The Ottumwa Courier

April 16, 2014

Carrying bookbags a balancing act

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Permission slips. Notes from teachers. School activity announcements, birthday invitations, report cards and homework to sign. Kids bring home a lot of stuff. But is it done fairly?

The school board this week was asked by ranking members of the popular Ottumwa Community Children's Playhouse to review school policy on allowing flyers to go home with students.

Members of OCCP put on plays, theater camps and dance activities to keep children engaged. The dances are a social way to entertain kids and are not a fundraiser for the organization, said OCCP's Becky Ingle.

In fact, said Marc Lay, though there is a small admission charge at the dances, the group usually ends up spending its own money to host. And that's fine with them, because it's not done as a fundraiser. But they want more kids to know about the functions and be able to attend.

When they were allowed to send flyers home before the prohibition on fundraisers started years ago, they had perhaps 200 children come to the dances. Now that they've been prohibited from distributing flyers "in backpacks," that number has dropped to just more than 100.

There's a perception of unfairness, cautioned the players, as other nonprofit groups are able to send home announcements: YMCA, Tenco, Izaac Walton. Those are all wonderful groups, said Lay, who has several of his own children in the district. Those organizations are good for kids — but so is the playhouse.

During board member topics, David Weilbrenner said he wanted to know more about how such decisions are made, adding there should be fairness. Is there a policy?

Superintendent Davis Eidahl said the old curriculum director had been responsible for deciding what materials from the outside could be distributed by the schools. There had to be a balance: Kids bring home so much, the higher priority notices could start getting lost in the background noise of all those other flyers. But the district does want children to know about area activities, too.

He's delegated the task to the district community relations coordinator. The district is, at times, swamped with requests, since classrooms are obviously a great place to reach kids.

Kim Hellige, community relations director for the district, said because there was so much coming in, restrictions had to be set. There are several factors considered. The most basic is whether the offered program has, at its core, an educational component.

So some of the other groups have activities accepted — and activities turned down. A notice for a field day, said to contain outdoor learning opportunities, was accepted for distribution. Yet a well-liked children's parade had to be denied because it was not particularly educational. The OCCP theater camp, in fact, is considered educational enough to make the cut. The dances? Not so much, Hellige said.

Typically, she added, groups find an alternate distribution method for information not passed out by the schools.

There is no objective measure of "how educational" something is. Hellige told the board she does her best to keep the interest of the kids and parents in mind, and if she is on the fence about whether something is educational enough, she will get a second opinion from an administrator.

Though the discussion was held in open session, the board was not permitted to set or adjust the policy, or even vote to do so. State law requires that the board (and other taxpayer-supported elected entities) give public, 24-hour notice before taking any action.

— Education reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark