Schoolcraft schools survey community on COVID

By Travis Smola

The Schoolcraft School District community is divided on issues related to COVID-19, with more than half of parents responding to a survey saying they should decide if their children should wear masks while attending school.

Superintendent Rick Frens described results of the survey to the Board of Education.

The district received 720 responses. Frens included a long list of the written responses to each board member and encouraged all of them to read in their spare time.

“Read the comments. They are all over,” Frens said. “There’s just a lot of good feedback in there.”

Among parents, more than half the respondents felt parents should be the ones to decide if their children should be masked at school or not. The rest were split almost evenly between supporting the current mask mandate for students and staff in young-five through sixth grade and those who think it should go through 12th grade.

While not all parents are in favor of masks, 60.5 percent of respondents supported the increased use of rapid testing in the district to reduce the number of school days missed. The district also asked parents how safe they felt their child was at school on a scale from 1-10. Only 14 parents responded with a one on the scale. Most parents, 278 responses making up 38.7 percent of the total, gave the district a 10. A majority also said they would feel safe sending their child back to school if a mandate was lifted.

Among staff, the 78 responses varied a bit from the parents. The responses showed 44.7 percent of staff agreed parents should be able to choose whether to mask their children. Only 23.7 percent were in favor of a Pre-K through 12 mandate on masking.

Twenty staff members gave the district a 10 on how safe they felt at school; 11 respondents gave a five, and 17 gave an eight. Only one respondent gave a one.

The survey also asked staff their thoughts on possible vaccine mandates or weekly rapid testing. Approximately 85 percent of responders said they would continue working for the district if either was put into place. Frens said two respondents indicated they would not continue to work for the district if there was an order mandating vaccination. Another two staff members said they were not sure.

For now, Frens said the district is not doing anything until administrators see what happens with an order mandating the vaccine. He believes it is an issue that may get caught up in the courts for a while, so they are staying the course.

In other news, the board approved a request for proposals to update the district’s logos and signage and standardize the appearance. The district is putting the request out to local companies.

The board also approved a larger request for four schools to join the SAC Conference. Athletic Director Jeff Clark said the move is widely supported for Allegan, South Haven, Bridgeman and Black River to join the SAC by districts and coaches. The move could save the district a little on travel since they will be able to find more games closer to home in their league.

Vicksburg Middle School jazz band to continue

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg Middle School’s music program once again will feature an eighth-grade jazz band.

The district’s board of education at an Oct. 11 meeting granted a request from department chair Ben Rosier seeking funding to buy needed materials for the class.

Rosier said the curriculum proposal is unique; the district has had an eighth-grade jazz band in each of the 15 years he has been with the district. The band feeds into two high school jazz bands.

Jay Bennett has replaced a band teacher who retired in the past year. That led to schedule changes. “We changed the schedule around, so there’s not a band director in the middle school in the afternoon. The eighth-grade jazz band that usually met at the end of the day is no longer because we are now team-teaching marching band,” Rosier said. “We want to add that eighth-grade jazz band offering back into our curriculum, which means we need to include it into our eighth-grade band, normal, everyday class.”

That required a new textbook.The proposal includes the purchase of new workbooks at a total cost of just under $800, Rosier said.

“Each student in eighth-grade band would have a book to work out of, learning improvisatory ideas through music that they already know, but also adding to that in the jazz band world,” Rosier said. “Jazz is kind of like a whole new language in and of itself.”

Rosier said every eighth-grade band member will have to take jazz band, which was previously an elective.

Members of the eighth-grade jazz band program will assemble in March to prepare two pieces for a spring concert as well as marching in the Memorial Day parade.

Rosier said the high school’s top jazz group has established a solid reputation, as it has had an all-state player each of the past 10 years.

Board president Skip Knowles said the cost is a small price to pay for helping kids develop and thrive in a critical area of the fine arts.

“I just can’t say enough about our band program, and the things Ben and the staff have done,” he said. “Anything we can do with the younger kids to promote a love and an interest in jazz coming into the high school is a wonderful thing.”

Methodist church makes gift to Vicksburg schools

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg United Methodist Church was recognized by Vicksburg Community Schools Board of Education for a significant financial gift to the district.

Superintendent Keevin O’Neill made the acknowledgment at the onset of the Sept. 13 board meeting. The announcement was met with a round of applause from audience and board members.

“I want to send a big thank you to the Vicksburg United Methodist Church, (as) the congregation, their foundation, donated $16,000 to our VCS elementary schools for teacher classroom supplies,” he said. “Thank you, VUMC, for this incredible gift that is so appreciated.”

VUMC Pastor Greg Culver said the church had the good fortune of being in a sound financial state. He said the $16,000 came from interest in the church’s endowment.

“Even during the pandemic, the stock market has done very well and our investments, which are through the United Methodist Foundation, have given a good return,” he said. “It’s been a hard year for teachers and we thought that with the stress teachers are under – we all know they pay out of their own pocket for school supplies – we just thought it would be a good boost for their morale.”

Culver said the church has had a longstanding relationship through the “Kids Hope” program with Tobey Elementary, so the opportunity to help all three of the district’s elementary school teachers was a logical next step.

He called the gift “a way to partner with the community and a way to maximize the opportunity” to positively impact students and their families.

“The companies that we’re invested in, that we got such strong results from, are ethical companies; that’s something to feel good about.”

He said there were no strings attached to the donation, which were earmarked to teachers at the Tobey, Indian Lake and Sunset Lake elementaries.

In a separate matter during the district’s September meeting, O’Neill said the district has upped the stakes in its effort to secure substitute teachers. He said daily, full-day and half-day rates have been raised from $75 to $85, and $45 to $55, respectively.

Long-term subs are paid $100 a day and $50 per half day, also a $10 increase.

There’s also an incentive for retired teachers. O’Neill said those rates are $85 full day and $55 half day. Retired teachers, however, are not eligible for long-term pay.

A newly created program pays substitutes a $100 bonus for 10 subbing jobs within the district in a month, $225 for 15 different jobs within a month and $400 for 20 or more different sub jobs in a month. Long-term subs do not qualify for the bonus pay, O’Neill said.

Schoolcraft schools comply with mask mandate

By Travis Smola

Schoolcraft public schools will comply with an order from the Kalamazoo County Department of Health imposing a mask mandate as a precaution against COVID-19.

The mandate requires children in grades kindergarten through six to wear a mask at school. It was issued just weeks before the school year began. Prior to this decision, Superintendent Rick Frens and the school board at an August board meeting indicated the district would not enforce a mask mandate. Board members also stated in that meeting the district would respect the choices of students and staff on vaccinations and mask wearing.

However, during a special meeting held later in the month with a large turnout, Frens recommended the district comply with the mask mandate, which was approved by the board. Frens clarified later that the district complied to avoid penalties from the health department.

“This past week we received clarification around compliance with the mandate and have put procedures and protocols in place to ensure compliance,” Frens wrote in an email. “The health department does have the ability to impose fines and penalties, which could ultimately close our school buildings. We have a duty to ensure all our kids are in class with their teachers five days a week, and we are going to focus our energies on a positive start to the school year.”

In other news, the board also approved contracts between the district, the Kalamazoo County Education Association and the Schoolcraft Education Association.

The board also approved giving the Eagles’ name to the formation of a sixth through 12th grade high school clay target team. Athletic Director Jeff Clark has been pushing for the program for years. He noted that the costs of participation, about $300, is all on the families. If a student makes it to state contests, there is an additional $45 charge.

All participants must have a hunter safety certification or pass a gun safety program prior to being allowed on the range. Firearms will not be allowed on school grounds; all shooting will be at Lake Osterhout Conservation Club. Student athletes will be subject to eligibility checks. While it is not an MHSAA sport, all participating schools follow its guidelines.

The plan is to start with a trial run of 10 students this fall. If all goes well, the program will be expanded in the spring. The motion to establish the team passed unanimously.

Vicksburg school board meetings still livestreamed

By Jef Rietsma

The Vicksburg Community Schools Board of Education, which resumed in-person meetings in August, plans to continue livestreaming its meetings as well. Furthermore, recordings of the meetings will be kept available online for at least a year.

Superintendent Keevin O’Neill said the district received a request to continue streaming the monthly board meetings. The request, made by several parents, further sought to keep meetings available for viewing access on the district’s website for at least 12 months.

Board members voiced no objections to the request. President Skip Knowles said he doesn’t believe the accommodation requires a policy change. “We’ve always kept a recorded basis of the meeting and this is just kind of an upgrade … we’ve always had the audio (recordings) available, but the livestream is something we can record and have available,” Knowles said. “A few years ago, this wasn’t even something (we) could even think about.”

Audience members who addressed the board expressed their appreciation for the decision.

In other action, O’Neill said the number of requests for virtual instruction this school year was low. As a result, O’Neill said the district has opted not to offer a virtual component for 2021-22. He did note, however, the district is working to establish an agreement for a third-party vendor to provide online content for students whose parents aren’t comfortable sending their kids to an in-person learning environment.

O’Neill said the district had one teaching position to fill as of Aug. 9. He was confident it would be taken care of by the first day of school.

Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss acknowledged Frederick Construction for continuing to work diligently in advance of the Aug. 30 start of school. He said construction projects at each of the district’s three elementary schools are wrapping up. Indian Lake and Tobey schools were without power for significant portions of the summer due to service upgrades performed by their utility company. Nonetheless, the balance of the work at the two schools has been completed. Sunset Lake and Tobey schools have been fitted with new ceiling grid, HVAC upgrades, boiler work, piping and electrical for LED lighting upgrades. Electrical and fire inspections at the buildings were passed on first review, he said.

“Going into the buildings once a week has been good because it allows you to see the progress …there were a few weeks where it was a little bit terrifying because you see the building in that condition and you don’t think it’s remotely possible that they’ll complete all this in time,” Goss said. “But, as of right now, things are on track.”

As a sidenote, Goss added the district’s bus drivers are prepared to navigate around road and infrastructure projects still ongoing through the village.

Upgrades at the football stadium, including its track and new turf at the football field, have also been completed, Goss noted.

Athletic Director Mike Roy gave a detailed annual report. A 22-year district employee, Roy acknowledged several co-workers and administrators for their support of the district’s athletics program.

Roy mentioned more than a half dozen MHSAA committees on which he has served, and paused before completing the list. “Here’s one – first time on this one – COVID football committee,” he said. “I served on the committee to help figure out the restructuring of football and how the playoffs were going to work.” The district hosted nine MHSAA tournaments in the past year and three Wolverine Conference tournaments.

Roy said 11 members of the class of 2021 will be participating in athletics at the collegiate level.

Vicksburg school construction on schedule

Vicksburg Community Schools Superintendent Keevin O’Neill and Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss said the district and its facilities will be in great shape when classes resume for the 2021-2022 academic year late this month.

By Jef Rietsma

Vicksburg Community Schools officials said summer construction projects are moving along well. But district administrators are crossing their fingers that all work will be completed when classes start Aug. 30.

Superintendent Keevin O’Neill and Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss said through late July, work at numerous locations throughout the district has continued without any major setbacks. They acknowledged construction crews have had to follow an ambitious schedule within a short time frame, but everyone has risen to the occasion.

O’Neill and Goss commended project manager Frederick Construction, architect TowerPinkster and a hard-working team of subcontractors.

“They walk us through everything and it’s so comforting to know that everyone doing the work … I mean, you just can’t help but feel good about it,” Goss said. “They give us unbelievable service, they’re problem-solvers and they’re just amazing.”

The scope of work has been district-wide this year. O’Neill said it started back in the spring at the district’s administrative building. Once the school year concluded, work crews stepped in, literally, on the last day of school at Sunset Lake, Tobey and Indian Lake elementary schools.

In addition, installation of a new track and turf at the high school has been ongoing. O’Neill, in fact, said the district is prepared to modify the varsity football team’s schedule to ensure the field is adequately prepared. In other words, he said, the team could play a number of its early-season games on the road.

The work is being done thanks to a $17.6 million, 20-year millage request district voters approved in May 2020.

Goss provided a breakdown of some of the costs.

$280,532 – partial re-roofing at Tobey and the middle school

$151,214 – interior renovations, painting, floors, ceilings, electrical/lighting/furniture model classrooms at each elementary, the middle school and VHS.

$112,995 – Tennis court repair.

$966,875 – Athletic complex renovation, fencing/concrete repair, asphalt track and synthetic track surface, and field turf.

$513,658 – Administration building masonry repairs, windows and limited interior renovations related to its windows.

$6,477,276 – Mechanical, electrical upgrades, windows, and interior renovations at VHS and all three elementary schools.

Total construction dollars committed to date, Goss said, is $8.5 million.

O’Neill, meanwhile, said bond proceeds are never used to pay for school employee compensation, nor to reimburse the district for any expense.

Goss said the district last performed millage-related work in 2014, when roof work and other behind-the-scenes improvements were made.

“We do view this kind of work as we want to create the best environment for our kids and our staff so they can all do their best,” Goss said. “We’ve been entrusted with the buildings to take care of them and that means we have to put money into them.”

O’Neill followed up.

“There were some tough conversations about whether to proceed with the election last year, right in the middle of COVID, but I’m glad we went ahead with it,” he said. “The needs were not going to go away and, as many homeowners know, problems just escalate over time, so I think we did the right thing. We want that curb appeal, we want to be attractive, and our community and our kids deserve nice facilities.”

Vicksburg Community Schools has about 2,700 students.

Construction nears for new Schoolcraft Elementary

Darby and Bruce Fetzer hosted an event for retired or former school board members celebrating Dr. Rusty Stitt’s 10 years as superintendent and Kathy Mastenbrook’s 24 years of devoted service to Schoolcraft Community Schools. In top row, from left, are Darby Fetzer, Skip Fox, Jeannette Marshall, Matt DeVoe, Michael Rochholz and David Krum. Bottom row: Dr. Jack Sauer, Kathy Mastenbrook and Dr. Stitt.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

Schoolcraft’s School Board made Kalamazoo County State Bank the sole depository account for district business at a July 12 meeting. Finance Director Kendra Drewyor explained that while there won’t be a significant cost savings, it will simplify the accounting for the district. Within her report, she also explained that she is preparing for an August 30 audit, keeping the district in compliance with federal expenditure rules.

The board also approved $26,123,972 for the construction of the new K-6 building. This figure came in $87,000 under budget and includes a 7% contingency fund, which is traditionally included in a construction project’s budget for unexpected expenses. If these funds aren’t needed, the savings goes to the district.

Board members raised questions about current supply chain shortages and their impact. Ken Pitchford, senior project manager for the school construction, said he’s monitoring challenges. In a June 28 special board meeting, the members of the board signed a steel agreement which includes firm delivery dates for the construction project and offers some protection for the district’s timeline.

The board hopes to break ground for the new building in early August.

Trustee Wade Rutkoskie discussed how the district’s previous construction experience has helped during this process. “Contractors have been carefully vetted. We feel really good about it.” He also explained the careful consideration and planning that went into the design of the parental pick-up and drop-off lanes, designed to avoid traffic back-up on village streets and ensure student safety.

Superintendent Rick Frens discussed the resignations of high school teachers Katherine MacDonell, Lori Pelton, and Cory Hinga. Frens said that “while it’s always sad to lose quality teachers, they are moving on to leadership positions.” When asked about school opening and masks, Frens said that as of now, masks are optional since the county’s numbers are low, but the district will be in communication with the Health Department.

Schoolcraft alumni present scholarships

From left, scholarship recipients are Jake Olvitt, Maya Pearce, Kelby Goldschmeding, and Annabelle Ledlow. Alumni Association President Scott Paquin presented their awards.

By Sue Hendriksma

The Schoolcraft Alumni Association canceled its annual banquet and meeting again this year due to the COVID crisis. But its Executive Committee announced that scholarships supported through member donations were awarded to four 2021 graduates, including specialized scholarships sponsored by the SHS Class of 1982 and the Veterinary Clinic of Schoolcraft.

Annabelle Ledlow was awarded the Veterinary Clinic of Schoolcraft Scholarship. She has known since she was little that she wanted to have a career that involves animals. She will be attending Michigan State University. Annabelle participated in 4H and Future Farmers of America and has also volunteered at a local animal shelter for the past four years. She has ridden for the school’s Equestrian Team and, through Education for Employment, has participated in animal technology and veterinary science classes. She plans to earn a degree in the veterinary nursing program with a double major in horse management. She will then apply to veterinary school to earn her doctorate and specialize in equine rehabilitation.

Maya Pearce received the Schoolcraft Class of 1982 Scholarship. Maya plans to study biochemistry at Michigan State University, then pursue a master’s degree in forensic science. She would like to work in a crime lab and be a vital part of our justice system. Maya has been active in both school and community, serving with pride on the varsity tennis and bowling teams, playing in Concert Band, and serving both as a performer and a crew member in the drama program. Since her kindergarten year, Maya has also been a member of the Girl Scouts program. Her teachers note that her drive and determination and her academic achievement, involvement in the arts, and strength of character will help her achieve her goals.

Kelby Goldschmeding received a Schoolcraft Alumni Association scholarship and plans to study nursing to become a neonatal nurse at a large hospital. She has excelled in her studies and also been a recognized member of the varsity volleyball and softball teams. Kelby hopes to pursue her volleyball career at the college level while completing her nursing studies. She has volunteered for many service organizations, including Big Brothers Big Sisters. Her teachers note that Kelby is a gifted individual who takes her school and community responsibilities seriously.

Jake Olvitt also received a Schoolcraft Alumni Association Scholarship. Jake will attend Adrian College to pursue a degree in sports management, with a dual major in exercise science. He has played football, baseball and basketball while in high school and has played on a traveling team in baseball for seven years. Jake plans to prepare himself to enter the sports management field as a physical trainer, athletic trainer, athlete development specialist, sports marketing manager, management coordinator, or media manager. One of Jake’s coaches described him as being punctual, extremely hard working, and a proven leader while also being caring, helpful, intelligent, and a humble young man.

The Schoolcraft Alumni Association awards one or more scholarships each year. Including our 2021 recipients, 100 Schoolcraft High School seniors have received scholarships in various amounts since 1988 that total over $55,000. Each year, a list of all scholarship recipients is displayed at our banquet and other events.

Seniors must apply through the school using the Alumni 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 a teacher, 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.

Vicksburg schools honor 10 retiring employees

By Jef Rietsma

June 11 may have been the final day of class for students at Vicksburg Community Schools, but for several staff members, it marked a new beginning.

Ten district employees are retiring. Superintendent Keevin O’Neill said the employees collectively made Vicksburg Community Schools a better district because of their commitment to its students.

“I can’t thank this group of VCS employees enough for all the years of service, dedication and commitment to our precious students and families,” O’Neill said. “They will be missed and I hope they enjoy their well-deserved retirement.”

The retirees are:

Gary Boyle-Holmes, 37 years, all at Vicksburg High School.

Angie Getsinger, 30 years in all. Getsinger was hired as part-time physical education teacher at Sunset Lake after coaching volleyball and softball. Getsinger moved to Illinois and taught there through 2007. She moved back to Michigan and taught the balance of her career at Sunset Lake.

Ruth Hook, 23 years total. Hook started her career as a fifth-grade teacher in Illinois before spending 12 years at The Gagie School in Kalamazoo. She joined Vicksburg Community Schools as an instructional consultant starting in 2010 and was named principal at Indian Lake Elementary in 2012.

Tammy Iobe, 25 years, all at VCS. Iobe started as a substitute bus driver in the fall of 1996 and became a regular driver the next year.

Dave Nette, 27 years, all at Vicksburg High School.

Krista Ragotzy, 22 years in all. Ragotzy worked at Croyden School in Kalamazoo until securing teaching-certificate credentials. Ragotzy went on to work at Vicksburg High School her entire teaching career.

Patty Stoll, 22 1/2 years at Vicksburg Community Schools. She was hired in 1995 as a part-time middle school band teacher and resigned in 2002. Stoll was re-hired in fall 2005 in the same position until retirement. She spent six years before that teaching at Lawrence Public Schools and Marcellus Community Schools.

Jenny Taylor, 23 years, all at Vicksburg Community Schools. Taylor was hired as a kindergarten teacher at Sunset Lake, where she later taught third grade.

Toni Thole, 25 years. Thole was hired as a part-time health sciences teacher. Thole continued to teach health at both the middle school and high school until retirement.

Bob VanderStraaten, more than six years at Vicksburg Community Schools. VanderStraaten worked as a custodian for six months. He was rehired as a mechanic in 2015 and began driving a bus in 2018.

Schoolcraft school board amends millage rate

Schoolcraft High School’s 2021 graduation ceremony. Photo by Stephanie Blentlinger, Lingering Memories Photography.

By Travis Smola

The Schoolcraft Board of Education approved a small increase in the district’s non-homestead tax rate, from 17.786 mills to 18 mills to offset a decrease in federal revenue. The increase amounts to 21.4 cents per $1,000 taxable valuation on non-residential property and second homes.

New Finance Director Kendra Drewyor, in her first meeting with the district, explained the general fund budget assumes a fund balance decrease of 16.77%, approximately $322,000, as a result of the decrease. Drewyor said it should not be anything to be concerned about. The district will still have a fund balance of around $2 million.

“That is still a healthy, healthy fund balance for a district of your size,” Drewyor said.

The action to resolve the millage rate passed unanimously.

Superintendent Rick Frens proposed changes to the administrative team as the district prepares to move from three buildings to two. The new superintendent recommended giving elementary principal Matt Webster new duties as both kindergarten through sixth grade principal and assistant superintendent.

“We had the title of assistant superintendent and I know the concern was that Mr. Webster’s got a lot on his plate now with grant management and new construction involvement and a lot of different things; that’s an honor for work he’s already been doing,” Frens said. “He has a mind for detail that is incredibly impressive.”

Because of the middle school addition to the high school, Frens recommended Matt Dailey serve as principal for grades 7-12. Those two shifts will also change middle school principal Dave Powers’ role in the district. Frens recommended him for a dean of students role.

“His role will be more student-facing, working with kids,” Frens said. “He also has a gift for data management and presenting data for kids, especially as we come back from a pandemic and a year of virtual learning, interrupted learning.” Frens explained that Powers will likely spend some time looking into matters like the number of chronically absent students.

The superintendent recommended Innovation Coach Amy Lawrence’s role shift to a K-6 dean of students role with similar responsibilities. He noted there may also be changes to office staff and other positions as work continues to progress on the new facilities and updates.

This meeting was the board’s first open public meeting since the coronavirus pandemic began. Frens noted that many of the state’s mandates on instruction are expiring this month and that the district hopes to offer full, face-to-face instruction five days a week starting in the fall. The district will still be subject to state and local laws in case the situation changes. Students and staff will still have the option to wear a mask, but Frens is hopeful things will be back to normal.

“We want to re-establish that human connection without the hindrance of face coverings,” Frens said. “We feel that is absolutely an essential step in getting our kids back to a normal school setting. Our kids, our adults, our community have been through a tough time. Now we start to heal that and go back to a normal structure.”