Rushford-Peterson School District administration made a recommendation at the March 19 meeting that the school board approve the hire of a business instructor for the open position, leaving one full-time instructor in the ag/industrial tech department for the 2018-2019 school year. The concerns come on the heels of the district’s February decision to not renew the contract of Ag Instructor Heide Dudley. Administration recommended the hire of Joel Hinke as a part of the consent agenda, but the hire was pulled from the agenda for special consideration.
A petition with more than 50 signatures urged the district to maintain two full-time ag instructors. “This is unacceptable for our district and community,” the petition read. “Please continue to support agriculture and industrial technology in our school and community.”
At the meeting, just shy of two dozen residents came in support of the retention of two full-time agriculture instructors, with six addressing the board directly. “We’re here to address changes in staffing in the agriculture and industrial technology department,” began R-P graduate, parent, and Future Farmers of America (FFA) Alumni Tony Heiden.
“Do you know that more students have competed in state and national competitions for R-P in FFA than any other activity here at this school? Did you know that agriculture is the number one industry in Minnesota? Did you know that 25% of Minnesota’s workforce is tied to ag?” asked Heiden. “I am not against a business program at R-P, but not at the expense of the ag/industrial tech program. The administration clearly does not feel the importance of or understand that this is largely an agricultural community. Actions speak volumes.”
Heiden went on to discuss Minnesota Department of Education rules specifying a teacher with an agriculture licensure can teach ag, industrial tech, business, and science classes. However, a teacher with only a business license cannot teach agriculture or industrial tech classes. “Why limit our options as a district on what classes can be taught?” asked Heiden. An inquiry was made to the Minnesota Department of Education regarding teaching license restrictions, but an answer was not received at the time of this publication.
Also a concern was the lack of availability for students to enroll in an agriculture class. Per FFA rules, students must enroll in at least one agriculture class each year. Heiden encouraged the district to maintain two full-time agriculture teachers, building up the program through a wide array of class offerings. “Let’s not reduce the opportunities for our kids, but expand the possibilities for their futures.”
“I am very disappointed in the district decision to hire a business teacher to replace an agriculture teacher and FFA Advisor,” added resident Doug Lind. “I had a very good discussion with Mr. Ehler prior to the interview process and we both agreed when I said we are doing a huge disservice to students to encourage them all to seek a four-year degree and should be encouraging more of them to attend a vocational program. To prepare students for a vocational program we have had a very good offering of classes to introduce them to what is available. The only way to continue to offer the same classes and with the same frequency at which they are offered is with an agricultural education teacher.”
“Living in a rural school district and relying on agriculture or ag related businesses for a huge portion of our tax revenue and then turn around and cut the program in half is a real slap in the face,” added Lind. “However, there is good news. The school board can vote to not approve the business position offered and hire an agriculture education teacher to replace the one that has left the district.”
“The ag program is an asset,” echoed Peterson farmer Steven Highum. “It’s the most diversified area. Skills that come from an ag sector will be with them for a lifetime.” Highum suggested the district form and advisory committee of interested citizens. He also noted frustration in seeing FFA plaques listed for free on a Darr Auction. “Are they not the same value?”
R-P graduate and community member Lakyn Lind added further concerns about the teaching limitations of a business licensed teacher rather than one licensed in agriculture education. “Under the Ag Ed license one can teach Ag Business or Ag Economics. Do the principles of business and economics change whether a Business Ed major teaches them or an Ag Ed major teaches them? No, the principles are identical. I don’t fully understand why we would hire a person with a Business Ed degree and a limited teaching portfolio instead of hiring a person with an Ag Ed degree that can teach all of the same business classes that a business degree can teach, as well as hundreds more.”
“There are many kids within our district who have grown up on, worked on or simply have had a desire to be a part of the agriculture industry,” continued Lind. “They see the opportunity for them to be successful and enjoy the various skilled labor and trade type jobs out there. By hiring someone with a very limited teaching degree, such as business, that significantly decreases the amount of potential required and/or elective classes that can be offered. It seems to me we are trying to push agriculture out of our schools and I just ask that you, as a school board, think hard about if we are making the right decision here.”
Forty-year Rushford businessman Mike Hammell, of Hammell Equipment, also vented his frustrations with the recommendation. “I was quite alarmed about the decision. Ag is the backbone of our community,” he stressed. “There are over 200 ag careers. There is no way in heck we can expose these kids to all these careers. This is not the time to take it down.”
Perhaps the most emotionally-charged comments from the public came from senior and current FFA Chapter President Grace Luhmann, who fervently defended the agriculture program and was in tears during her comments. “It really saddens me to see our ag program get depleted, considering we live in an ag based community. These programs have helped me learn who I am today. Why do we want to take these opportunities away from the future students? We need two teachers. Please save our program,” she pleaded.
Current R-P Agriculture teacher Colby Lind also spoke during the meeting. Lind noted he was hired in 2010 and in the 2011-2012 school year, he absorbed industrial technology classes into his workload. “I was hesitant to come and speak. I feared I would be looked down on by the board or that the board would think I orchestrated this pushback, which I did not. If I didn’t show up, I feared that people would think I don’t have passion for this agriculture,” clarified Lind. He went on to state that reduction of positions in the department will limit course offerings.
Superintendent Chuck Ehler responded to concerns by providing administration rationale for the recommendation. Ehler indicated that in assessing district needs, the hiring of a business teacher will allow the district to shift classes from Mrs. Erin Thompson’s plate and implement the School Within A School program at R-P. “It’s critical to us,” said Ehler. “We lose six students a year.”
The Minnesota School Board Association describes the program as, “A state-approved Alternative Learning Center (ALC) program through which at-risk elementary and middle/junior high students receive services during at least 25% of their school day.” Ehler later clarified that R-P has lost an average of six students each year over the last four years, by them either attending either Houston’s ALC, completing coursework online, or because they drop out. These students receive no instruction from R-P. With the hire of Hinke, these students will be able to remain at R-P for the duration of the day and will be instructed by Mrs. Thompson.
“We’re not advocating eliminating the ag program,” continued Ehler. “We’ve had difficulty. They have not been able to connect to our community,” he added, speaking of other ag teachers previously employed by the district. Ehler indicated that hiring a full-time business position, and in the future, a part-time industrial tech position, Colby Lind will be able to teach all agriculture classes, as well as advise FFA. “We’re fortunate to have a balanced curriculum. There are few schools that have all the courses for a vocational degree.”
“I hope we can expand our programs and maintain the ag program,” added Ehler. “The rationale is very solid.” Along with bringing the School Within a School instruction to the district, Ehler hopes to expand the program with business and ag working together, and maintaining and eventually enhancing industrial technology program.
“Six students. That’s a number you should put in your head,” cautioned Board Director Dean Mierau, who suggested changes to the ag program could see the district still losing students to open enrollment. “The flexibility of the decision gives the most breath to our students.”
Colby Lind further added that separating out agriculture and industrial technology classes isn’t fair. “At this point, it will cut down on the number of kids that will be able to participate in ag and FFA. We’re very fortunate to have tremendous community support. Any time you go from two to one in a department, changes will happen. Will it be more work for FFA? Absolutely. Will it be a challenge for me to look at what we can offer? That’s a huge challenge for me to look at and make sure we don’t decline. My biggest concern is that it will narrow the scope of our ability to offer certain things.”
Board Director Valerie Howe noted she was in the minority of those in the room, being in business/accounting. “There’s some kids that don’t want ag. I’m also the parent of a special education kid. We need to keep these six kids here.”
“We want what’s right for all of our kids, including those that struggle. We want to serve them and have balance in business and ag. We have the best of both worlds here,” responded Ehler.
High School Principal Jake Timm responded to questions about business offerings and scheduling. According to Timm, the district has struggled to get business-minded students, who didn’t want the agriculture portion, to take classes through the agriculture program. Scheduling students into required classes can be a nightmare and can limit opportunity to find an opening in their day for agriculture or industrial technology classes they want to partake in. “Scheduling can be a beast. Once you get outside our core classes, something always has to give,” said Timm.
Colby Lind echoed these sentiments, noting that his teaching of School to Work program, something he’s not willing to give up, occupies one of his available teaching periods. “It pares my day down to one less class than every other teacher in the building. There are just three classes per day in the ag department. With two ag teachers, that’s three, School to Work, plus four more classes in the ag area.”
A motion to table the hire was put forth by Mierau and seconded by Board Director Joyce Iverson. The motion failed in a vote. Director Jon Pettit then motioned to approve the hire and the motion was seconded by Director Valerie Howe. In a roll call vote, the hire was approved 4:2 with Mierau and Director Julie Koop opposed. Iverson abstained from voting. Discussion of the topic ended more than an hour into the two hour meeting.
In other news, Ehler also discussed results of a March 13 meeting between district and City of Rushford representatives. Ehler indicated the process approved at the district’s February meeting, while not including formal Request for Proposals or Request for Qualifications, will allow for proposals from multiple developers. “There are two known entities, but it’s not limited to that,” stated Ehler.
“We want to work with the city; work with them and the community,” added Board Chairman John Linder.
At the district’s February meeting, Director Mierau indicated the Facilities Committee should have been “in the loop,” but was told there hadn’t been a loop to be in. “We hear that they’ve [City of Rushford] been working on this for a year and a half; that there’s been a gazillion phone calls and meetings. That’s concerning,” said Mierau.
“There was nothing that formally came out of these things,” responded Ehler. Architect David Kane, with whom the district is working, is expected to disperse information at the end of the month. Developers will have 30 days to submit their plans, after which the district will listen to vision plans and form a timeline for any redevelopment.
“The more people coming out of the woodwork, the better,” added Linder, before proceeding with the rest of the agenda.
Review and approval of Superintendent Ehler’s contract was also discussed. The contract was approved with just over a 2% pay increase. “Thank you for allowing me to finish my educational experience here at R-P,” stated Ehler.
The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is Monday, April 16, at 5:30 p.m., in the Forum Room. The public is encouraged to attend.