Citizens critical of the Rapid City Area Schools’ Board of Education and the District’s operations made their voices heard during public comment at Monday night’s regular Board meeting.
The Board also completed its official canvass of the June 8 election and certified the election results. After a request by Tonchi Weaver that the Board members running for re-election not participate in the canvass, only those members not involved in the election certified the votes. The four new board members will be sworn in at the July 26 meeting.
After the regular public comment portion, the Board held an open public hearing on the District’s proposed 2021-22 budget.
Jordan Mason, a former city councilman, commented on the District’s lack of a bidding process for professional services. The District did not put out a bid for a $50,000 consulting contract with Aspen International Group, which RCAS Superintendent Lori Simon said did not need to be bid out. The consulting contract is intended to support the Board in their implementation of a coherent policy and governance model, Simon said.
“The fundamental reason [for bidding] in its historical legal basis is to get three competitive bids so it encourages competition, encourages people to get a higher quality at a lower rate, right, and that’s the whole point. So it is disturbing to me to hear that that didn’t go out for bid,” Mason, who helped fund incoming Area 2 representative Breanna Funke’s campaign, said.
Kristin Mitzel had concerns about taking a “substantial leap” with the contract, which the District has proposed using ESSER funds to pay for, right before new Board members are elected.
“It’s concerning that we are spending that amount of money to formulate a new set of rules when we seem to struggle to follow the rules that we currently have,” she said.
Area 6 representative Amy Policky explained that the work of a school district does not stop and start with elections.
“Just because there’s an election… doesn’t mean that the school board stops and waits for that board to be set. This work has been going on for three years, and what we determined as a board was that consultants were needed to help us to implement the work that we had been doing, so it was an ongoing process,” Policky said.
Jodi Frye requested full copies of the Aspen contract. RCAS Business and Support Services Director Coy Sasse said he would consult with the District’s legal counsel on whether he could provide that.
Other members of the public such as Florence Thompson had concerns about the perceived excess of funds spent on administrative salaries. Salaries for District employees make up 85% of the District’s budget.
“I’m concerned with the growth of FTEs and government. I think that the Rapid City District is very top heavy as far as administration. These are very expensive positions, and they seem to just grow and grow. I think that’s something that needs to be looked at. I’d like to see in our budget that that is clarified so that people can see how much is being spent for administration versus for teaching positions,” Thompson said.
Thompson also said she was concerned about money spent on “social engineering programs” rather than academics and the addition of more school counselors, which she said are being used to “usurp” parents’ authority.
Sasse said the District approved “very little” additional personnel requests this school year due to the District’s financial situation. Additional health care personnel were hired this year to ensure every school building had at least one full-time health care personnel, Simon said.
During regular public comment some brought concerns that there are teachers in the school system encouraging students not to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning.
“If teachers have that personal belief, they should keep their mouths shut and let their kids celebrate the flag and salute the flag,” Thompson said.
Eduardo Manzano said he heard that teachers were supporting “radical anti-American” sentiment during the school day. He was also concerned about the recent $1 million grant that Black Hills Special Services Cooperative was awarded to fund its after school program at South Middle School, saying the funds may be used to indoctrinate and “harm the minds of young children.”
“It’s obvious to me that some of the schools of our city, our young people, our children, our grandchildren, are not being taught to love our country and appreciate the greatness of our people and history, but rather to despise our Constitution and hate our founders, and to instead look at themselves as victims of systemic oppression,” he said.
Simon responded to the allegations during her report, telling people to report specific examples to the school’s principal when they hear something like that is occurring.
Simon said the claim that the District is teaching its students to hate America is “absolutely untrue.”
“Our [schools] take pride in teaching patriotism and hold wonderful annual events such as on 9/11 when we invite in and celebrate our first responders, and on Veterans Day when we invite veterans in to thank and celebrate them as just a couple examples,” Simon said. “I personally take great pride in attending such events and in our schools’ efforts to teach patriotism and to support our military, our police force, and all our first responders.”
Manzano was also concerned that the Indigenous Education Task Force was promoting segregation of students through the District’s pilot Lakota Immersion Program set to begin at Canyon Lake Elementary in the fall.
“I think this task force needs to make public the sources of their teaching and class materials they will be teaching the children, and any members who support Black Lives Matter or any other radical group should definitely not be on the task force,” he said.
Valeriah Big Eagle, co-facilitator of the task force, said the goal of the immersion program was to address long-standing academic disparities between Indigenous and white students by incorporating Lakota history, language and culture into the classroom.
“This is not only for Indigenous students but other students as well; it’s open to everyone. Learning from another culture only enhances a student and their own academics and achievements,” Big Eagle said.
She continued, saying at a recent focus group meeting with Lakota elders regarding Indigenous education in the District that one 82-year-old elder told her schools need to start teaching history so that the community can heal together.
“Acknowledging that past history does not define us, acknowledging it will make us a better community and to not be divisive as natives and non-natives — we need to come together. This is our community and we want educational opportunities to be equitable among all students, not just only a select few,” she said.