Public comment defends ‘Sweeney Todd’ play choice
By Sarah Nigbor
RIVER FALLS – River Falls School District residents are satisfied with the overall education children are receiving, accordin g to results from a recent community survey in which 392 people responded.
Superintendent Jamie Benson highlighted major points of the preliminary survey results at the Monday, April 18 River Falls School Board meeting. The district is gathering input from the community, students and sta in three separate surve ys as it works to update its strategic plan. The district wants the plan to reflect the community's values and expectations, Benson said.
Of the 392 responses, 47.7% of people were between the ages of 36 and 45, while 32.1% were in the 46-55 age range. About 95% said they live within the school district's boundaries and 87.1% reported they have children attending school in the district.
One question asked respondents to rate the school district 's performance related to its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The question asked, "Over the past two years, our district had many COVID-related decisions to consider and decide upon. While making these decisions we were provided with 'guidance' from federal, state and county agencies ; however, most decisions were left up to each individual school district. Overall, how satisfied are you with district COVID-related decisions?" Benson said at most he hoped for a 50/50 response at best, but was pleasantly surprised that 72.1% reported being satis fied with the district's COVID-related decisions. He was also pleased that 88.6% of survey takers said they were satis fied overall with the district. It was nice to see that even if some people didn't necessarily agree with the COVID-related decisions, they were able to separate that from their overall satisfaction with the education their children are receiving, Benson said.
Also notable was that 92.6% said they were satisfied with the district's content and frequency of communication.
The survey also asked residents to rank their priorities when it comes to possible future Capital Improvement Plan projects and when they should be considered. Out of a list of five, people said (in order of most votes) said the school forest, transportation center, middle school gym, outdoor stadi um and indoor fieldhouse should be considered in the next two-to-two years. In the next three-to-five years, participants said (in order of most votes) middle school gym, transportation center, indoor fieldhouse, school forest and outdoor stadi um should be considered. Benson said there is much work to be done before considering how and when these projects might be proposed.
As far as graduate skills, knowledge and attributes important to student success, Benson rounded up the most talked about qualities. Those listed were communication skills, critical thinking and problem solving, personal finance and budgeting, resiliency and the ability to navigate challenges, work ethic, kindness, empathy, respect and appreciation for diverse populations/cultures, character traits, global/cultural literacy, core academics and a well-rounded education. The resoundin g theme Benson saw stressed was people want students to be resilient and able to navigate challenges.
The number one district strength heralded was its high-quality faculty and sta who are professional, knowled geable, caring and passionate, Benson recounted. Other key strengths listed were strong academic and co-curricular programs, variety of courses/programs, character education, communication, music/arts, pride/support from the community, and course options and partnerships with higher education institutions.
Opportunities for improvement survey takers identified were more mental health support for students and sta, more remedial support for those who struggle academically; an emphasis on cultural competence, with respect for diversity, equity, empathy, inclusion and connectedness; more emphasis on college, career and life skills, including vocational skills, personal finance, and independent living skills; and a balance of academics and co-curricular opportunities.
These survey results, along with results from student and sta surveys, will be shared and used to identify future strategic priorities in the district, Benson said.
RFHS alumna Grace Redmond said she never thought she'd be returning to her school to defend the theater program and its choice of "Sweeney Todd," the high school version. District administrators decided to axe the fall musical choice, forcing the program to find another selection more suitable for a wider audience.
The theater program has grown from 30 students to more than 100, under the leadership of Director Kim Miller, Redmond said. It's also grown from a $700 budget (from community theater leftovers) to having more than $50,000 in its bank account.
She accused Benson of not taking the time to learn more about the impactful theater program and scolded him for not returning her emails.
"As Benson has cowered in the corner not replying to emails and dodging phone calls, this group of angry and frustrated students continues to grow," Redmond said.
She called out the Star-Observer article for not mentioning that the play is the high school version.
"There's no killing, grinding or cutting that happens onsta ge," she said. "It is all implied and shown symbolically." She also called on the board to revise its policy, created in 1991, related to theater program choice approvals.
"Theater and content in schools has changed and this polic y should reflect those changes," Redmond said. "This was all revised before the musical and mot of the department we know today even existed." She closed by crediting Miller for growing the theater program, helping students find themselves, and enriching those around her with positivity.
"Kim Miller knows what's best for the theater program, not some people who don't even bother to attend the shows," Redmond said. "I hope this speech made you feel uncomforta ble because then maybe you will start to understand why it's such a big deal." Board President Stacy Johnson Myers told Redmond that the board values looking at issues in their complexity.
"We understand a variety of points of view and I think that there are many things that would be additional perspectives that would be worth considering," she said.
Retired English teacher and Pentimento advisor Jean Walter also defended Miller's choice.
"Nine years ago there was not much to it (the theater program) and I think you need to understand that," Walter said. "I don't think her intention was to violate the policy. She was never informed of the policy. It's hard to violate a policy you don't know exists." An RFHS senior stepped to the mic to ask the board to consider a policy in which school counselors are not allowed to "out" LGBTQ+ children to their parents without their consent. She recounted a recent incident at Meyer Middle School when a trans-gender student went to counselors about bullying issues. The counselor outed the student to their parents, potentially creating an unsafe environment at home. The student should decide whether to out themselves or not, the senior said, because some parents are homophobic.
"I understand that we can't go full-force into teaching LGBTQ+ health, because that will create tension and anger within the city, but what we can do is not allow the school to out their children." Personnel report
• The board approved the following personnel changes:
• Hiring Jordan Livingood as a full-time long-term first grade substitute teacher at Westside, eective March 28 through the end of the school year (for Rebecca Pelton).
• Hiring Allison Olson as a full-time long-term substitute Kindergarten teacher at Greenwood eective April 11, 2022 through the end of the school year (for Katlin Ruble).
• Hiring Spencer Roglinger as 1.0 FTE science teacher at River Falls High School eective Aug. 16, 2022 (replaces Jacob Langer). Rohlinger earned her bachelor's degree from UW-Eau Claire and her master's degree from Saint Mary's University of Minnesota. She has eight years of teaching experience (Hudson and Baraboo).
• Hiring Suzannah Esteb as 1.0 FTE special education teacher , learning disabilities at Meyer Middle School eective Aug. 16, 2022 (replaces Becky Behrends). Esteb earned her bachelor's degree from UW-Eau Claire.
• Hiring Brenna O'Connor as 1.0 FTE English Language Arts teacher at MMS eective Aug. 16, 2022 (replaces Nick Stenske). O'Connor earned her bachelor's and master 's degrees from UW-River Falls. She has 19 years of experience (St. Bridget and Globe University).
• Hiring Lindsay McLain as 1.0 FTE eighth grade math teacher at MMS eective Aug. 16, 2022 (replaces Randy Goss). McLain earned her bachelor's degree from UWEau Claire and has 11 years of experience (Baldwin).
• Recommended approval of the hiring of the following short-term, on call substitute teachers: Marissa Metzler, Judy Brock, Kathleen Drecktrah, Conrad Schnell, Jordan Sabelko, Erick Wild.
• Resignation of Cade Lambrecht as full-time MMS social studies teacher at the end of the 2021-22 year.
• Resignation of Michelle Nyseth as full-time virtual teacher at River Falls Virtual School eective the end of the 202122 year.
• Resignation of Katie Purington as full-time upper elementar y teacher at River Falls Public Montessori Elementary School eective the end of the 2021-22 year.
• Resignation of Jackie Steinho as full-time Director of Student Services at District Administrative Ovce eective June 30, 2022. Steinho will retire after 17 years of service with the district.
• The board approved replacement of two roof sections at RFHS totaling $528,000. These are the last two sections needing replacement. Jackson & Associates will complete the job.
• Food Service Director Pat Knox gave an update on positive changes with the district's meal program.
• Amy Halvorson, who chose not to seek re-election to the school board after six years of service, received a Wildcat Pride Award. Johnson Myers credited her hard work ethic as instrumental in her work on the facilities and referend um committees. She has also been a champion for the Renaissance Academy and Community Education.
• River Falls American Legion Adjutant Jim Miller and Commander Missy Hildebrandt awarded Benson and Principal Mark Chapin with certificates of appreciation for facilitating a brainstorming session for creating the Legion's vision and mission statements and strategic plan.