The Perham-Dent school district is adding three positions of a social worker, literacy coach and media specialist for the 2021-22 school year.

The social worker is a districtwide position to support student needs with aspects such as homelessness liaisons, training and workshops for school staff, community resource referrals for families and students, a hygiene supply room at each school and mental health assistance.

The literacy coach would work with teachers at the Heart of the Lakes elementary school. The district previously had a literacy collaborative that ended eight to 10 years ago. The schools do have literacy interventionists that work with students individually and in groups.

The media specialist is an elementary school position to include lessons on digital citizenship. The position follows library paraprofessional Mary Stoll who retired after 43 years. The goals of the position also include creating a literacy hub by updating books and broadening the selection of books on more cultures.

“What that does is allow students to be … more critical thinkers, researchers, consumers of information and then using that to be able to respond out and to be able to be more of a global citizen and … knowing their responsibility and their role,” principal Liz Johnson shared with school board members on July 21. The skills will also help students as they transition into middle and high school.

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The positions could be funded through the federal CARES Act and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

Visitors share concerns on COVID-19, ethnicity questions and constitutional rights

Five visitors addressed the board with questions on expectations of the COVID-19 vaccine, masking and quarantines at the school, an ethnicity question on the enrollment form and constitutional rights. The visitors declined to share their names. Visitors shared for 25 minutes.

The visitors started with a clarification on if staff would have to receive the COVID-19 vaccine and how children's education will be possible if quarantines following exposure to a positive case of COVID-19 continues. Staff are not required to be vaccinated though non-vaccinated staff members are recommended to wear a mask, according to Superintendent Mitch Anderson. The district expects local control by the school board on these decisions with guidance from the Minnesota Departments of Health and Education.

The visitors stated the ethnicity questions on the school enrollment form was unnecessary and asked exactly what the information would be used for. The information is used at the state and federal levels to better understand achievement gaps and graduation rates by ethnicity, according to Anderson. One visitor said these are personal, not based on the student’s race or ethnicity.

The questions come as a requirement of a new electronic system all Minnesota districts are required to use, as school business manager Kristi Werner said. The ethnicity and race questions are not new on the enrollment form. Additional questions beneath each question were added. Two visitors said filling out the questions are something they do not want to do and thus against the Constitution. The visitors also did not agree with another person filling out the questions.

The questions do not impact the district’s funding. The district does receive funds based on the number of reduced priced meals and for Native American students and English as a second language learners programming. The district receives 85% of their aid from the state and 10-15% from local and federal levels, according to Anderson.

The required race and ethnicity information also concerned the visitors with discussions on critical race theory happening across the United States. This is not included in the social studies curriculum though the state Department of Education is considering the addition of ethnic studies.

One visitor discussed the 9th and 10th Amendments specifically and questioned if and how civics are taught in the school district. High school principal Ehren Zimmerman said civics is taught as part of the standards. Visitors said the school board needs to make their own decisions.

“When you talked about local authority, I was all thumbs up but it seems like you guys are waiting to hear from on high from either the state or the federal government to dictate to you what you’re going to do with this ethnic thing or masking or the jab,” one visitor stated. “Don’t you realize that government is best locally? That you as a school board have more power than they do in the federal government? That you need to stand up to the federal government and say, ‘No, we have authority over our community, not the federal government?”

Another visitor referenced the Alexandria school board’s approval of the reopening plan for the school year, which includes not requiring masks, the COVID-19 vaccine, social distancing or quarantines. The plan can be updated based on state and federal guidance.

School board member Sue Von Ruden and Anderson encouraged visitors to connect with their representatives. One visitor said representatives are no longer representing the people.

In other action

Other business discussed by the board:

  • Enrollment at the elementary school has “bumped back,” as Johnson said. There are 100 students registered for kindergarten with six sections for kindergarten, first grade and third grade. Second grade has seven sections and fourth grade five sections. Preschool is also full. Though the enrollment numbers are lower for first grade than other grades, according to Johnson.

  • Seventh and eighth graders will have seven period days. Students in ninth and tenth grades will return to a schedule of six classes per day and eleventh and twelfth graders with five classes.

  • Approved a $250 donation in memory of Martha Sundberg Buchholz.

  • Approved the purchase of a used John Deere tractor/lawn mower for approximately $40,000.

  • Approved renewing a contract between Accurate Home Care, LLC and the district for a student.

  • Approved the long-term facilities maintenance plan for the next 10 years. The district submits a plan each July.

  • Approved cable updates and upgrades with Otter Tail Power Company for locations between the Perham Area Community Center and Kids Adventure Preschool.

  • Approved the purchase agreement with Productive Alternatives for the old Family Resource Center. The non-profit supports adults with disabilities in finding jobs. Productive Alternatives will begin work on the building soon.

  • Approved removing the school district’s seat from the PACC board of directors. The district’s goal is to be only a tenant of the PACC, as Anderson said. The district will be invited for school-related items, though one has not been on the PACC meeting agenda for over a year. The board also approved a lease agreement with the PACC for gym and pool services, which are at a discounted rate. The hourly rates will remain the same for the next two years and then increase $15 per hour in the third and fourth years.

  • A planning session on district facilities will be on Aug. 4 at 3:30 p.m. in the media center.

  • The August school board meeting is on Aug. 11 at 5 p.m. in the media center.