School Board discusses land, library materials
by David Boyle
Members of the San Juan School Board discussed their land in Monument Valley, approved a library material review policy and approved a change to their meeting schedule at their latest meeting.
Following up a discussion from their last meeting the school district approved a new policy at their September 14 meeting. The policy relates to the review of the appropriateness of library materials, including books, as a result of a recently passed Utah law.
Superintendent Ron Nielson shared that while the adoption of the policy put them in compliance with state law, books on school library shelves are protected via free press and free speech rights, which means removing books in the district would still have a risk of litigation.
“It’s choose your poison so to speak here. It’s my recommendation that we pass this policy and we try to deal sensitively through these other issues. Be aware this is a very complex issue.”
School Board member Merri Shumway clarified that books that are not yet on district shelves don’t have those same protections.
District Library Specialist Shannon Dewsnup shared that librarians in the district are aware of the policies in place and before purchasing books the librarians use professional book reviews to help determine the appropriateness and educational value of books.
The new policy passed outlines that material review requests can only be made by a parent or guardian of a student at the school, a student, or an employee of the school.
Patrons with concerns about a specific material, such as a book, can fill out a materials review form which would trigger the creation of a review committee.
School principals will convene the committee made up of a district-chosen facilitator, a school administrator, the school librarian, a licensed teacher who is teaching English or a subject relevant to the material being reviewed, and a reasonable number of parents of current students at the school that are reflective of the school community.
The committee will review the whole material, the review request form, and other relevant information about the title, including professional book reviews.
The policy states that in making determinations about the appropriateness of the material the committee will consider the material taken as a whole and consider whether it has serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.
Criteria such as expert reviews, committee members’ experience, community standards, and definitions of indecent materials as defined in Utah Code may be used as part of the decision making process.
At the end, the committee will determine the status of the material by majority vote. The committee can either retain the material for all students, restrict access to certain students or remove the material from the school library.
Appeals of the committee decisions will go before an intermediate district appeals board, with appeals to those rulings going before the San Juan School Board.
Material may not be reviewed again for three school years following the Review Committee’s determination.
Members of the school board also moved forward on some shared use of the school’s property in Monument Valley at their September 14 meeting.
At their latest meeting district staff brought a formal offer from the Utah Food Bank to the board to purchase one acre of land for the food bank for $250,000.
Superintendent Nelson reported that they feel the offer is fair with the district recently having an appraisal of five-acre lease to Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS) appraised at $586,000.
Nielson also added another stipulation in the agreement that allows the district to retain the land if the food bank was abandoned.
“We feel like it’s a win-win for us and for the community,” said Nielson.
The school board unanimously approved the agreement.
The Utah Food bank provides free food distributions throughout the state and has recently taken efforts to expand services in San Juan County.
The Utah State legislature recently allocated funds for the organization to build a warehouse in Blanding and distribution facilities in Montezuma Creek and Monument Valley. Those funds must be spent by June 2023.
While the organization has secured land in Montezuma Creek and Blanding, they have been unable to find a suitable location in Monument Valley. As a result, the Utah Food Bank has approached the school district about the possibility of purchasing an acre from the district.
The proposed site of the acre is on the southern end of the district’s property near the UNHS clinic along highway 163.
Also at the meeting, the district formally approved its lease agreement with Utah State University for the northwestern corner of the district’s property.
The approval of the lease agreement allows USU to begin construction of their Monument Valley campus on district property.
At the September 14 meeting, the school board also voted to change how and where its monthly board meetings are held.
Prior to the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March of 2020 members of the San Juan School Board would meet in the boardroom at their offices in Blanding but would also travel to hold board meetings in each of the district’s five high schools across the county.
At the start of the pandemic, the district began holding their meetings exclusively at district offices with investments made into technology updates to allow board members and the public to access the meetings remotely.
While the board held their meeting at Monticello High School on September 14, the rest of the meetings for the year will not rotate to other communities but instead remain at the district offices in Blanding.
The decision was made by a vote of 3-2 with board members Lori Maughan, Steven Black and Merri Shumway voting in favor with Lucille Cody and Nelson Yellowman voting against.
Superintendent Nielson shared with the board the results of a survey of district parents. Of the 52 respondents to the survey 71 percent of responses came from parents of Mountain Region students (located in La Sal, Monticello, and Blanding) while 28 percent came from parents of River Region students (located in Montezuma Creek, Bluff, Monument Valley, and Navajo Mountain).
11 percent of respondents said they did not have access to reliable internet. 66 percent of respondents reported having attended a board meeting in person or virtually over the past two years. 83 percent said they were more likely to attend a virtual meeting than an in-person meeting in the future.
The district did broadcast the meeting in Monticello but Nielson reported the traveling system is not as effective as the permanent broadcast equipment at the district offices and also noted it required more manpower to set up with three different staff working on the system at the meeting.
With only 50 responses over three weeks, Nielson said that showed him that there might not be a large interest in the issue, especially in comparison to the nearly 1,000 responses he said the district would get on surveys regarding Covid-19 issues.
“To our stakeholders, this is not a hot topic. It may become a hot topic but at this point it’s not.”
Nielson added on average three to five people have come to traveling meetings in the past. Nielson also noted that to those small groups those meetings were very important. He did note that the virtual option for meetings has allowed a greater number of people to participate.
District Technology Director Aaron Brewer confirmed that the district meetings get additional rewatches following live streams of the meetings and that the audio is much better within the district office.
Board member Nelson Yellowman added that he felt the traveling board meetings allowed school staff to participate in meetings especially for school presentations and for handing out awards.
Board member Merri Shumway felt concerned about wasted resources
“We put all this money into this technology into this new board room and that’s sitting there in Blanding while we have all our tech people come and set this up for hours before we come, and they sit here during our meeting.”
Board member Lucille Cody said that she feels holding the meetings in different communities allows all board members who can’t visit the schools regularly to familiarize themselves with the school staff, students, and community.
“We may not have a big attendance at these different schools, but at least we go out and see what the schools are doing.”
Shumway said Cody’s comment made her realize that those board meetings don’t happen in Blanding schools but regardless board members don’t interact with classrooms during meetings.
“Maybe we should make an effort as individual board members to make sure we are interacting within our communities, going into the schools doesn’t have to be in conjunction with a board meeting. Maybe we should make a better effort to be doing that in all of our schools.”
The board also received an update on capital plans for the district at their September 14 meeting. The district is still anxiously awaiting the administration of $50 million appropriated by the Utah State legislature for capital projects in small school districts.
Finance Director Tyrel Pemberton reports that just ten districts in the state qualify for the state matching grant program aimed to aid small districts in the form of matching grants.
The law requires the Utah State Board of Education to create a panel to review applications for the funds. Although the panel is in its infancy and the application process is not yet available, applications for the project will be due in November.
While there is hope from proponents of the legislature to see the fund renewed, that is not known.
Staff asked the board if the district should invest $70,000 to see if Blanding Elementary School could be successfully remodeled at an affordable price.
An April document reported constructing a new Blanding Elementary school would cost an estimated $30.6 million.
Members of the board directed staff to wait on spending $70,000 to explore a remodel, until early 2023 when the district should know where it stands in regards to the state funds.
At the meeting, the board also received reports from Monticello High School Principal KC Olson and Monticello Elementary Principal Jenna Olson.
Also at the meeting, the district recognized three employees with San Juan Sweet Jobs awards.
Monticello Elementary Special Education Teacher Regan McDaniel was recognized for his contributions to the school and his years of classroom experience.
Monticello High School Math Teacher Elisa Rogers was also recognized for her years of work at the school with Superintendent Nelson adding that Mrs. Rogers was one of a handful of district teachers that has qualified for the highly effective teacher incentive for the past half-dozen years.
Bus driver Greg Adams was also recognized for his incredible 39 years of delivering students safely on district buses to and from trips.