Schoolcraft board addresses COVID-19 concerns

By Travis Smola

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic was a hot topic at the Schoolcraft board of education’s January meeting, where multiple teachers weighed in their opinions of the current situation.

The board approved a resolution that will mostly “stay the course” on what the district was already doing to address the pandemic. The elementary school is continuing a five-day-a-week a.m. and p.m. schedule.

The district recently had a positive case with a teacher. Board President Jennifer Gottschalk confirmed quarantine procedures and contact tracing had already been done and the schedule for the elementary will remain unchanged.

For the high school and middle school, they will continue to offer an SCS Online and KVIC (KRESA Virtual and Innovative Collaborative) instruction model option. However, they have since transitioned out of a full hybrid model to a face-to-face Tuesday through Friday full day schedule effective Jan. 25. Mondays will be left for teachers to work with online classes.

The board heard concerns from teachers at all three schools in open comment time prior to their decision. Most of the teachers thanked the board for its efforts during a trying school year and said they wanted to get back to face-to-face. But they were also concerned about class sizes and moving too quickly to return.

High school English teacher Kimberlee Klocke said contact tracing had been effective early on, but she had concerns about teachers having to use unpaid leave if quarantining more than once. She is also worried full classrooms could make social distancing more difficult.

“It concerns me that we could now end up with higher amounts of students and staff needing to go into quarantine,” Klocke said. “But we also need to consider what that could do for athletics and also our extracurricular activities.”

Fifth grade teacher Sheryl Peterson said the plan they agreed to before winter break was changed upon their return. She also expressed concerns about rushing students back before nailing down some more details.

“We’re not against moving towards a plan to bring our students back to school more,” Peterson said. “And maybe this is a good blueprint that’s been developed. But we haven’t had time to really hash it out.”

Fourth grade teacher and Kristin Caroselli , president of the Schoolcraft Education Association, said the teachers and district had agreed on some non-negotiable conditions that were not fully being honored after they returned from break, mainly dealing with social distancing concerns.

“We’re not surprised by this, we know this is coming and we want it to be better,” Caroselli said. “We want to be back in school. But we don’t want to be back in school in an environment that feels unsafe.”

Other concerns were raised about the second strain of the virus, how quickly teachers could get the vaccine, over-packed special education classes and concerns about bullying due to mask wearing.

Superintendent Rusty Stitt responded by thanking everyone for their concerns, noting that 2020 and COVID-19 have been the biggest challenge of his career.

“I wouldn’t wish this on anybody,” Stitt said.

Stitt praised the staff for its dedication and passion for the job and said that he’s been meeting with other superintendents weekly to discuss the issues at hand. He said Schoolcraft’s decision to go back is in line with other districts in the county. He noted that while they were moving forward with this plan, things were not “set in stone” and could change if it didn’t feel right.

New Trustee Adam Haley inquired into what a “worst-case scenario” would be for numbers of students and distances between them in classrooms at the middle school. Middle School Principal Dave Powers said he’s met with with Facilities/Technology Director James Weiss and custodial staff and found it may be up to 19 in some classrooms. However, he believes it will be in excess of three feet of social distancing.

There’s another factor that may come into play. “We are expecting that there will be some students who will still choose to be full virtual,” Powers said. “That is going to reduce that number in any section.”

Powers said they have not had many issues with social distancing, even during lunch periods, and that they have had few problems with children wearing masks. Schoolcraft is going to be mandating mask use for now.

The board discussed hiring new staff for the middle and high school to help with the extra workload on teachers. The district is hiring at least two for the middle school. However, High School Principal Matthew Dailey says they don’t anticipate doing that in his building. The creative solution is to better utilize two substitutes for the rest of the year and to add the option for a seventh hour class before or after regular school hours. Teachers would get overage pay for teaching this hour and it would have smaller class sizes to avoid overcrowding in other parts of the day. They could also possibly have teachers start taking classes during their planning period if they so choose.

If the district does need to hire more staff, Stitt said they aren’t expecting any issues because they are expecting to receive more COVID-19 relief money from the state that will cover the costs.

Vice President Jason Walther said he’s had discussions with other districts who have had experiences similar to Schoolcraft’s, of isolated cases with no cases of transmission at school. He said his own discussions with the health department on the issue indicate most transmissions happen on personal and holiday time.

“In my mind, COVID’s not going away. Yeah, we have a vaccine coming, but we’re going to be dealing with this for a lot longer and we have to get back to some sense of normalcy as fast as we can,” Walther said.

Stitt noted that the board must reconfirm its COVID response plans every month no matter what because of the way the situation keeps changing. He said he may bring the board together at short notice to make decisions if the schedule needs to be changed because they’re falling behind in preparations. Stitt said he wants to stay with a four-day schedule for now because it allows teachers the time they need to also work virtually.

“I struggle right now personally with that five-day, just because we may have to pivot out of it,” Stitt said.

Millage-funded projects to start at Vicksburg schools

By Jef Rietsma

Projects related to Vicksburg Community Schools’ successful millage request last fall are in the planning phases. Work is expected to begin this summer.

During the board of education’s Jan. 11 meeting, Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss said the district is at a point where behind-the-scenes work on the projects is being performed, including planning and design.

It’s “primarily for work at Sunset Lake (Elementary), and we expect the construction documents to be ready to go out to bid probably in late January or sometime in February,” he said. “That will still give us time to get mobilized for those projects over the summer.”

Goss said one issue on his radar is what he called a substantial amount of work going on at all three elementary school buildings this summer.

“There are a couple things that complicate that,” he said. “Summer construction season gets shorter and shorter, and that’s going to continue to be the case. The demand to provide services in our buildings over the summer has been going up and up and up.”

Goss acknowledged the need for summer school and additional support, especially in light of a COVID-compromised school year. As a result, Goss said he plans to schedule a meeting in coming weeks to figure out how to proceed with summer school and a construction schedule simultaneously.

He said the meeting would likely involve Superintendent Keevin O’Neill and other district officials, including its principals, curriculum director, community education director, architects and the construction team.

“We’ll try to start flushing out how we can provide access to the buildings for our students and staff while also allowing the construction work, which needs to get done within a limited window … how to manage all those things,” he said. “Stay tuned for more details on that, but it’s a good problem to have.”

During audience comments period of the meeting, a number of teachers spoke of the regrettable loss of language arts middle school teacher Laura Wilson and reading specialist/instructional coach Lynne Buell.

Both teachers , each with 20-plus years in the district, subsequently joined Centreville Public Schools.

Jennifer Rodas, Vicksburg Education Association president, chimed in.

“It does seem that a lot of these discussions on why teachers are leaving our district are falling on deaf ears,” she said. “I appreciate the district’s perspective that this is a great place to learn, things are great and we’re having a lot of success. But if we keep losing veteran teachers, we’re not going to have as much success as we do now and in the future.”

Melissa Jamerson, second-grade teacher at Indian Lake, said something has been broken in the district. It can be restored, she said, if all parties work together.

“We have to communicate and put aside roadblocks, we have to admit that mistakes have been made, we have to truly listen to concerns/opinions and find a common ground knowing there will be opposing points of view,” she said.

Board President Skip Knowles addressed the concerns. He referred to a point made by Wilson in her resignation letter, in which she mentioned the risks of in-person learning at a time when she and many peers felt virtual learning was the smarter choice.

“She said the voices of the parents far outweighed those of the staff members,” Knowles said. “We are a public school system; we serve the public. Those are our taxpayers. Those are the ones that were polled and close to 80 percent wanted face-to-face instruction, and that’s what we have to reflect.”

Knowles also took exception to the claim teachers have not been involved in negotiation sessions, which have been ongoing since summer. Knowles said the district is in the midst of discussing a collective-bargaining agreement. He said it’s imperative to follow protocol.

“It is not proper nor is it legal for us to directly get into discussions with members of that collective-bargaining unit,” he said. “We have a bargaining committee that’s involved with regard to that who does communicate with us. We do care and we are concerned. I just want to get that point across.”

O’Neill said the last few bargaining sessions were productive and he hoped to have another session with the Vicksburg Education Association prior to going to mediation.

School sports updates

Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services have extended the pause in winter contact sports – boys’ and girls’ basketball, competitive cheer and wrestling – through Feb. 21. These teams are allowed to condition and shoot. Masks must be worn at all times and athletes must remain six feet apart throughout an entire practice. Bowling was allowed to start. Vicksburg’s team competed in its first match Jan. 25 against East Grand Rapids.

Schoolcraft board preps for superintendent hiring

By Travis Smola

The Schoolcraft Board of Education at a December meeting proposed a timetable for hiring a new superintendent and discussed results of surveys of staff and residents about the qualities they want in the new hire.

Supt. Rusty Stitt during the summer told board members he’ll resign at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

Vice President Jason Walther described a timeline of events to replace Stitt during a Zoom meeting. The entire plan is currently on the SCS website for school district residents to review.

The board is hoping to involve the community as much as possible in the search. It approved posting the job listing and will soon start contacting possible candidates. The plan calls for the search to be closed by Jan. 15 and a review of candidates to start Jan. 22. The hope is to conduct final board interviews by March 12, make an offer by March 19 with final board approval by April 9, 2021.

The plan includes district team and community interviews around February 19, although board members didn’t describe what those interviews would entail.

The board has already done some homework with the survey of district staff members, parents and students about what they’d like to see from the next superintendent. Out of 385 responses, the majority, 71 percent, were from parents.

The survey asked for the most important leadership qualities: “Strong communicator and listener” was the top choice, closely followed by “trustworthy,” “not afraid to address problems,” “team and culture builder” and “collaborative.”

“Reading through a lot of the comments, I think we’ve been able to get to a point here where I’m really excited that we have a tremendous amount of consistency in what was said in the various formats,” Walther said.

Trustee Jill Hunt approved of the proposal, especially including the involvement of staff and community members’ input in the decision-making process.

“I just want to say thank you for pulling this all together. I think it was very thoughtfully done and you’ve tried to include as many stakeholders as we could get to partake in this,” Hunt said. “I appreciate your hard work.”

Secretary Ryan Ledlow also acknowledged that this plan was unique compared to the usual way districts hire a new superintendent. He also expressed great enthusiasm with the idea.

“This is a little bit different way to go about finding a leader, but I like it, a lot,” Ledlow said.

Walther said the enthusiasm of the community and the belief in the work they are doing has showed through this process. He didn’t hear from anyone who felt the district had to change anything drastic in their search for the next superintendent. The board should find someone to work with the groundwork that’s already in place.

“We’ve got the gears in place. We’ve got to get someone who will oil them a little bit,” Walther said. “Just to make it get that much better.”

New Vicksburg teaching staff introduced

Hugh Thiel, new math teacher.

By Jef Rietsma

Six new members to the Vicksburg Community Schools family were introduced at the board of education’s Dec. 14 meeting.

Superintendent Keevin O’Neill said it’s traditional to introduce the district’s new hires at the board’s final meeting of the calendar year.

The new employees are Jay Bennett, music instruction at Vicksburg middle and high schools; Shannon Reed, interventionist and English as a second language at the middle school; Hugh Thiel, middle school math; Amber Cousins, third grade at Sunset Lake; Nikki Taplin, Begindergarten at Sunset Lake; and Kim Parsons, virtual first grade at Indian Lake Elementary.

High school principal Adam Brush said Bennett, who fills a retirement position, did his student teaching in Vicksburg. He has also worked with the district’s marching band. “Very positive, an extremely hard worker and very personable,” Brush said.

Bennett said he went to high school in a building that had 2,500 students. Working in Vicksburg provides a close-knit feeling in a district that values the fine arts. He added that he is especially eager to see the district’s middle school students grow from young teens to young adults.

Middle school principal Matt Vandussen introduced Reed and Thiel. He said Reed, who came to Vicksburg from Centreville, brings 21 years of teaching experience and did her teaching internship at Tobey Elementary in the late 1990s. “She’s knocking it out of the park … I love having her here,” he said, musing that Reed came from one Bulldog family to another.

Vandussen said Thiel is a seventh-grade math teacher who is a first-year teacher. A Hope College graduate in 2020, Thiel has “hit the ground running,” Vandussen said. “He brings a great attitude every day … Hugh has not disappointed,” Vandussen added.

Amie McCaw, Sunset Lake principal, said she had the good fortune of landing a pair of high-quality teachers who bring extensive experience to the classroom. She said Cousins served at Indian Lake during a long-term maternity leave this past spring before taking a long-term post at Sunset Lake this fall. Cousins, a VCS graduate, fills a retirement position at the third-grade level. “She’s done a phenomenal job,” McCaw said. “She helped us with some supervision and whenever we needed something, Amber was the one who said, ‘Sure, I can do that.’”

McCaw said Taplin started as Begindergarten teacher during remote learning last spring. McCaw said with a few exceptions, Taplin has not met face-to-face with most of her current students.

Supt. O’Neill, whose 50th birthday was acknowledged earlier in the meeting, said he taught Taplin while a chemistry instructor at Portage Northern High School.

Ruth Hook, Indian Lake principal, said Parsons “turned on a dime” without much advance warning. Parsons has taught in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo.

“It means a lot to me to be finally working for Vicksburg and to be a Bulldog,” Parsons said. “I love my families, I love this community and the support has been huge.”

Board president Skip Knowles said he is proud the six joined the district and he appreciates the strengths they bring to Vicksburg.

In a separate matter, board members acknowledged Wil Emmert, who joined the board in 1993 but fell short in his bid for re-election. Knowles said Emmert has been a great resource to the board and the school district. Other board members, meanwhile, gave accolades to Emmert and said his contribution to the district will be missed.

“Your commitment to VCS and the students has not gone unnoticed, Wil,” O’Neill said. “Thank you for your 27 years of service.”

Vicksburg teachers frustrated, exhausted, board told

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg Community Schools Board of Education fielded COVID-19-related concerns from staff members at its Oct. 12 meeting.

The board’s first in-person meeting since spring was simulcast on YouTube.

Vicksburg Education Association representative Kelly MacDonnell told board members the staff is frustrated and mentally exhausted to the point that some long-time district employees are resigning.

“The high level of vigilance your teachers and your already-overworked custodians are operating under to help protect our students and one another every day is so mentally taxing, it is almost indescribable,” she said. “We beg you to recognize the need for more counselors and now more custodians. We need action for the safety of our students and our staff, not just a smile, not just some hollow words of thanks from time to time.”

She said it’s the consensus of the district’s teachers that they do not feel safe in the current work environment. “The simple act of asking if your leadership represents those you lead is such a simple yet effective leadership strategy,” she said.

High school teacher Jennifer Rodas, Vicksburg Education Association president, noted that the few people who addressed the board were speaking for the majority. She said union members do their homework, communicate with each other, make sure their position is clear and that their concerns are real.

“Even though you may only hear a few of us speaking, it’s because we’re protected under our positions … there are others who wish they could speak up but they cannot for fear of punishment,” she said. “Please don’t take that there are only a few of us speaking on behalf of the VEA every time doesn’t mean that we’re not speaking on behalf of the entire association.”

Rodas elaborated on the demands she and her peers face as a result of in-person teaching this fall. For starters, she said she uses her prep hour to change the activities taught in person over to virtual.

She continued, adding that there are “so many moving parts to this VCS virtual that are challenging and frustrating.”

“I’m logging into Google meetings trying to share my screen, make sure I’m unmuted, make sure that I have the right screen going, make sure I’m logged in to the right Google meeting, make sure that I’m cleaning my desks, making sure students are wearing their masks, making sure that they’re social distancing,” she said. “These are things that we’re struggling with every single day. Our job is normally an eight-hour day plus we’re working at home grading … it’s just not sustainable.”

She said not until the board has “real discussion,” and recognizes the challenges and struggles teachers are facing will teachers feel valued and that they’re being heard.

Rodas said she was at a point in the school year where she had started entering grades. Some virtual students who had not logged in for a number of weeks suddenly realized they are failing. Rodas said she now has to prioritize assisting those students.

“Our virtual teachers at the elementary – one of which … has resigned because the working conditions are unsustainable. We’re losing teachers,” she said. “We lost three in the last week and a half … we’re overworked, we’re getting burned out early.”

Rodas asked the board to consider hiring more virtual teachers at the elementary level, recognize the compromised working conditions, and treat teachers with kindness, patience and respect.

Two additional people spoke and expressed similar concerns about working conditions.

Superintendent Keevin O’Neill disputed the claim that not everyone has protection to speak candidly before the board.

“Everyone has the same protection regardless of your position,” he said. “To hear the word retribution, again, when no one has ever experienced retribution for stating their opinions or concerns … I’m still concerned why that comes out. We truly understand the struggles, we’ve been recognizing those.”

Schoolcraft board addresses parent concerns on instruction in pandemic

By Travis Smola

The Schoolcraft Board of Education fielded comments from several residents concerned about the district’s educational plans during the pandemic.

Kory Bienz said he was asked to speak for approximately 40-50 families in the community who want to go back to a fully face-to-face education model. “They want to know what the plan is,” he said at the meeting, once again held virtually via Zoom.

He said that other districts like Mendon, Colon and Constantine went back to a fully face-to-face instruction model on day one of the school year. While Bienz said he recognizes the teachers and administration have been putting in countless work hours, he also believes the hybrid model currently in place is not going to work for students in the long run. Bienz also expressed concerns about long term consequences of Schoolcraft remaining in this model.

“If all these other schools are face-to-face and Schoolcraft isn’t, there’s going to be families that leave the school district and that’s concerning, obviously, because that’s where we get most of our funding,” Bienz said.

Jen Rykse’s words echoed Bienz’s. She also expressed concerns about sending children back to school wearing masks.

“We are kind of all in agreement that our children learn best face-to-face. We want to get them back in the schools,” Rykse said. “Obviously we want to do it as safe as possible, but I know we’re one of the last districts to do it.”

Superintendent Rusty Stitt directly addressed the parent concerns during his report to the board, noting that they will be looking into it and will have a recommendation to the board by Nov. 9 about how to proceed.

“These are trying times for us all,” Stitt said. “It seems like every minute the rules change. Again, this is from Rusty Stitt’s perspective; we don’t know what executive order, if there’s an executive order, what’s local, what’s state and ongoing. So, it’s very challenging. Please note, and I know that you do, that the safety and well-being of our kids is of the utmost importance.”

Stitt said he does support getting back to face-to-face instruction as soon as possible. He also said that they are now required to report on their website the number of cases in the district. The district has had one case of the virus in a student at the middle school.

Trustee Jill Hunt also addressed some of the parental concerns at the meeting. She called for the community to be patient as the situation develops.

“Some of us are ready to have our kids back in school full-time and some of us aren’t comfortable with that, so we have to be mindful of everyone’s opinion on this virus and the fear that they have,” Hunt said. “This includes the staff and especially the teachers. Some are onboard with being in school and some are still really fearful of that, so as our community pushes our teachers, just please don’t push too hard. Because they have families too, they have situations and they feel a particular way as far as the coronavirus goes. So there’s no one size fits all on this, we’re going to try our best to do what we can to make everybody happy. But we will never make everybody happy. So, please bear with us as we go through these unprecedented times.”

Middle school Principal Dave Powers echoed Hunt’s comments about patience. He said the situation is hitting close to home at the middle school and because he has a friend whose son has contracted COVID-19 for a second time this year. Powers said previous experiences visiting with students or parents of students in hospitals and funeral homes was humbling.

“They don’t teach you about or prepare you for those kinds of scenarios as you head into leadership and into education,” Powers said. “To have to face that and what could be the potential outcome of those situations is beyond words.”

While he is hopeful for a return to normal, he said he also wants to err on the side of caution for safety of both students and staff.

“I don’t want to visit one more student in a hospital or one more funeral home in my career – which I don’t have a ton of it left, but I don’t want any more of that for anybody and their families,” Powers said.

Board President Jennifer Gottschalk also called for parents to be patient as they work through the process. She said she does not want to rush things as they follow the data and work with the health department.

“We’re going to follow the rules all the way along and we’re not going to skip steps in the process,” Gottschalk said. “Stick with us and we will get there. We’re not going to speed through this. Let’s take our time and get it right.”

Schoolcraft accepts Stitt’s resignation

Superintendent Stitt praised for his nine years of service.

By Travis Smola

The Schoolcraft Board of Education approved a final one-year contract extension for Superintendent Rusty Stitt, who has submitted a letter of resignation to the district effective at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

The board also approved an athletic participation fee of $75 per student, $150 for a family.
At the meeting, Stitt thanked the original board members who originally hired him in the letter as well as many administrators, teachers and community members whom he worked with during his time in the district.

“I am extremely honored to have been given the opportunity to lead Schoolcraft Community schools for what will be 10 years by the end of the 2020-21 school year,” Stitt said in the letter.

“As a collective team, we have done some amazing work to improve the district, impacting student achievement and elevating professional practice.”

Stitt highlighted numerous changes he’s proud of from his time in the district: implementation of standards-based grading, the 1:1 technology program and most recently, voter approval of a $39.9 million bond issue to construct new educational facilities. Stitt said the contract will allow his youngest daughter to graduate an Eagle. He also added he will probably look for another superintendent post in a different state following the conclusion of his contract on June 30, 2021.

“I will always sincerely treasure the years I served here as your superintendent,” Stitt said in the letter. “It has been an honor! I thank each and every one of you for your support and outstanding dedication to the Schoolcraft community and its magnificent students!”

Board Vice President Jason Walther thanked Stitt for his years of service. “Rusty came to the district nine years ago, and at that time there was a lot to focus on and go to work on,” Walther said. “I think there is just a tremendous amount of positive things that occurred in Schoolcraft.”

Those thoughts were echoed by a few other trustees, including Wade Rutkoskie. “I also want to thank Dr. Stitt for his time. Obviously, a year-long retirement celebration is in order from the district, so [I’m] looking forward to celebrating that time with him and working on the transition, which I know he has been thinking about as well,” Rutkoskie said.

The board approved an athletic participation fee starting in the 2020-2021 school year that applies to both middle school and high school athletes. The cost will be $75 per child or $150 for a family.

The motion was approved without much discussion, but board meeting materials say the addition of a fee was to help the district avoid having to cut its athletic trainer position. Athletic Director Jeff Clark said in the meeting materials that the district will be required to pay $25,000 a year to keep the services of the trainer and the new fees will help cover those costs.

“Financial support from the State of Michigan for the operation of local schools has not kept pace with the rapidly increasing costs for school districts,” the letter to the board reads. “All districts have been forced to make adjustments in operating procedures. Schoolcraft Community Schools is no exception.”

The school is asking any parents with questions or concerns about the new fee structure to contact Clark. Families who may not be able to afford the fees are requested to contact the superintendent.

Schoolcraft alumni hand out scholarships

By Sue Hendriksma

The Schoolcraft Alumni Association had to cancel its annual banquet and meeting this year due to the COVID crisis. However, the Executive Committee announced that scholarships totaling $6,000 were awarded to two 2020 graduates.

Two local companies, Chem Link and Schoolcraft Veterinary Clinic, sponsored specialized scholarships this year. Kalamazoo County State Bank also provided a donation used in supporting these talented 2020 graduates. Alumni Association scholarships are supported through donations by many members who are encouraged to pay it forward, remembering that today’s students will be the leaders of tomorrow.

The recipients: Karson Leighton is planning to attend Middle Tennessee State University to study music business. Karson received a specialized scholarship sponsored by Chem Link, and also an Alumni Association Scholarship. Karson is a songwriter who started to become familiar with the music business when he released his first song to the public. His goal is to be involved in the business aspects of music.

Erin Lockwood will attend Kalamazoo Valley Community College, where she is already a college sophomore on the Dean’s List, and then enter Western Michigan University to study child and family development. Erin received a specialized scholarship sponsored by the Schoolcraft Veterinary Clinic. She has a strong desire to serve people in need.

The Schoolcraft Alumni Association awards one or more scholarships each year. Including the 2020 recipients, 96 Schoolcraft High School seniors have received scholarships in various amounts that total just over $50,520. Each year, a list of all scholarship recipients is displayed at the association’s banquet and other events.

Seniors must apply through the school using the association’s application criteria, which takes into consideration not only their GPA, but extracurricular activities as well as service projects. Students are required to provide a short essay and also provide a recommendation from another individual (generally an instructor) who knows them well. The Executive Committee determines how much can be awarded in a given year based on donations received over the last year. The Scholarship Committee screens all applicants and determines who receives the awards.