School gender issue settles slightly

The Waterloo School Board met Monday, again gathering in the Waterloo High School auditorium even though the meeting was centered far less on gender identity and bathroom discussions compared to recent months.

Following a brief rundown from Waterloo Superintendent of Schools Brian Charron of the district’s proposed budget after the board’s financial committee met last week, the floor was opened to attending members of the public.

First to speak was Jessica Harrelson, who opened by speaking about a Freedom of Information Act request she had filed with the district prior to last month’s school board meeting.

The request, as she said, was for “any and all communication, quotes and exchanges between Brian Charron and any WCUSD5 employees or board members and any contractor and/or architect regarding the bathroom remodels that have been the subject of conversation since March.”

Harrelson questioned why the request was not addressed at the previous meeting – she also asked Charron about the request at the end of the August meeting to which he responded the district had emailed her to acknowledge the request – before suggesting Charron had lied to the community when he discussed a number of prices for potential bathroom renovations in August.

Harrelson said that in the FOIA documents she received, there were only two “actual quotes” and “two random emails stating random amounts with no other details,” further suggesting Charron was trying to push the issue aside by trying to “scare us with a big enough number.”

She went on to say the community had lost faith in Charron, requesting that he resign as superintendent.

“The community, parents and students have all lost confidence and trust in your ability to effectively lead our school district,” Harrelson said. “You hide behind that table, and you refuse to answer parents in the community publicly, but you can, for lack of a better term, run your mouth to the media about politicians who show interest in this issue. It’s sad and cowardly, and, quite frankly, it’s time for you to step aside.”

Harrelson then addressed school board members, referencing a petition which has circulated among the community that has received nearly 2,000 signatures – 1,735 as of last month’s meeting.

She noted the board members are elected officials, and the number of petition signatures was greater than the number of votes any individual board member received to be elected, further requesting the board remove Charron should he refuse to step down.

Regarding the FOIA concerns, in speaking with the Republic-Times after the meeting, Charron noted a mistake in the FOIA response as one of the items meant to be included had been missing.

The discussed prices for potential bathroom renovations include one quote for the previously approved urinal stalls in two WHS restrooms at $18,630 and a quote for installing floor-to-ceiling stalls in the high school at $57,023. The latter quote was the previously missing item.

Also included was what Charron described as a “detailed estimate,” an itemized list totalling $356,298 for a previously discussed project which would replace an unused computer lab in the library with a collection of single-occupancy bathrooms.

The final item was a “rough estimate” of $30 million from Aaron Keistler of FGM Architects for a district-wide replacement of every bathroom with an equivalent amount of single-occupancy bathrooms.

Charron explained that such a figure had previously been discussed between him and Keistler, but he requested Keistler provide him this estimate in writing.

Charron added that this figure was simply done from Keistler’s hand calculations, as a full quote likely would have cost roughly $4,000 to obtain.

Charron further responded to Harrelson’s request that he step down, saying he would provide his resignation should the board request it.

Charron went on to say he had become exhausted with the “anger and misinformation often blurted out” at school board meetings and online – specifically in private and public Facebook groups.

He added it can be complicated to know how or whether or not to respond to some of these comments, and he has no desire to conceal information nor make mistakes.

One such example of misinformation which has come up in recent weeks concerned the WHS Diversity Club, as some rumors had circulated online about the club being suspended and accusations of grooming involving the club had been lobbed at the August board meeting.

In a recent interview with the Republic-Times, Charron explained that this club had not been suspended, though it is looking for a new sponsor.

He added the Diversity Club is a student-led group consisting of students who originally wanted to gather as a student organization and sought out a faculty supervisor, as is required in the district.

The second and final individual signed up to speak at Monday’s meeting was Lee Ramseur, who introduced himself saying he was active duty, and he and his wife decided to retire in Waterloo because of the schools and community.

He suggested that some members of the community “could be a little bit cooler about this gender identity policy,” explaining that he has three students in the district, with his oldest child being transgender. He stressed this point when he said he wants a policy that works for all students.

Ramseur went on to speak about concerns surrounding his transgender child, saying he did not groom his son nor is his child a predator.

“My child, just because he’s transgender, does not in any way pose a threat to your child,” Ramseur said. “These baseless accusations are completely without merit, have no place in public discourse and speak far more to the quality of your character than mine. All students deserve a safe learning environment, safe from harassment and discrimination. That’s something we all should be able to get on board with.”

Ramseur commended the board for its current gender identity policy before noting it should be clearer and better address community concerns, adding that “we owe it to our kids to show them that our decisions are not influenced by irrational fears and that we can resolve conflict through civil discourse and rational thought.”

He went on to say that, as someone who often writes policy to be in accordance with federal law and legal constraints, he would be willing to assist the board in improving the policy.

Ramseur specifically recommended keeping the current policy in place, establishing a special-purpose subcommittee with community representatives from “both sides of the issue” to craft a new policy by December, running a small group trial based on the policy starting in January and then crafting a new policy for next school year based on results of the trial.

The discussion topic seemed closed following Ramseur’s presentation, so the board opened the floor to other community comments.

Trent Dingwell was the first to speak. He said he had a child in the district, a junior currently playing football.

He went on to describe how he had been on the sideline of recent football games, only to be told he was no longer allowed.

“For eight years, I committed four months of my life to coaching youth football, and these boys are now on the varsity team,” Dingwell said. “For the first several weeks, I was on the sideline cheering and coaching and helping out, in no manner offensive or violating anything. On Friday, I got a call saying that I wasn’t allowed on the sidelines anymore because I wasn’t approved personnel.”

Dingwell then went on to suggest the board was “trying to hide behind Faith’s Law,” a piece of state legislation establishing various rules surrounding sexual misconduct in schools.

The remainder of Dingwell’s presentation primarily consisted of describing various elements of Faith’s Law.

After the meeting, Charron offered his perspective of the situation, saying that Dingwell, as a coach with the Waterloo Sports Association, had been on the sidelines in the past as the high school had a program where some WSA kids would be able to stand at the field serving as ball boys.

More recently, Charron said, Dingwell seemed to be staying at the sidelines simply as a parent without any other authorization or approval. As such, Waterloo Athletic Director Tim Gould reached out to him to say he wouldn’t be allowed on the field.

Charron added that Dingwell could be allowed should he receive approval from coaching staff and administration as a registered volunteer.

Zac Scheetz also spoke, asking if the district had any intentions of establishing a policy regarding COVID-19 pandemic precautions as other districts in the area such as Red Bud  have done.

“I know other school district superintendents have sent letters out stating their plan of action if something would come back up in the future here,” Scheetz said. “Other schools are being prepared for this and sorta setting the groundwork. I didn’t know if Waterloo was planning on following suit or if we were just gonna wait and see what we were told to do.”

Scheetz and Charron had a brief exchange in which Charron explained the board could take up the issue, though there aren’t currently any mask or quarantine mandates on the horizon.

Scheetz suggested that Waterloo stand at the forefront with a plan as a larger district, concluding by saying he doesn’t want to return to the situation of two years ago.

Charron responded that the board doesn’t want to go back to that either.

Regarding other items on the agenda, Charron briefly discussed and the board approved the budget for Fiscal Year 2024.

Notable expenditure items on the budget include educational funds at $23,681,672, operations and maintenance at $3,885,803 and capital projects at $3,888,300.

The district stands at a total deficit this year of $2,101,942, which Charron said is acceptable given the $3.3 million renovation project at Zahnow Elementary.

“As far as good and bad, I think it’s very good,” Charron said. “I think our budget last year was around $36 million. This year we’re planning on spending a little over $40 million when you take into consideration the Zahnow project.”

As part of the budget discussion, Charron noted the strain that the regularly late receipt of local property taxes places on the district – though they do expect to receive the funds within the fiscal year.

One agenda item related directly to the delay of tax bill payments: the approval of an inter-fund loan of $3 million from the Working Cash Fund to the Education Fund and another of $700,000 from the Working Cash Fund to the Debt Service Fund.

During administrator reports, Charron noted two FOIA requests, one of which was Harrelson’s.

The other, from Janine Asmus, requested a list of all school librarians certified in Waterloo.

Another request was a carryover from last month, a list of all tuition reimbursements of all district employees for the past four years.

Also amid the reports, Waterloo School Board Vice President Neil Giffhorn commended new athletic director Gould for his introduction of a new mobile app providing improved access to information about district athletics.

The app, titled “Waterloo CUSD Athletics” from Mascot Media, LLC is available on the Apple App store or Google Play.

The end of the meeting saw the board move to executive session to discuss the final agenda item, the approval of a job description for a secondary instruction coach for grades 6-12.

Though the matter was ultimately tabled for next month’s meeting, Charron explained afterward that the reason for the additional closed session was that the board simply ran out of time during its usual closed session and wished to discuss the matter more.

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Andrew Unverferth

HTC web