step in a borrowing process to purchase six new buses. Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss said the installment purchase agreement was originally discussed in February.

The 77-passenger, gasoline-powered buses will be purchased through the Michigan School Business Officials Cooperative bidding program at a total cost of $533,478.

“In our experience, we get the best prices available by doing that,” he said. “We’re going to take advantage of very low interest rates and we’ll pay those notes off in three years.”

Also, O’Neill said the district’s partnership with South County Community Services and Kalamazoo County Health Department to stage a vaccine clinic at the high school was a success. The event took place March 31.

VCSF awards reading and Earth Day grants

4th graders Emma Welch (left) and Alyssa Smith (right) help advisor Michelle Malito with Earth Day activities.

By Bob Willhite

The Vicksburg Community Schools Foundation approved a grant for the district’s third-grade students to receive books via mail throughout the summer, adding an additional component to the three elementary schools’ summer reading initiatives.  

To help engage current third-grade students to read throughout the summer, the staff proposed the implementation of Kids Read Now, a nonprofit summer reading program.

Kids Read Now sends children nine brand new books through the mail, and families are able to keep the books. Students also receive comprehension postcards which help connect students to their reading.

During a kick-off event, families and students will learn about the summer program, and students will select their first three books, designed to share their interest and preferred genres. The total cost per student is $39.99, totaling $7,118.22 for all of the district’s third grade students. The VCS Foundation funded $6,618.22.

The foundation also gave a $300 Curiosity Grant to the Sunset Lake Leadership Team – the student council – for its Earth Day service project. The total cost was $612, with the leadership team paying the other portion. These student leaders handed out 600 Douglas fir saplings to the entire student body and staff.

Schoolcraft increases ordinance enforcement

By Rob Peterson

Schoolcraft village police will begin enforcing right of way regulations and some parts of the zoning ordinance on residential streets, taking over the role from village hall staff.

The changes mean that infractions will be enforceable immediately.

The right-of-way on residential streets extends 33 feet on either side of the centerline of the road and can include sidewalks and buried utilities requiring access. At times, accessing the utilities is an emergency situation.

Some property owners park their cars in the right-of-way, which can be a safety hazard, according to Village Manager Cheri Lutz. Some owners pave the land along the street, which can cause drainage issues for neighboring property, she said. And if a utility crew needs to dig where a car is parked, towing the vehicle is sometimes required if the owner isn’t available to move it.

Under prior council direction, staff was not as aggressive in enforcing these infractions, according to Lutz. “Schoolcraft is an attractive community, and having cars parked in front yards is negatively impacting the appearance.”

The current village council has asked staff to make the changes and increase enforcement. “We need to back the staff who are tasked with enforcing these ordinances,” said Council Member Michael Rochholz. “If we’re not going to enforce what we have, we should throw it all out.”

“Everyone is trying to be diplomatic,” said council President Keith Gunnett, “but it’s something we need to do.”

The Village will communicate the increased enforcement efforts through a newsletter and social media posts. Staff members will also work to be user-friendly and give residents time to make corrections.

Because the village includes many historic homes, some properties don’t have enough land for a driveway. For some, the location of a septic system makes a driveway impractical. Lutz indicated that the village will work with residents in situations like these to find alternatives or provide a waiver, if that’s appropriate.

“This will be fair and respectful,” said Lutz. “At the end of the day, it will make a positive difference.”

Residents can expect to see changes in the way these laws are enforced within the next few months. Those wishing to give their opinion on the matter may attend council meetings or write a letter to the Village.

Vicksburg village launches ‘social district’

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg’s Social District was expected to open May 1, kicking off a designation that was months in the making.

During the April 19 village council meeting, Alex Lee, the village’s director of community engagement, said the district’s downtown boundaries are showcased on the village’s website. He said the social district is an area downtown where patrons can leave with a drink in hand from one business and walk to another. Contents of the specially designated cup must be consumed before entering the next business.

While the social district will never amount to Fremont Street in Las Vegas or Bourbon Street in New Orleans, village officials said it does loosen some rules that they hope foster patronage at the five participating establishments.

Lee said the village’s website and a QR code at various points downtown show boundaries of the district and its five participating businesses: Main Street Tavern, Village Hide-A-Way, Jaspare’s Pizza, Distant Whistle and Vicker’s Lakeside Tavern.

“A visitor can scan a QR code from any of our district boundary signs and be linked to a page that includes a map, social district rules and direct links to the businesses,” he said. “If you click on any of the logos of the businesses, you’ll go directly to their websites.”

Each of the five businesses has cups that feature the social district logo. The cups are 16 ounces for beer and 9-ounce cups for wine. Lee explained a sticker will be applied to the cup when a patron leaves and wishes to finish the drink en route to another business.

Hours of the social district are 4 to 11 p.m. Village manager Jim Mallery said the last social district alcoholic beverage can be sold at 10 p.m. He also said research is being conducted that would likely lead to the ban of smoking within the district.

Council member Rick Holmes said he recently had occasion to check out the social district in Saugatuck. All indications appear that businesses and visitors are in favor of the concept there, he said.

“The one thing that’s really surprising is families. You tend to think of this as a frat party … the images go through your mind that people are out getting tanked,” he said. “It’s not. It’s really interesting to have watched it both in the middle of the day and into the evening hours. It’s not a party atmosphere, it’s very calm and you just see people congregating.”

Holmes referenced a conversation earlier in the meeting about Vicksburg being ahead of other communities and being forward thinking. Establishment of the social district, he said, aligns perfectly with those goals.

In other business, council member Denny Olsen said a controlled fire at the former Plainsman Motel on U.S. 131 north of Schoolcraft has been delayed due to the discovery of additional amounts of asbestos.

Several area departments were planning to spend May 1 and 2 conducting intentionally-set fires for the benefit of arson investigations and other training. A rescheduled date for the activity hasn’t been set.

Bulldog baseball sweeps Paw Paw

By Travis Smola

Vicksburg varsity baseball picked up their first two key wins on the road against Paw Paw, giving up a single run in the doubleheader.

The Bulldogs won the first game handily, 10-1, then dealt a shutout in the second, 6-0. The team had had some early struggles in the season against tough teams like Portage Central and Mattawan, but it was the first conference game against Paw Paw that Head Coach Brian Deal had been looking forward to playing.

“We’ve played some non-conference games against some really quality opponents,” Deal said. “And we’ve had some tough go on those games, but it’s all been kind of building up for this opening night of conference play.”

Senior pitchers Parker Wilson and Brendan Monroe both put on a clinic in the games. Wilson had 13 strikeouts in the first game and Monroe had nine in the second game. Both pitchers helped bail their team out of situations where the Red Wolves had runners in scoring position.

“Those two are veterans for us and they did a great job coming into the zone,” Deal said. “It kept the pressure off of our defense, and then, when we did need to make a play, we did make one behind them, so just having those guys who can pound the zone like that, that’s going to be a huge help for us.”

In the second game, Monroe also started off the hits with a single. Vicksburg took a 1-0 lead after they loaded the bases. A high pitch allowed Jacob Conklin to run home. In the top of the second, Zach Myers started things off with a single before Monroe hit a monster triple to far right field that just barely failed to clear the fence. That brought Myers home to make it 2-0.

Conklin brought Monroe home to make it 3-0 immediately after that with a single. Conklin also managed to steal third on that series but got stranded at third.

The score remained 3-0 until the top of the fifth, which ended up being the final inning due to light fading. Paw Paw walked Dylan Zemitans and Myers to start things off. Zemitans scored off a Cole Gebben single and Myers scored off another single from Monroe to make it 5-0.

Conklin was the next batter and was hit by a pitch to load them up. The Red Wolves gave the Bulldogs a freebie when they walked Wilson to make it 6-0.

After last season was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Deal praised his younger players with limited baseball experience for their performance, though he noted that the biggest challenge so far is that the strength of their opponents is mostly unknown.

“It’s interesting because you have no idea of what the other teams are going to be like in the conference because you didn’t see them play last year,” Deal said, “So, now every time we go out against a conference team, we’re just hoping to play the best we can possibly play because we don’t know what their teams have or what they’re going to throw at us.”

Two wins open Vicksburg softball season

Vicksburg’s Tristin Abnet.

By Travis Smola

The Vicksburg varsity softball team started the 2021 season off on the right foot, picking up two wins, 6-5 and 4-1, in a doubleheader against Richland Gull Lake.

In the first game, the Bulldogs got out to an early 4-0 lead that later shrank to 4-4 in the sixth inning. In the top of the seventh, the Blue Devils took a 5-4 lead, putting the pressure on the younger team to deliver. With two on and no one out, Danielle Diekman hit a ball to center to bring Maddison Diekman home. Danielle then found herself trapped between bases. However, in the commotion of trying to get Diekman out, Gull Lake momentarily took their eyes off Peyton Smith, allowing her to run home for the winning run from third.

“It was really Danielle who got that key hit there at the end and then got herself in a pickle to allow us to score a girl from third,” Head Coach Paul Gephart said.

In the second game, Payton Lewis got the Bulldogs on the board first by taking advantage of a Gull Lake mistake after a hit from Hannah Vallier. Vicksburg scored again in the bottom of the fourth, when Smith hit a big triple to bring Maddison Diekman home. Smith scored shortly after on a high pitch by the Blue Devils. In the fifth, Maya Peters hit a double to bring Vallier home again and make the score 4-0. Gull Lake hit a solo home run in the top of the sixth to make the score 4-1, the final score of the game.

“We’re young. there’s a lot of things that we saw that we need to work on, but I’m very happy when you start the season off, and you win two games,” Gephart said. “Especially that first game when they tied the score up and had all the momentum we came back and finished there at the end.”

Coming back in 2021 is a little bittersweet for both players and coaches. The Covid-19 pandemic cancelled all spring sports completely last year which means that a lot of seniors did not get to play their final season in 2020, leaving many to wonder what might have been.

It has also led to some challenges because many of the newer players have never played softball at the varsity level before the Gull Lake game. Gephart noted that losing a whole season is a challenge every team is going to have to deal with this year.

“There’s no excuses, I just feel bad for the girls from last year, all those that were returning,” Gephart said. “You’ve got eight starters returning and they lost their entire season, six of them graduated. So, I’m really happy that we’re even getting to play.”

Based on what he saw from the first two games though, prospects look promising. He said the younger players stepped up and the veterans led by example.

“I was really pleased with how well they played with the number of new people that we have playing this year,” Gephart said. “They did a really good job with very minimal amounts of time to practice.”