Posted on

AR rifle approved for Colby schools

By Kevin O’Brien

Members of the Colby School Board on Monday authorized local police to store an AR-15 rifle on school grounds, but not before lamenting the need to do so.

“I never thought we’d come to this day,” said board president Bill Tesmer, who noted that he was “very opposed” to the idea when it was first proposed.

However, after talking to Colby-Abbotsford police chief Jason Bauer at length about it, Tesmer voted along with the rest of the board to approve the proposal, which also includes a special gun safe that can only be opened by school resource officer (SRO) Patrick Leichtnam.

As a sign of how much times have changed, Tesmer also recalled how rifles were routinely brought into schools for hunter education classes decades ago.

“This is for a different reason,” he said, referring to the question of whether having a high-powered rifle in the school will help police respond to an active shooter and possibly prevent mass casualties.

Tesmer said he’s read articles taking both sides of the issue, and ultimately, he figured “there’s just no way we can know” if this will or will not be the right move unless something happens.

“Hopefully, that gun sits there and is never used,” he said, echoing comments made last week by Abbotsford superintendent Sherry Baker, after her school board approved a similar proposal.

Restricting access to the rifle was a big concern for Tesmer and superintendent Steve Kolden, who circulated information supplied by local police about the biometric safe that will used to store the weapon. Just as in Abbotsford, this safe will be programmed so it can only be opened by Leichtnam’s fingerprint.

Bauer and Leichtnam attended Monday’s meeting to answer questions, including one posed by board member Eric Elmhorst, who wondered if having an AR-15 on site was necessary.

“Is there any research that shows this is going to make us safer? Is there any research that shows this is not going to make us safer?” he asked.

Bauer said he doesn’t think there is much data comparing school shootings with or without rifles on site, but he assured the board that neutralizing an active shooter with a rifle will be safer than trying to do so with a handgun.

Elmhorst agreed with this premise, but he questioned if the SRO would lose valuable time by going to his office to get the rifle while a shooter was active.

Bauer said the officer will have to make a judgement call based on where he is in comparison to the shooter. Contrary to past practices, Leichtnam said police are now trained to confront the threat right away.

“I don’t necessarily go and get equipment if it’s not accessible,” he said.

When the school principals were asked about what they thought of the proposal, middle school principal Jim Hagen said he’s fine with it as long as he’s not the one expected to use the rifle.

Ultimately, all of the board members present at Monday’s meeting voted to approve the proposal (Cheryl Ploeckelman and Teri Hanson were absent), though some seemed reluctant.

“I can’t believe that in education — and we’re all educators, we have the same interest — that we have an AR in a school,” Elmhorst said. “It seems surreal, but I get it.”

Budget, tax levy approved

The board approved a $12 million budget for the 2019-2020 school year on Monday that includes a total property tax levy of $3.4 million, a 4 percent increase over last year’s levy.

The levy will be generated by a mil rate of $9.11 per thousand dollars of equalized property value, the same rate as the last two years. For the owners of a $100,000 house, they would owe $911 to the school district.

Included in the levy is $2.3 million for the general fund, about $950,000 for referendum- approved debt payments, $80,000 for other debt service and $66,000 for the district’s community service fund.

In a related matter, Kolden told the board that the district is projected to come in $650,000 underbudget on a series of referendum projects approved by voters in the 2016 election.

“We need to return this to the taxpayers,” he said, explaining how the money will be used to pre-pay the $7.8 million bond authorized by voters. This, in turn, will lower the amount of interest paid by taxpayers on future levies.

Other business

_ The board reviewed enrollment numbers from the third Friday head count done in September, which showed the total number of students in the district increasing from 986 to 1,012 since September of 2018. This represents an increase of 26 students, or 2.6 percent.

_ Board members continued a discussion about possible consolidation with the Abbotsford School District by reviewing a new Assembly bill (456) that would provide $10,000 grants to districts that want to do feasibility studies on consolidation. Another bill proposed earlier this year would provide extra state aid for consolidating districts as a way to hold down local property taxes.

The board talked about having an advisory referendum on the consolidation issue, but they wanted to wait and see if the bill becomes law first.

_ The board approved the hiring of Laura Kniefl as varsity softball coach, Brandon Butkus as varsity golf coach, Logan Rosemeyer as C-team boys basketball coach and Anne Rau as an assistant high school track coach.

_ The board officially accepted the resignation of board member Jennifer Lopez, “with regret.” A replacement will be appointed at the Nov. 18 meeting. Teri Hanson was named the new treasurer.

_ Teacher Bryon Graun, the district’s technology coordinator, spoke to the board about ongoing efforts to incorporate tablet devices into classroom activities. Tesmer asked Graun to address concerns that the district’s Chromebooks are not used as much as they should be by some grade levels.

“We allocated a lot of money for this,” Tesmer said. “We just want to make sure they’re being used.”

Graun said not all teachers and grade levels use the Chromebooks the same amount, but he said “they definitely get used” based on the amount of time he spends on handling questions every week. High school principal Marcia Diedrich confirmed this, noting that more and more teachers are using a program called Google Classroom.