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School district unveils its back-to-school plan

The Rapid City Area Schools Board of Education saw a draft of the full back-to-school plan in a study session Thursday night. The board will formally vote on the plan in a special meeting Tuesday night, nearly a month before school will begin Sept. 8.

Debate and discussion ensued among the board Thursday night about whether they will vote to require masks, purchase cameras for classrooms, provide enough internet access to students and other viral topics during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to provide a ‘normal’ start for the 2020-2021 school year for students, staff and families to the safest extent possible for in-class delivery of instruction,” Superintendent Lori Simon said. “The academic, physical, social-emotional well-being of our students and the health and safety of our staff and families are of utmost importance to us.”

Simon said she took notes on the board members’ questions and discussions and would be bringing their ideas and revisions to the senior leadership team (SLT) for consideration in the days leading up to the vote.

Simon also said she anticipated the SLT will break down pieces of the plan into action items for Tuesday night that the board can vote on individually before the board votes on the overall plan.

The plan

The plan is broken up into three levels according to varying levels of community spread, confirmed cases in a school and the spread of COVID-19 within the schools.

A Level 1 status means that COVID-19 cases in Pennington County are increasing by less than 50% from the two weeks prior, according to state Department of Health figures. At this level, there is low or mild community spread, and no confirmed cases in any of the schools.

If the schools are at Level 2, the COVID-19 cases in the county are increasing by more than 50% from the previous two weeks. At this level, there is moderate community spread, and there are confirmed cases in schools.

If the district moves to Level 3, there would be substantial spread of the coronavirus in both the community and in schools. At this level, COVID-19 cases in Pennington County are also doubling every two weeks from the prior two weeks.

At both Levels 1 and 2, schools are open but the second level denotes increased precautions. At Level 3, schools will close completely and move to off-campus learning. After a 14-day quarantine, schools could return to Level 2 after the district consults with the DOH.

Simon said Thursday night that she believes the schools will have to open in Level 2, considering the current trajectory of Pennington County cases and the amount of COVID-19 cases the area might experience after large events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

The plan states that positive cases and exposure will be monitored by the DOH on a daily basis. If there’s a positive case in a school, a general message would be sent to families in that school building.

Instruction at all levels will include daily pacing, deadlines and daily routines and schedules. Those enrolled in off-campus learning would participate in a real-time daily schedule with their teachers and classmates via technology.

Mark Gabrylczyk, assistant superintendent, said the $1.3 million Swivl technology the district is considering would allow staff to offer live daytime instruction to students.

Lisa Hafer, director of special services, said special education staff will reach out to families to review and revise the Individual Education Plans as needed.

Mask plan

In a staff survey with 1,167 respondents, 25% said it would be “very important” to require masks for all students. Another 21% of staff said it would be “important” to require masks. A family survey saw the same percentages for those questions.

In the plan, masks are required at all levels for all staff and students with some caveats.

At Level 1, students are required to have a mask on their person and will be required to wear them as instructed by staff and in scenarios where six-foot social distancing cannot be maintained. Staff are also required to wear masks at all levels of the plan, where social distancing isn’t possible, and when working with sick individuals.

At Level 2, mask precautions increase. Students will be required to wear them outside of classrooms and in close proximity — less than six feet apart for more than 15 minutes.

Health screenings and temperature checks also need to be completed at home and those with temperatures of 100 or greater shouldn’t report to work or school.

If a staff member observes any signs of illness in students, they may send them to a nurse’s office. Students with temperatures over 100 must isolate until their parent, guardian or emergency contact can take them home.

When asked about what staff will do if a student doesn’t comply with mask requirements, Gabrylczyk said it’s important to see how the board feels about the issue of governance in this situation, and said the student’s noncompliance would make a good teaching moment.

“We can’t punish kids because of not wearing a mask,” Gabrylczyk said Thursday night. “We need to be able to teach kids about why we’re wearing a mask. That’s going to rely on all of us, from the board level to the superintendent level, to administration and teachers. We should use it as a teaching moment, not a moment of consequence.”

Gabrylcyzk said the next step would be to contact a student’s parents to talk with them about the mask.

“Parents have to be involved in this so that we have an understanding,” he said. The district needs to “be able to answer questions that may arise in those particular kinds of conversations.”

Board member Matt Stephens said he thinks students will be able to understand the mask issue, for the most part, and he doesn’t anticipate any problems with compliance.

“The only ones who won’t get this are the ones who are being sabotaged at home with this idea of surrendering our freedoms with these masks,” he said Thursday night. “Just like our administrators in our buildings tell a kid to remove their baseball cap, any clothing requirement like that, they’ll do the same thing.”

Off-campus learning

Superintendent Lori Simon said 35% of elementary school students, 30% of middle school students and 40% of high school students did not engage in remote learning this spring. The district previously estimated 25% of students hadn't participated.

The statistics back up Gov. Kristi Noem’s estimate on Tuesday that as many as 30% of students across the state weren’t engaged in learning when schools closed in spring.

Sue Podoll, a teacher in the district and president of the Rapid City Education Association, said student disengagement this spring is due in part to the pass-fail grades in the final quarter, as well as the lack of access to internet and technology for many students.

“Once kids and families were aware that it was pass-fail and that nobody was going to fail, I think to teachers, anyone I talked to said that’s where they started losing kids,” Podoll said. “Going forward, it all counts. Truly last spring, that was crisis education.”

Simon also shared data on Thursday night that showed anywhere from 64% to 80% of students and families were concerned about the student’s learning and their social-emotional well-being during remote learning.

Andrew Hays, a math teacher at Canyon Lake Elementary, said going back into classrooms will revive students’ social-emotional health. The return of the informal morning meetings he holds in his classroom each day will help kids connect again, he said.

Students’ social-emotional health is “occupying a huge part of our brains as teachers,” Hays said. The morning meetings helped build community even over Zoom this spring, he added.

“There are ways you can continue to build community and check in with kids,” he said.

In a parent/guardian survey with 4,896 participants across the district, 18% of respondents at the elementary level wanted an off-campus option for their students and 20% of middle and high school families wanted to learn off-campus, too.

Simon estimated that this means 2,800 students will be learning off-campus in the fall.

Five percent of families also have no internet access, the survey found. But Simon said Thursday night that she suspects that number is actually higher.

Katy Urban, district spokeswoman, said neither Midco nor Vast is still providing free internet access to RCAS students, but that they’re both participating in a federal lifeline program that will give qualifying families internet access for less than $6 per month through a link she provided.

Urban said the district hasn’t decided at this point whether they will require families to demonstrate that they have a stable internet connection in order to do off-campus learning.

Simon said there’s communication with Gov. Noem’s office on an effort to provide free internet to families who qualify across the state, but said Thursday night that she hasn’t heard back yet.

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Jackpine Gypsies fight annexation effort
Jackpine Gypsies, Sturgis city government at odds over club's property

The Jackpine Gyspsies Motorcycle Club says it could be looking at the finish line on Tuesday when Sturgis voters decide if they want to back a Sturgis City Council decision to annex its property.

The club is part of the town's legacy — it is the site where the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally began in 1938 as the Black Hills Motor Classic.

Club Chairman Brett Winsell said the club's future will be endangered if the property is annexed and subjected to city conditions to continue operating.

“I guess the main thing we have to do, we just need to keep trying to tell the truth, tell people where we’re at, make people aware of why we don’t want to be annexed,” he said.

The Jackpine Gypsies regularly hold MotoX racing, Flat Track Racing, Hare Scrambles, Four Wheeler Races, Dirt Drags and Lawn Mower Races and host Hills Climbs, Xtreme Flat Track and Motocross during the annual motorcycle rally, which brings hundreds of thousands of visitors every year to Sturgis.

“While the rally has definitely changed into something that’s not our vision of the rally or what it’s become, this is the purity of where the rally began,” Winsell said. “By losing this place, you really lose what Sturgis has hung its hat on, its bread and butter. It’s the fabric of most of the people who live here.”

The Sturgis City Council voted 7-1 for annexation at its June 1 meeting, with Rhea Crane voting nay and Ron Waterland abstaining. He was the Jackpine Gyspsies board chairman in 2003.

Winsell said he and other club members received plenty of support when they collected the more than 200 signatures required to put the measure on the city ballot.

“We’ve been door to door, we already knew we’d have the votes,” he said this week. “We told them we already have the signatures and this is something you won’t win because most of the citizens don’t think this is right.”

In January, the Sturgis city attorney signed an annexation study for the Jackpine Gypsies property. It outlines Sturgis’ growth potential, the need for financial equity and the annexation process.

The study mostly discusses development and housing and how that would be necessary for Sturgis as it continues to grow.

Winsell said, however, the Gypsies have no plans for further development or for housing nor do their neighbors.

Winsell said under the city’s annexation plan it’s likely there will be ordinances put in place that would change how the Gypsies operate, which could create problems for the motorcycle club.

“When we look at the stipulations and things that they want us to follow, I don’t know if we can make it more than a year or two,” he said.

Sturgis City Manager Daniel Ainslie said the city has no plans to change the Gypsies operation as a race track nor could they make them develop or add housing since the property still belongs to the club.

He also said the annexation study was done for several different properties and the one done for the Gypsies was tailored for them.

At the same time the Gypsies' property was under consideration for annexation, so was the Murray Properties.

“Growth means additional land properties to build housing on, but not all new areas annexed would have to be built as housing,” Ainslie said.

He said the city wants to annex the properties so the Gypsies pay for city services they receive like water, sewer, public safety and maintenance on Moose Drive. He noted that the city has completed 22 annexations over the past six years. These properties also received municipal services, were adjacent to city limits and didn’t pay for services through the mill levy, the primary funding for public safety and road maintenance.

The annexations have increased the city’s assessed property value by 3.5% — that percentage is the amount of property taxes the city now receives from those properties, which is about $98,695.66 based on what was budgeted for 2020.

Winsell said, however, it’s not about property taxes, which would increase by about $2,500 annually — the club currently pays $4,800 in county and school district taxes.

“If it’s really about an extra $2,500, we’ll pay it,” he said. “That really was not a big deal. One of our main offers and still to this day one of our standing offers is if the city can come up with any city service that is not being paid for, we would pay any reasonable fee for any city service.”

Winsell said the city turned the offer down.

He also said the club offered to disconnect from city services like water and sewer at their own expense since they have access to something similar to a municipal well and a septic system.

During the rally and other events, Winsell said the club already pays to have EMS services on standby. He said they’ve frequently used ambulances from Spearfish.

Winsell said the only reason the club received the water and sewer services is because of an agreement made in 2003 when the club gave property to the city in order to build the Interstate 90 service road, known as Moose Drive.

The agreement states the city proposed the development of the road and would give the club $10,000, move the short track, pay damages and reimburse the club for having to relocate the sound system, among other things.

Winsell said the city never completed work on the short track, so the club had to finish it itself and pay for it.

He also said there was a verbal agreement between the club and the city that the property wouldn’t be annexed. 

Ainslie said agreements need to be written, so whatever was said doesn’t necessarily bind the city.

Winsell said the Agreement to Convey Property and its attachments were given to the club by the city attorney at the time. Ainslie said the city doesn’t have a copy of the agreement.

Ainslie said if the Tuesday election comes up on the city’s side, the Gypsies would start paying the municipal mill levy and collecting sales tax as of the fourth quarter.

If the voters reject annexation, the Gypsies would remain outside city limits.

Ainslie said annexation after that may be possible if it were a voluntary annexation or the city would have to wait a year or so to try the forced annexation again.

Although Winsell said he feels good about the club’s chances of not being annexed, he still has his concerns.

“Really we just want to be left alone,” he said. “We don’t want to be a burden on the city whatsoever — we don’t think that we are, we think that we give more than we’ve ever taken from the city. … We don’t want to go away. We want to keep doing what we’re doing, we want to keep providing this opportunity for the public, for the kids.”

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Sturgis Community Center. Only registered voters within Sturgis city limits can vote.

There has also been absentee voting available for city residents at City Hall. City Finance Officer Fay Bueno said she's received 552 absentee ballots for the election as of 4:30 p.m. Thursday.

According to Facebook comments from the city on a July 20 post, applications for absentee ballots were sent to all registered voters in the city limits.

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Retired florist sees more light through painting

Wally Evans chuckles when he says learning to paint makes him forget his age.

“It’s fun. It’s wonderful,” the 81-year-old said recently. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

As a gift last Christmas, his son, David, and daughter-in-law, Julie, hired retired art teacher Shellie Leonard to give Wally painting lessons. Realizing his artistic dream, however, is complicated. Wally has had age-related macular degeneration for about 20 years.

Wally and his wife, Judy, owned Flowers by Leroy in Rapid City for 24 years, where the couple and their staff designed floral arrangements for clients in South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska. Wally designed window displays for the shop, as well.

“I loved what I did. We had a wonderful business,” Wally said. “I still miss a lot of things with the industry. We got to know a lot of people through the flower shop. My wife and I both often mention customers and how we miss them.”

Wally’s changing eyesight, particularly the loss of his ability to see colors accurately, sidelined his career. The Evanses retired in 2006. Under the care of Dr. Prema Abraham at Black Hills Eye Institute, Judy said treatments have been able to restore some of Wally’s ability to see colors.

What Wally never lost was his appreciation for beauty and his creativity.

“I had always wanted to paint and then with my vision being what it is my wife encouraged me to pursue it,” he said. “I started doing sketches which I loved doing, and Shellie has encouraged me to move into doing oils. I’m still learning a lot every day. This is a new opportunity.”

Leonard said she taught a number of students who had disabilities during her 25-year career at Rapid City Stevens High School. Teaching anyone with vision or other disabilities engages all the senses in the learning process, she said.

“We started out by drawing … and I got a feeling for what Wally hoped to do with his training. He wanted to put his memories on canvas,” Leonard said. “I taught him about the supplies, I taught him the elements of art and principles of design, which he catches onto very quickly.”

Leonard has encouraged Wally to work on less detailed sketches. He is now progressing from sketching to oil paintings.

“Oil paints are very forgiving and he can move them around. It’s like painting with butter, so if he’s not happy with something, he can scrape it off and start again,” Leonard said.

Wally’s creative process requires ingenuity, along with artistic skill.

“The other day we were out painting on location. I couldn’t see the subject we were there to paint and from the angle we wanted to paint, so my wife took pictures and she ran home and printed them in color, a full-page size. With a magnifying glass and colored photo and looking as the light changed, I was able to see more,” he said.

Wally takes inspiration from French impressionist Claude Monet who suffered from vision problems. Monet is believed to have had cataracts and as his vision decreased his paintings became more abstract.

“Monet has always been my favorite artist. His paintings are not real detailed and it allows more freedom,” he said. “We took our family to Giverny, France, and took them to Monet’s home studio and gardens. I have a wonderful picture of Judy and I there.”

Wally admires Vincent Van Gogh’s work, as well, and influences from both artists might show up in his paintings.

“Wally has his own style,” Leonard said. “He enjoys Monet. He enjoys Van Gogh. He can do the brush stroke of a Van Gogh and the light of a Monet, but the painting in the end is going to be a Wally.”

Wally has a lifelong love of gardening and, like Monet and Van Gogh, Wally likes plein air (outdoor) painting. Fortunately, the fields near his home at Hart Ranch make ideal locations for painting.

He also loves architecture. An especially heartfelt project has been sketching from a photo of the Evans family church in Wales, he said. The church dates back to the 1200s. Wally and Judy celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary by taking their children and grandchildren to see it.

“Wally has lived a very storied life and when he tells his stories, there’s always something or someone that’s beautiful and so he has this vision in his mind," Leonard said. "As a teacher, I want to give him the confidence he needs to put that vision on canvas.”

Judy hopes one day to have a framed painting by her husband on display in their home.

“For a man who created such beauty for the people of Rapid City, it’s fun for him to find beauty in a paintbrush,” Judy said. 

“I’m thrilled to see what he has done. It’s very exciting,” she said. “This is the beginning of an adventure. It’s going to be fun to see where it takes him.”

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Former Pennington County Commissioner George Ferebee dies

Former Pennington County Commissioner George Ferebee died Thursday.

He was 80.

Ferebee, a rancher from near Hill City, was a vocal and active member of the Republican party and later the Constitution party in Pennington County and South Dakota. He unsuccessfully ran for the state Legislature in 2010 and 2012, but remained active in Pennington County politics.

Tonchi Weaver of South Dakota Citizens for Liberty said Friday that Ferebee was a personal friend, political ally and freedom fighter.

"He understood what our guarantees are under the Constitution and often took a stance that seemed like it was a no-win situation, such as grandfathering laws, but he knew that if somebody didn't stand in the breech, we would all be run over," Weaver said to the Journal. "He was a patriot. He served his country. He loved his country."

In 2013, Ferebee was a vocal critic of the Spring Creek Advisory Committee, which was formed by Pennington County to help restore Spring Creek. Ferebee believed the project was a waste of federal tax dollars.

As a member of a conservative group self-described as "The Wingnuts," Ferebee successfully ran for the Pennington County Commission District 1 seat in 2014.

Ferebee pledged to "get the government off of our backs and out of our pockets," and fight "over-regulation, overtaxing and overspending."

While on the county commission, he voted to pull funding from the local chamber and economic development partnership, opposed any county wheel tax proposal and frequently decried what he saw as government overreach in Pennington County septic system regulation.

"He would put himself at risk to point out that there was an injustice and stand there and take the hits for it," Weaver said.

Ferebee was often critical of the Pennington County Commission and was also the subject of criticism to his tactics — specifically over the septic system regulations.

In 2015, the Pennington County State's Attorney's Office filed a complaint against Ferebee in magistrate court, charging that he violated county law by failing to obtain a permit for his own septic system. The case lingered through 2019, when a retrial was granted and Ferebee was again found guilty.

Ferebee was defeated in a re-election bid for the Pennington County Commission in 2018 and continued to serve the remainder of his term, even after the Pennington County Commission voted 3-1 to send a letter to Ferebee requesting his resignation.

During his tenure on the Pennington County Commission but after his election defeat, Ferebee remained active in his quest to fight septic system regulations. In 2018, Ferebee successfully petitioned the West Dakota Water Development District to commit public funding to oppose regulation of septic systems.

Weaver said Ferebee would defend and fight for what he felt was right and would do anything for others when he saw an injustice.

"I can't say enough about the fact that he inspired others to stand up when you feel there is an injustice, you have to stand," Weaver said. "Sometimes you stand alone and George was never afraid to do that."

Funeral arrangements for Ferebee are pending.