In a special public session at Teutopolis High School, the Teutopolis School Board voted unanimously to accept an agreement with the ACLU that would put the District in compliance with Federal law regarding the use of taxpayer funded transportation to bus students to religious programs at Teutopolis Grade School.
According to Superintendent Bill Fritcher, The Teutopolis Grade School is leased to the District, but is owned by St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Parish of Teutopolis and holds religious classes on campus prior to the designated time when the property becomes a public school as per the lease. The lease is in effect from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays.
According to a public release by the District, the issue was raised by an anonymous parent who was concerned that their child(ren) “felt excluded and stigmatized” by practices that, among others, included busing all Teutopolis Grade School students for an 8 a.m. religious education class, sponsored by St. Francis Parish, when the public school day did not begin until 9 a.m. In 2015 the anonymous parent, through legal council with the American Civil Liberties Union, notified the School Board of their concerns and threatened litigation unless changed were made. Since then, through council, the Teutopolis School Board has been in contact with the ACLU and the Catholic Diocese in an attempt to reach an agreement to avoid a lawsuit. The School Board’s legal council advised that if the agreement in its current terms was not approved by April 19th, the ACLU could file suit.
Summary of Key Changes Being Proposed to Address ACLU Concerns (for the full list click here)
1. Buses will be scheduled to arrive no earlier than 15 minutes before the start of the school day. Currently the bus schedule accommodates a religious education program sponsored by St. Francis Catholic Church. This Change is being made to address concerns that public funds are being used to bus children for religious education purposes.
2. The transition between the morning religion program and the public school day will be more defined with children being released to a common area at the daily religious instruction. Additionally, children transported by bus will arrive to that same common area. This change is being made to address concerns that children not participation in the religious education program, may feel intimidated into joining the program or not feel fully part of the group by joining classes already formed for religious education purposes.
3. Accommodations will be made for other groups, such as boy Scouts, 4H or others to use the facilities after school.
4. The procedural details of these changes will need to be developed, but will take effect with the 2016-2017 school year.
In return for compliance with the agreement, the anonymous parent has agreed to not pursue any further legal action against the District.
Superintendent Fritcher thanked the public for attending the meeting and explained that the agreement would require the District to make some changes, but ultimately would allow the school to operate in a “constitutional manner,” while allowing the religious program to continue:
Reverend Joe Carlos, a representative of the St. Francis Parish supported the agreement with the ACLU.
Many in the crowd expressed concerns and suggestions about the agreement citing the difficulties that a new bus schedule would cause parents who rely on the current schedule to get their children to school before they have to work. Some suggested that the Board reject the agreement until a more favorable solution could be developed, risking litigation from the ACLU.
Several citizens also suggested potential solutions to the busing issue such as allowing St. Francis Parish to lease District buses to transport those who opt into the religious classes before the public school day starts. Another solution that received considerable discussion was the idea of moving the religious classes to different parts of the day, off the actual school campus, and beginning the public school day at 8 a.m., keeping the current bus schedule. Students in the religious program would rotate out periodically throughout the day.
While the agreement was approved, more discussion will occur before any new schedules are implemented for the next school year.