School Board Recap: Board Communication, Digital Hall Pass Discussed

The Board of Education for Lowell Area Schools met for one hour and 22 minutes on Monday night for its regular March meeting. The agenda included three action items and a discussion of board communication, and seven people spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting. All school board members were present except Jessica Curtis.

Reproductive Health Curriculum Approved

Last year, Lowell Area Schools appointed a special committee to review the 5th grade reproductive health curriculum. That committee has met numerous times since last fall and has held two public hearings on proposed changes. A summary of its recommendations was previously provided to the Board of Education, and on Monday, the board unanimously approved the curriculum.

Dan VanderMeulen, director of curriculum, said the curriculum contains information about HIV/AIDS as required by the state. Otherwise, its content is focused on the basics of puberty.

While a summary of changes is not available online, Superintendent Nate Fowler told Lowell’s First Look after the meeting that anyone interested can make an appointment to view the curriculum in the district’s central office. He also noted that male and female students are instructed separately for this curriculum.

Substitute Teacher Resolution Passed

Last year, the Michigan Legislature passed House Bill 4294, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed it into law in December. The bill allows school districts to use existing employees as substitute teachers so long as they possess a high school diploma or its equivalent and their salary is not lowered as a result of their working as a substitute teacher.

Normally, substitute teachers must have at least 60 semester hours of college credit. HB 4294 – now Public Act 149 of 2021 – waives that requirement until June 30, 2022 and is intended to help districts contend with teacher shortages.

“I’m hoping we wouldn’t have to waive this [requirement],” Fowler said, “but this does offer some flexibility.”

The Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution to give the superintendent authority to adjust substitute teaching requirements as allowed by state law. The resolution expires on June 30, at the same time as the law.

School Board Emails and Communications

As a discussion item, it was noted that school board members will now each have their own school-issued email address. Previously, the only way to communicate with board members online was to complete a form on the school’s website, something that has frustrated some parents.

Fowler noted that board members need to be careful not to run afoul of the Open Meetings Act by having discussions or deliberating in emails. He also said that while Board of Education policies encourage open communication by board members, they should remember that President Brian Krajewski is the body’s official spokesperson. If a member expresses an opinion in an email, they should make it clear that it does not represent the opinion of the board as a whole.

Staff Social Media Comments Addressed

Last year, some parents raised concerns about comments made by a Lowell Area Schools teacher in a private Facebook group. During Monday’s meeting, Fowler read a statement about the district’s investigation and action regarding the matter.

The Board of Education held a closed session to consult with legal counsel and discuss how to address parental concerns while also not infringing on the First Amendment rights of staff. After the incident, the district sent two communications to all workers with reminders about expectations for staff behavior. Since that time, no complaints about social media communications have been received.

The issue is now considered closed by the Board of Education.

Concerns Raised About SmartPass App

Lowell Middle School recently installed a SmartPass app on student Chromebooks. The app allows students to request a digital hall pass and then times how long they are out of the classroom.

The app has reportedly been in development for several years but apparently took off during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to limit the number of students in the hallway at any given time. Its features can also be used for contact tracing although it does not use GPS location tracking.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, some people questioned the value of using it at Lowell Middle School. “I can tell you it’s trash,” said resident Carey VanderBoon. She noted that the app had relatively few downloads and low ratings in the app stores.

In the Apple App Store, it has 2.8 stars based on 843 ratings while it has 1.7 stars in the Google Play store based on 53 ratings. However, some reviews don’t appear to be legitimate. A one-star reviewer laments that the app has made his son liberal because bathroom time limits mean “he no longer has enough time to pray and check patriotic news/preach the true values of the Founders and our nation.” Meanwhile, a 5-star review says, “Really came in handy when I needed to use the water fountain on Saturday at 12:30 am.”

Parent Stefanie Boone said she was concerned that SmartPass was an invasion of privacy. “This is a tracking app,” she said.

During his superintendent comments, Fowler said that SmartPass was being used to standardize the hall pass system in the middle school. Previously, teachers used a variety of methods to issue passes, including Google Sheets, pen and paper or no system at all.

He noted that the app is compliant with federal regulations, and the only information it collects is the student name and email address. However, in light of public comments on its use, he would investigate the privacy issues raised.

Public Comments Cover Variety of Issues

In total, seven people spoke during the public comments portion of the evening.

Calvin VanderBoon was the first to speak and asked for an extension of the three-minute limit on public comments. That request was denied, and VanderBoon then asked if the board had reviewed Fowler’s annual performance evaluation in a closed session. There was no answer, and VanderBoon said, “You’re refusing to answer?” Krajewski replied, “This is your public comments.”

VanderBoon then shared his frustration with the difficulty in meeting with board members. He withdrew his children from Lowell Area Schools last year and has been trying to meet with board members to discuss the matter ever since.

While he did meet with three board members and Fowler in February, he has been trying without success to set up a second meeting. During his final comments of the night, board member Dan Stephens asked VanderBoon to stay after the meeting so they could discuss the scheduling difficulties.

In her comments, Lacey Charboneau praised the high school production of The Wizard of Oz and the talented students who participated. She was also thankful for the opportunity to be part of the reproductive health curriculum committee and said it was an extremely well-organized process.

Douglas Lee spoke in opposition to social and emotional learning which he said is just another term for critical race theory. “In reality, diversity terms mean evil white people,” he said. “Instead of equity, we should be teaching equality.”

In addition to her concerns about the SmartPass app, Boone also shared concern that the district had paid more than $100,000 to firms such as Scholastic Magazines, IXL, Kids Read Now and Time For Kids. “These companies are pushing a leftist agenda,” she said.

Boone added that Kids Read Now has paid a lobbying firm in Lansing. However, a review of the organization’s latest federal 990 tax form shows no expenses for lobbying and the organization indicates it does not participate in lobbying.

Another speaker thanked for school district for its focus on mental health. She noted that suicide rates for children ages 10-17 have been increasing and said mental health awareness and services will protect students.

The final speaker, Dusty Hawk, seemed to say the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not what it seems. “The media is lying to us,” he said. “While the world stood with Ukraine, I danced.” He then referenced an apparently secret meeting of bankers held in 1910 but did not clarify how that connected to the situation in Ukraine.

Hawk said he did not have enough time to provide a complete timeline in the three minutes allowed but touched on the Hindenburg disaster and the sinking of the Titanic among other things. He then called out several board members and school staff members by name before wrapping up his comments by saying, “You all had a chance to choose freedom. You all failed.”

Other Meeting Updates

Other information and action from Monday’s meeting included the following:

  • District COVID cases have dropped off significantly with only two reported for March so far.
  • Board members unanimously approved technical corrections to their policies. These corrections include updating names, correcting punctuation and clarifying statutory references.
  • Board member Gary Blough announced he will not seek re-election in the fall. He noted that he had always planned for this term to be his last, and his decision was not influenced by the pandemic.

The meeting adjourned at 8:22pm, and the next regular meeting of the Lowell Area Schools Board of Education will take place on Monday, April 11, at 7pm.

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