Future of Bible class in schools up in air

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Steamboat Springs High School won't offer an elective class on the Bible next year because course decisions already have been made. Whether the class is offered in future years is yet to be determined.

"At this point in time, our curriculum is closed for next year," School Board President Paula Stephenson told parents Michelle Diehl and Roger Johnson at Monday's board meeting. Diehl and Johnson are the leaders of a petition drive that collected 605 signatures in support of offering a "Bible in History and Literature" class at the high school.

Diehl and Johnson, both of whom are parents of district students, approached the School Board on Monday to ask whether the Bible class issue could be placed on a future meeting agenda.

"We do see that there is a great interest in this Bible curriculum course," Diehl told board members, pointing out that 60 high school students signed the petitions. "We were hoping we can all work together to make it an easier process."

Stephenson said it would be difficult to place the issue on a future agenda.

"This is not something I want on the agenda," Stephenson said. "I don't believe this course belongs, even as an elective, in our schools. I'm just speaking for myself. It's going to be difficult to get it on the agenda."

Superintendent Donna Howell suggested that Diehl and Johnson present the outline for the Bible course to the high school's curriculum committee when it reconvenes in the fall. However, future curriculum decisions likely will be made by the School Board, Howell said. Up to and including this year, the high school's curriculum committee has made many of the decisions related to course offerings at the school.

Board member Jeff Troeger, a Colorado Mountain College professor, said the college offers comparative religion and world religion courses that high school students could take and earn credits for through an articulation agreement between the district and CMC.

The Bible course desired by Diehl and Johnson is based on curriculum authored by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which states the Bible in History and Literature class is offered in 292 school districts in 35 states. The course teaches high school students about the influence of the Bible in history, government, culture, literature, art and music, according to a letter Johnson and Diehl wrote to the School Board. The course also discusses the influence of the Bible on human rights and the importance of religion in world and national history. The course doesn't impose the doctrine of any particular religious sect, Diehl and Johnson wrote in the letter.

"We have a belief that this is a good course from an academic perspective," Johnson said Monday. "It's something we'd like to see reviewed and see if it makes sense to have it in the school district."

An anonymous donor would provide the funds to pay the salary of a teacher to teach the course, Diehl said.

"This course in no way, shape or form is a religious course," she said, adding that public schools aren't the place to teach religion to kids. "We're just concerned parents that think a Bible course is a good idea."

Others disagree. The curriculum offered by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools has been the subject of controversy in numerous districts across the country and in at least one instance was part of a legal dispute. In that case, a federal judge in Florida ruled against a school board that sought to use the National Council on Bible Curriculum's New Testament curriculum for an elective course. In her ruling, the judge said New Testament topics such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ and miracles associated with him couldn't be taught in a secular way. The president of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools has denied that her group's curriculum was the part of the 1998 court case.

Public schools can't provide religious instruction, but they can teach about religion, according to guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education. Teaching about religion includes the Bible and other scripture, the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible as literature and the role of religion in the history of the country and other countries. Classes can't indoctrinate or promote a particular religious belief.

After Monday's meeting, Johnson and Diehl said they'd approach CMC about offering the course there. They also said they'd present the Bible course curriculum to the high school's curriculum committee in the fall.

In other business
Leland Reece of Christiansen, Reece and Partners presented a master facilities plan his group prepared as the final piece of a detailed audit of district facilities. Reece recommended the board review the master plan report and move toward writing and adopting a long-range facilities master plan of its own.
The board received an update on program evaluations the district is performing on its Montessori, elementary Spanish, alternative high school and Students Engaged in Active Learning programs.
Superintendent Donna Howell updated the board on its Montessori program and potential changes for the 2005-06 school year, including the addition of a second, upper elementary Montessori class for students in grades three through five. Board member Tami Havener said she was contacted by several parents concerned about Strawberry Park Elementary School losing another teacher because of Montessori. Howell said the school isn't losing any teachers and will continue to be staffed according to a ratio outlined in district policy. Strawberry Park technology director Diane Maltby said some teachers at the school were concerned about the amount of money spent on materials for the Montessori classrooms. She also said the class affects the climate at the school, adding that some teachers embrace Montessori while others are put off by it.
Howell updated the board on plans to implement an early dismissal schedule next year. Under the schedule, students will be dismissed early one Wednesday each month to provide professional development and planning time for teachers.
School Board President Paula Stephenson read a letter from Richard Lyons, the district's attorney, responding to a letter sent to the School Board by a Colorado Education Association attorney. Both letters are in regards to an ongoing disagreement between teachers and district officials over whether the board violated negotiated policy.

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