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D-E board delays hire after report of inappropriate comment

EYOTA— A contentious hiring decision and student misbehavior rose to the forefront of the Dover-Eyota School Board meeting Monday night at Dover-Eyota High School.

Both issues, Superintendent Bruce Klaehn said, would probably amount to much ado about nothing, but Klaehn and the board discussed both topics at length in an attempt to ensure student safety.

The hiring decision involved a long-term substitute history teacher. The teacher, who would replace history teacher John Pittenger while the permanent teacher takes personal leave, had been interviewed by high school Principal Todd Rowekamp and two other members of the social studies department. But his approval by the school board took a detour after a report of an inappropriate comment made to a student.

During what would normally be a routine motion to hire several employees — a couple of kitchen helpers, long-term substitute teachers, and staff positions — the board decided to hold off on hiring Pittenger’s substitute until Klaehn could determine whether the teacher committed an inappropriate act or if the whole incident is a misunderstanding.

"The comment he made would be very uncharacteristic of his past behavior," said Rowekamp, who interviewed the substitute and checked his references.

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That said, Rowekamp, Klaehn and the board agreed that if the allegation against the teacher were true, he would no longer work for the district. Still, Klaehn warned against punishing the teacher until all the facts were in. Particularly, the superintendent worried that approving the teacher as a short-term substitute until the next meeting would be unfair financially to the teacher. Short-term substitutes are paid $110 a day, while long-term substitutes are paid considerably more. "If this is nothing," Klaehn said, "he could be out a lot of money."

Klaehn said that because of the timing of the alleged incident, he and Rowekamp were unable to determine the facts before Monday’s meeting. But he assured the board he would have a definite answer quickly.

"I think we’re on the same page as to what constitutes inappropriate behavior," Klaehn told the board. "And if there’s something there, he’ll be gone by the end of the day."

While the board made no decision on hiring the substitute teacher, it advised Klaehn to keep paying him as a long-term substitute until the issue was resolved.

Teachers weren’t the only ones whose behavior was in question. Rowekamp said that despite efforts by staff members to warn students about causing trouble during homecoming weekend, several students misbehaved and were disciplined. Klaehn said the bad behavior was limited to acts like toilet papering and similar pranks.

"There will always be those who act on the spur of the moment and make bad decisions," said board member Julie Austinson.

Rowekamp said the student government had done a good job of creating activities for students to lessen the urge to misbehave, and the small number of students involved was a result of that good planning. He suggested that next year parents should be sent a letter outlining the punishments for pranks so they could work with the school administration to encourage proper behavior from students.

It wasn’t just the high school students causing trouble. Elementary Principal Jeanne Svobodny shared some results from the Olweus Survey, a national survey on bullying. Current Dover-Eyota fifth- and sixth-graders took part in the survey last year, and, according to the results, Dover-Eyota students reported a higher incident of bullying than the national average.

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"How bullying is reported may explain the difference," Klaehn said, referring to Dover-Eyota’s ranking on the survey. "Obviously, we need to delve further into the numbers. Still, this is a good chance to communicate to parents that, yes, this is going on."

Svobodny agreed that the results for Dover-Eyota could mean many things — a small statistical sample size, a greater awareness of bullying, more comfort in reporting — other than the school district being a haven for bad kids.

Klaehn said the district took place in the survey in order to gauge the level of bullying and start a conversation with students and parents.

"There’s a national awareness, especially with technology, on bullying," the superintendent said." We as a school district want to find out how kids feel."

In other district business, the board approved a list of election judges for the Nov. 8 election.  Klaehn shared some initial information on the latest district audit. While the numbers are not yet finished, the superintendent said it seemed the budget numbers were right in line with what was expected.

And finally, Klaehn gave the board a sneak peek at the presentation he will give at two public hearings — the first, Oct. 11 in Dover, the second, Oct. 25 in Eyota — to explain the operating levy ballot item to voters.

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