Acting chair Noel Bailey read information for the board and visitors of the Aitkin School Board meeting Sept. 19 with board member Dawn Houser attending virtually.
“Having the chairmanship put upon me, I checked what I have the right to do at a board meeting. During the comments section, the following will be followed: Comments from visitors must only be in relationship to the agenda items and not exceed five minutes per issue. The board cannot engage in a discussion or debate but will take the information and find answers if appropriate. As part of the board protocol, it is unacceptable for any speaker to slander or engage in character assassination at a public board meeting. When you come up to the table to make your comment, you are to be seated, no standing, and seated facing the board,” said Bailey. He noted that the rules would be enforced and told speakers they were not to campaign at a public school board meeting.
Speakers were told to speak to the board and not to others in attendance. “Any outbursts will not be tolerated by anyone,” said Bailey.
A list of those wanting to comment was provided to Bailey.
First to speak was math teacher Kerry Hopperstad, “I’m here on behalf of Mr. Stifter. I want him to know that he is not alone in this job as superintendent and as you can see (motioned to the audience) many people have these shirts on (Hopperstad was wearing a red shirt with a white apple, the words “We trust our teachers” was within the apple) and we stand with Dan. There’s a rumor that he’s going to be asked to step down as superintendent tonight and I’d like to address that. There’s no superintendent that we’ve had that has been as well respected as Dan and we want this to continue.
“I’ve known Dan for 30 years and a lot of you know that he is one of my best friends, he is my boss and that line never gets crossed. He has been a leader for countless community events, organizing buses and volunteers. He has climbed the ladder through education. He started off as a coach and teacher, dean of students, principal and he got his dream job of being Aitkin superintendent.
“During this time, he has led our staff through COVID, distance learning and is always encouraging us and thanking us for our hard work. We have a school that has great reading and math scores when compared to area schools.
“Many people have been tuning into these board meetings and all for the wrong reasons. It’s been quite embarrassing. We spend our time on issues that don’t affect our Aitkin kids, they’re national things. Things like critical race theory, our SEL program and trying to convince everybody that it’s the teachers’ fault, teacher unions, that’s not the case. This is not helping our Aitkin kids. ISD1 has an election coming up and they need board members that are going to be serious and try to improve Aitkin kids’ educational experience. I’m proud to be a part of this school.“
Jason Long is a sixth grade math teacher with the district. “Since about the third grade every teacher has told me that I have the gift of gab and I speak in front of hundreds of people weekly but tonight, speaking now, I’m incredibly nervous using my voice in this forum.
“I’ve wanted to speak at a board meeting now since March 28 of last year. I’ve kept silent since that day and I realize this, my silence is really gnawing at me.
“I’ve been in education for 25 years. I’ve worked in three different school districts and I’ve held teaching jobs ranging from kindergarten all the way to seniors. I have also worked as a dean of students for six years in two other districts. This is my eighth year as an educator here in Aitkin. Aitkin is my home. My wife is also honored to be an educator within this district and we have five children who have transferred here to become turkeys.
“I wish to speak on my appreciation for Dan Stifter as ISD1 superintendent and my leader. In my 25 years, I’ve worked with or under 13 different principals, 13 different superintendents and various school board members. I’m not from Aitkin and I did not know Dan prior to his hiring as superintendent.
“I’m thankful to be a part of ISD1 but alarmed in recent months. Stifter falls under the category of an efficient leader that I will support and follow. The COVID-era had to be the most difficult time to navigate as a school leader in the history of the U.S. Amongst all of the COVID issues going on, he also supported my wife and I during our recovery from a near death experience. He never made it feel like a burden and genuinely cared about my family’s wellbeing.
“Servant leaders get in the trenches and work with his or her employees. Stifter is a servant leader. He has also been the most visible superintendent in all of my years. His legacy should be defined by all of these acts and several more, not by personal differences.
“A school board’s mindset and decisions directly effect the well being of its staff. I’m going on record and stating I am glad Dan Stifter is my leader. Stifter is someone you definitely want to lead and manage our staff and, most importantly, our children.”
“I have been an educator for over 20 years at ISD1 and have three children in our schools,” said Kathleen Christy.
“I am thankful to our community members who are open to a dialogue that doesn’t come easy but because we trust each other, comes freely. Educators are proud of the friends we and our spouses have and the community members who are willing to ask uncomfortable questions to create a conversation about what is best for the students at our school. We don’t call each other idiots, radicals, pawns, rumors, lemmings or indoctrinators when we have these discussions.
“I am thankful to be a part of education Minnesota, Aitkin. Your local educators are not puppets, anti-American whack jobs that should move to North Korea, teachers of sexual deviants or teaching students to hate law enforcement. We are sitting in the same churches as you do, living in the same neighborhoods as you, paying the same taxes, cheering on the same sporting teams and feeling the same losses as you.
“The joy for us as educators has been to stand here in our town and hear stories about your children who pass through our lives on their path. Our students’ success is what has brought us joy and kept us here, not the chance to manipulate and indoctrinate.
“I am thankful to our leaderships, specifically Mr. Stifter. Dan started the summer of 2019 with no training for what was about to happen in our world. Over the past years he has managed to hold our students and staff together through a budget crisis, a passed levy, a worldwide pandemic, a volatile work environment, many student and staff deaths, a teacher shortage and I’m sure I’m missing something else because it’s been kind of a blur.
“I know that I’m not in the classroom anymore and that one of my jobs is to work with data, but there is no way to measure his proficiency these last two years except to say that he is exceeding. He fact finds and doesn’t pick sides. He looks for solutions. We would like to continue our path of excellence, work with us. We are ISD1.”
Former Aitkin Superintendent Ed Anderson (retired 2005) spoke next.
“After 17 years of retirement I never thought I’d be back in this room addressing the board but I feel that tonight it is important that I do that.
“I know so many of you so well as students and staff members and parents. I have a unique perspective of how I think things are going in the district. I have watched the YouTube videos, some of the behaviors and it’s saddening and troubling.
“I was superintendent here for 22 years and I had well over 40 individual board members. When I met with the board members prior to them taking their positions, I always explained to them what I expected their behavior to be, it generally had to do with being civil to each other, to respect everyone’s opinion even though you may vehemently disagree politically, educationally but nevertheless, be civil.
“I’ve known Dan for a long time, I had the pleasure of being able to offer Dan a contract (1992). We gauged our employee hirings under the fact that (we were looking for) somebody with integrity, somebody that would work hard, someone that was honest, someone that we could put in the classroom that we trusted and Dan was that person.
“As years went on, Dan took a variety of roles. One of the roles he took, which was interesting, was a negotiator for the teacher’s union. I sat across the table from Dan on many occasions and it was always respectful. It was hard, we disagreed, but we always got the job done and I think those character traits remain today with Dan.
“When you talk about curriculum, I know that the teachers who are sitting back here and the ones I had an opportunity to work with all those years, I wasn’t naive enough to think that curriculum was 100% followed. I know when the classroom door closed, that’s when the interaction happened and the teachers to the best of their ability tried to bring their students to a position of learning and understanding. I think we have to understand, in the year 2022, is that we are now a very diverse state, Aitkin not so much, but where our kids end up is very diverse. We have a variety of racial groups that are represented, a variety of cultures, a variety of religions, a variety of life choices and I know that there has been talk here about indoctrination and Critical Race Theory.
“I volunteered to be a caller when we had the excess levy referendum and talk to the public. A couple of people brought up CRT, I believe in my soul that our teachers are not diverging from what they are supposed to be teaching. Just because it happens in Minneapolis or Minnetonka doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s happening here.
“I had a chance to read the five-page letter, Mr. Ryan, that you sent to the board and to the newspaper, I don’t know if anybody else here did. I know in that letter it talked about a lot of things that you were unhappy about and understandably so with what you believe and I have no problem with that. At the very end though, in the last paragraph, you suggested that Mr. Stifter should resign this night. I think that was terribly inappropriate. If there’s a resignation Mr. Ryan, it ought to be yours.”
Al Albertson, former Aitkin elementary principal said, “I, like Ed, have been retired a while, 11 years and I never dreamed I would come to an Aitkin School Board meeting again as well.
“I had the opportunity to read the letter that Mr. Ryan sent to Dan Stifter and others. I felt compelled to come tonight because the letter addresses a couple of things that I really have a problem with. Number one, Dan’s honesty. I have known Dan since the day we hired (him). My last year at Aitkin Public Schools, he was a colleague of mine on the administrative team.
“I have to tell you folks, there’s nobody that I’ve ever worked with of any higher integrity than Stifter. Dan and I didn’t always agree through those 30 years or so that we’ve known each other, but I’ve never met anybody with higher integrity and honesty.
“I have to tell you Mr. Ryan, that I really have a problem with that. I can’t believe that Dan is anything but honest and trustworthy. I would encourage the board to not even consider asking for Dan’s resignation.“
“I am a proud graduate of Aitkin Public School system and my husband graduated from Crosby and we live in Deerwood,” began Nedra Henline. “My husband and I choose to open enroll our children in the Aitkin Public School system and have for many years.
“Our oldest started preschool in 2003 at the children’s center and our youngest will graduate in 2036. We will have kids consecutively in the school system for 33 years. A school system that we love with teachers and administration and staff that we love and admire for their honesty, dedication and values.
“I went back to school for my degree in my 30s and five years ago received my teaching license. I’m proud to be at Rippleside. Last year when asked, the day before teacher workshops, by Dan to take a year-long position it was easy to say yes. I knew how well I would be supported and our school wants what’s best for kids and I do too. Dan wants what’s best for kids.
“Has each experience we’ve had in the school system been perfect? No. But I’d say that 98% of the time that it is.”
“I’ve worked in the Aitkin District for 30 years now and have worked with seven different administrators during those 30 years,” said Missy Walters.
“I want to acknowledge one tonight. I have worked with Mr. Stifter in many capacities in the years that I have been here. As a parent, as a teacher, dean of students and now as a superintendent. He has an open door policy that is truly an open door. He will listen to what you have to say and find the solutions to what is being asked. Sometimes the solutions are not what I want to hear but they are fair. I just want to take this opportunity to say thank you.”
Sue Kanz thanked the board for their service, “And I thank all the educators behind me (the audience). I was thinking it must be thousands of years of teaching behind me.
“I’m looking at two educators that can add to that number (Bailey and Stifter). I’m looking at someone who was a student in my class (motioned toward Janzen).
“We all have a common thread, everyone in this room, it’s that we believe in public education. We breathe it, we think it, we serve it. We don’t give up.
“Dan, when you became wrestling coach of the year, my dad was on that committee. He nominated you not because you were a great coach, because you had great character.”
“I was thinking about speaking before any of this came up with Dan. So Dan, I’m in your corner but I’m not talking about that tonight,” said math teacher Steve Michaletz.
“The first thing I want to talk about is our curriculum. There are a lot of curriculums up for review this year. There are a lot that want to be on the SEL (review committee). SEL has been around for years, it’s definitely getting a lot more attention these days.
“I wanted to find out how many of the social studies teachers have actually had conversations with the board members. None. Zero. So I talked to Julie Jensen who is in charge of the SEL program at Rippleside. Two board members have talked to her. We’re getting ‘at’ each other about this and why are we not talking to the people who are teaching the programs to find out if it’s really being taught?
“I’ve been here 30 years, I’ve had two school board members walk into my room and introduce themselves to me and ask me about myself. Why? We want to teach these kids and we want to do what’s right. Ask the teachers who are involved in this curriculum. I think some of the things that people think are being taught, they’re not.
“The second item I wanted to address is the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) that we are re-implementing. It’s in every classroom and this is what we are trying to do with our students. There are four aspects that we base at the high school: respect, responsibility, character and pride. We feel these are four things that all our students should model. That our teachers should model. That our administrators should model. That what our school board should model. To make our PBIS program effective, we all have to model respect, responsibility, character and pride.
“It starts at the top with you. So please, current board, those leaving, those who will soon be elected, lead by example. Talk to the teachers, talk to the administration, talk to each other. This school needs it and deserves it.”
Kathy Hakes-Fastner said, “I had two girls who went through the public school system, I worked for the district for 15 years about seven years ago. I’m here to talk about kids.
“I think we can all agree that we all want what’s best for kids.
“You think about PBIS at the elementary school, you think about PBIS at the high school, you look at the motto - we believe everyone can learn and experience success, we are all here for kids.
“I think everything I needed to learn, I learned in kindergarten. Fair play, clean up your own mess, live a balanced life, learn some, think some, when you go out in the world watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together. I think as a community we need to stick together. We all want what’s best for kids, let’s start there.
“Let’s pay attention to what is happening in Aitkin. We don’t care what’s happening in California, we don’t care what’s happening in New York. There’s a lot of blaming and pointing fingers. Instead of that can we come together for possible solutions?
“Can we make sure that we think and do research before we yell ‘fire’? Go into the classrooms, see what’s happening because I think a lot of times we’re spending a lot of extra energy on topics that really aren’t issues.
“The Easter Bunny? Male or female? R2-D2? Male or female? Z? Male or female? Z is a character to help teach friendships not gender ideology. I think we need to make sure we understand what is happening in our classrooms before we throw this out and get everybody all excited moving forward.
“We lead by examples. Kids are seeing our behavior at these board meetings. We expect kids to deal with their big emotions, to regulate, to get along with others, to problem solve, but yet at a board meeting or at this community forum, that’s not happening.
“Dan has an open door policy. He will listen to issues, he will take your concerns, you need to talk to him. Learn the facts. You don’t always get your way but that’s why we have Dan, he’s gotta make those decisions. But, you will be heard.
“Dan, I want to publicly thank you for your leadership because the last few years have been horrible. I have nothing but respect for your integrity and the things that you do. I hope as a community we can stop pointing fingers and begin to work together to make sure all of our students have the opportunity to experience success.”
Jennifer Cummings also spoke, “I just want to say to the board members here, for people who think that I’m making it up, about Critical Race Theory or Social Emotional Learning and what it contains, I encourage you to watch the documentary “Whose children are they.”
“Take Charge Minnesota will be back here at the 40 Club Convention Center on Oct. 12 for a free event. I invite everyone here who cares about public education to do those two things.
“My kids have had personal experiences in this school, I’m not comfortable sharing those publicly. But if anyone calls me I will be happy to tell you what happened to them.
“As far as the Social Emotional Learning, there have been posts on Facebook about Brainpop. This school district has spent $21,000 on that subscription over the past seven years and there’s a video in there called ‘Black Lives Matter Movement’ that is absolutely 100% Critical Race Theory. I have done a lot of studying on it, I know what it is. If it’s about learning math, science and helping with that, there’s no reason that video should be on there. This school is paying for it and endorsing it.
“Aitkin Public Schools helped me in innumerable ways. From the first time I was made to sit at my desk instead of with the other kids during a book and record, because I kept telling what was going to happen, I learned that wasn’t a nice thing to do. To learning to write in cursive, a lifelong skill, to learning proper phone etiquette, typing skills, basic office skills which have served me well … to learning to write well which inspired me to get my degree in English and then my law degree. To learning to be kind and inclusive, to learning how to be confident and be a leader, to crying on the last day of my senior year in 1988 because I was going to miss my classmates, my teachers and my school. I learned respect from every single teacher I had, manners were expected and demanded. I learned to be accountable to myself for my choices and decisions. I learned to strive hard for the things that I wanted. I also learned that if I did something stupid, someone was going to call me out on that. I also learned it was OK for me to feel bad when they called me out. For me to have my feelings hurt and be embarrassed. I also learned that not everyone was going to like me. I learned that if I broke the rules there would be consequences. The rules were the same for everyone.
“I also learned that life is not fair, life is not equal and life certainly is not equitable. I learned all of this in the Aitkin Public Schools of the 1970s and 1980s. I learned all of this without Critical Race Theory being demonstrated to me, without Social Emotional Learning programming, without diversity, equity and inclusion programming, without gender ideology programming, without cultural awareness programming.
“I too love ISD1 and I think we can still teach these values without the divisive programming.
“I’ve been an SLP (speech-language pathologist) in the schools of Minnesota for 20 years with tenure in three different districts. In Aitkin for 10 years and worked under seven superintendents,” said Shawna Hill.
“Dan is definitely the most visible, the most supportive, he is kind and tactful. He can tell us what to do and we’re happy to do it. He’s brought us together. Rippleside has always been a school that has a really great staff but his few years has been able to merge the two staffs more than in the other years.
“I really just want to thank you all (board) as a board for hiring him. Thank you for seeing in him that he is good for us. We are ISD1 as he coined.”
Rippleside Elementary Secretary Cassandra Conn said, “I’m here to share a few words about our superintendent. We could not have predicted the huge upheaval we would all face in March 2020. To have our halls emptied of the very students that we show up for day in and day out was heart wrenching. We all grieved in our own ways and yet you showed up. You remained steadfast in times of uncertainty. The following year, as we came back to uncertainty as we returned to our buildings unsure of what the year would bring. You taught me how much our students and staff meant to you. You showed how important it was to you to return to in-person learning.
“As we all grieved the loss of members of our student body and a staff member, you showed up for our students. You showed up for our staff. You showed up for our community. You always show up.
“This job that you do is so much bigger than a position. You are never afraid to roll up your sleeves and get involved where you are needed and you are transparent in your desires for us to be a team that helps build lifelong learners. I’m not from Aitkin originally, I chose this community because it is a community. I watch these kids walk in day in and day out, I see the weight they carry on their shoulders and times have changed in the 34 years. We watch the weight on these students and we are their community. Some of them don’t have family. Some of them don’t have a good village. So we are there for them.
“As a parent of students who are just beginning their paths of lifelong learning, I am so grateful that you (Stifter) are at the helm of this ship. I trust you with my kids.
“As a community member, as a staff member and most importantly in my role as a parent, I am so grateful for your dedication and continued service to our schools. I stand with you Dan. We are ISD1.”