Proposed Three Rivers classroom display policy tabled

Superintendent Nikki Nash and Board of Education President Erin Nowak discuss Policy 8805 during a board of education meeting on Monday, February 20. (Beca Welty|Watershed Voice)

The issue of whether to adopt a policy regarding flags and other displays in Three Rivers classrooms was tabled at a Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education meeting Monday night. Assurances were made that the board would continue crafting the policy at a future work session.

In a process that’s taken well over a year, Policy 8805 was drafted by educational consulting firm Neola in an attempt to assist educators with determining what should be allowed in classrooms. The policy proposed to the board of education would essentially prohibit flags unless representing the United States, State of Michigan, or a university.

Any displays would be required to be directly tied to curriculum or subject matter the class is currently studying. The recommendation to the board Monday evening was to not move forward with Policy 8805, and instead have administrators implement administrative guidelines at the beginning of the 2023-2024 school year for classrooms and common area displays.

Those administrative guidelines would require all displays align with the district’s mission statement, which is to educate, motivate, and inspire all students to reach their full potential, to become successful adults, and to pursue their dreams. The guidelines would put the responsibility in the hands of the building administrator to determine whether a display disrupts the educational environment, positively impacts learning, and encourages respect. Additionally, the administrative guidelines detail an appeals process which would begin with the building principal making a decision with the district administrative team, and could be taken all the way to the board of education to make a final determination. 

Board President Erin Nowak spoke first during discussions, saying she’s not in favor of continuing without a board policy in place. While she agreed with the administrative guidelines, she said her concern is how guidelines will do nothing when the decision is brought back to the board of education. “I am struggling with basing our decisions for flags and displays solely on administrative guidelines, because if the administrative guidelines are questioned the challenge will come back to the board of education, and again we have nothing to base our decision on to make it not personal or our own interpretation of what is controversial,” Nowak said. 

Superintendent Nikki Nash spoke in favor of voting down the policy, and said she has been in talks for months with administrators who feel the same way. “That policy really strong arms us if you look at how it is written,” Nash said, and told board members she feels administrative guidelines will be the best direction to take next. Nash spoke about the trust she has in those administrators running the buildings each day, and how she does not sit back and make decisions by herself as a superintendent. She gestured to the many educators filling the back of the conference room and said, “That’s my team. Those are the ones that are going to tell me what’s best. It’s not me. It’s not us as a board. They’re the ones in the buildings every single day knowing what’s best for those kids.”

Nowak agreed she wants decisions to be left to the building principals and superintendent, but asked, “What if someone decides to push through the administrative guidelines and goes to the superintendent and continues to push, where does it end up?” Nowak continued by saying her concern and job is to protect herself, and the rest of the board of education, and she does not feel comfortable ruling on those types of issues. “Tell me how I can go about making a decision and not having to be judge and jury,” she said. “I don’t want to be told I feel a certain way or I am a certain kind of person because of the way I vote on the board of education.” She asked fellow board members to give her a board policy, a strict strategic plan, or a mission to help guide them in future decisions.

Several administrators were present to give feedback to the board, and Three Rivers High School Principal Carrie Balk spoke first. “I’m not in charge of making policies, and I never want to be in charge of making policies,” she said. “But speaking on behalf of the administrative team, if you put a policy in place we’re going to follow it.” Balk said Policy 8805 would have “a significant impact” on school buildings, which might not be obvious to those who aren’t there every day.

Balk listed a few displays that would be prohibited under the policy such as the Adam Learn memorial and the Freedom Shrine in the main entrance hallway. She told the board she is not for or against a policy, but she is for following whatever policy is put into place. “I would just ask you to consider the broad implications, and before you make a decision maybe walk the buildings and see what that would look like. Be mindful of the broader intentions of this policy.”

Curriculum and Instruction Director Jen Graber said Policy 8805 would have a negative effect on elementary-age students specifically. According to the new ruling, she spoke about how those buildings would not be allowed to hang “warm and fuzzy” posters or have displays which encourage children to be individuals, to show respect for one another, and to help make the culture what it is in Three Rivers. Like Balk, she asked board members to be mindful of what the potential outcome could be with policies that are “too strict and too rigid.”

In continued discussions, Nowak said she is not in agreement with the exact wording of Policy 8805, but she does not feel comfortable moving forward with only administrative guidelines. “I think we need to continue with development of a policy. It’s not 8805 right now as-written, but there needs to be a policy,” she said. Her concern was voting to not move forward with the new policy, and then having nothing for the board to build upon further. Nowak’s recommendation to the board would be to continue molding 8805 into a policy that could be accepted. “But again, if we take Policy 8805 and say we’re going to vote it down, then what are we left with?”

Facing a decision to either table the discussion, adopt, or vote down the new policy, board members were divided on where to land. Nash said even if the decision was voted down that night, it didn’t mean the option was off the table permanently. “The administrative guidelines would be put into place, we would monitor the situation, and then if we have to bring it back to the policy committee that is always ready to go. Six years from now you could pull that out with Neola if you so choose,” she said. Tabling the discussion, she explained to the board, would mean a future work session meeting would be completely devoted to further conversations regarding Policy 8805. 

A vote was taken and the motion was tabled with a 3—2 vote. Plans to workshop the policy at a future work session meeting are in place, though Nowak told Watershed Voice the board of education is not ready to schedule that date just yet, as they will need more time to prepare.

Beca Welty is a staff writer and columnist for Watershed Voice.