Bullying, student progress hot topics at Cassopolis Board of Education meeting

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, June 28, 2023

CASSOPOLIS — The Cassopolis Board of Education met for their final meeting of the school year at Cassopolis High School on Monday, June 19. They reviewed and approved a number of budgetary concerns, as well as a variety of business items to plan for the upcoming school year.

After opening presentations by Geri Vlasicak on the final budget for the 2022-2023 and the preliminary budget for 2023-2024, the board approved both items. Also approved were preliminary budgets for the Debt Service Fund, the Sinking Fund, the Food Service Fund, and the Special Revenue Fund. During the presentations, Vlasicak noted that costs were expected to continue to rise, with increasing staff size and wages, as well as the cost of supplies going up. She noted support for the school system from the state level and the efficient operation of the school food services as positive points.

She also noted the expectation of state aid going down due to a decrease in students and an increase to the general fund, due to the property taxes that help fund it growing with increasing property values.

Numerous parents and their supporters addressed the school board during over a half an hour of public comment. All were present to raise concerns over the issue of bullying in the district. While most comments focused on one particular situation, multiple parents noted their own experiences with their children. The commenters expressed their opinion that the school had mishandled bullying, including the pressing incident in which a story was written by classmates about the kidnapping and murder of a student, created using school technology. A history of bullying had led up to the incident. The parents also expressed a desire to work with the school and with parents, together to move forward.

In response, Superintendent Dr. Ritzler noted what he referred to as “justified emotion” from the speakers. He also noted a number of stated facts that were incorrect. Many of the concerns raised could not be addressed not because of a lack of action, but due to federal law that limits transparency about disciplinary actions taken or assistance provided in bullying situations. He did confirm prompt and thorough action was taken the day the story was brought to the school’s attention.

During the general Superintendent’s Report report, Dr. Ritzler acknowledged the Juneteenth federal holiday, occurring the day of the meeting. He noted the appropriateness of recognizing the holiday in Cassopolis, given the area’s history in working toward full freedom for African Americans.

He also delivered an audit report on procedures at Sam Adams Elementary School for the state mandated Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress (M-STEP). Areas of review included staff training, staff verification, student support and accommodation, material handling, incident reporting, testing room requirements, test administration, and student behavior. All areas were scored as “Meets or exceeds expectations”.

Additionally, a mandated report on student progress, funded by the state as an additional method of monitoring in the wake of the COVID-19 related educational delays, showed largely positive results. Kindergarten through eighth grade students were assessed using the Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) benchmark testing. Students that were behind in benchmarks had all improved and continued to show improvement as the pandemic moved further into the past. Dr. Ritzler characterized it as “making up lost ground” after COVID-19 and credited quality instruction.

“Growth from beginning to end of the year for our kindergarten through eighth grade students looks strong this year,” Ritzler said.

At the high school level, similar reporting fell slightly short of the school system’s goals, with  80 percent of the student body having earned all credits at each point of testing. The lowest numbers came in the 9th grade, where Dr. Ritzler noted the school is still teaching students how important credits are. He reported success with that in the 12th grade, where students in their second semester had achieved 100 percent of their required credits.

Dr. Ritzler recognized Geri Vlasicak  for her work in the district Business Department. Vlasicak is retiring after nearly two decades of work in the department, with the last five spent as Business Manager. He also welcomed James English, who will assume the role. Also recognized was the retiring teacher Janice Gatson, new hires Emily Davies as custodian and Mediah Luna as Bus driver, Heather Rigby for earning the voluntary child nutrition director certification, and student Ethan Pflug for winning the Lake Michigan College WAVE Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical.

Other items approved by the school board were new versions of the handbooks for students, athletics, and Adult and Alternative Education, as well as the new Course Description Guide. Future board meetings dates were approved for August 14th, September 18th, October 23rd, November 20th, and December 18th in 2023 and  January 22nd, February 26th, March 18th, April 15th, May 20th, and June 17th in 2024.

After a closed session for Superintendent Evaluation, the board also approved the new contract for Dr. Ritzler  for July 1, 2023, through June 20, 2027.