The Park Rapids School Board had a lively discussion Monday, Sept. 20 about the school district’s “release time” program.

Superintendent Lance Bagstad said he has been meeting with teachers and local ministers to discuss resuming the program, which allows participating students to receive religious instruction during school hours.

Release time was suspended last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bagstad explained.

“Annette Haas at St. Peter’s (Catholic Church) has been phenomenal to work with,” he said. “She’s kind of been the glue, with all of the ministerium groups.”

Bagstad said they plan to start release time as soon as possible, after deciding between three options: (1) having release time at the end of the school day, alternating weekly between elementary and middle school groups; (2) having release time at the end of the day but with both groups at the same time; and (3) continuing to have release time in the morning but with two separate groups.

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‘A spiritual war’

School board member Dennis Dodge read a statement about the release program, saying it’s needed now more than ever due to a spiritual war between good and evil, God and the devil.

“We have allowed God to be pushed out of our society, out of the government, out of our schools, out of our homes, and yes, even pushed out of our churches,” he said, citing influences from the media and new curricula proposed by the Minnesota Department of Education. “We have to get our heads out of the sand and look around, wake up. We have to put God back into our lives, into our minds, into our hearts, into our souls.”

Dodge stressed the importance of release time to achieve this, despite pressures to cut the program. He moved to direct Bagstad to work with local clergy to reinstate release time as soon as possible and, in a second motion, to draw up a policy establishing release time on a permanent basis.

Open discussion desired

During discussion of the first motion, board member Dana Kocka called it a “breath of fresh air” to see school and church personnel work together to make the program work for both teachers and students. He described a sense of excitement among those working to bring it back.

School board chair Sherry Safratowich said she appreciates the opportunity for the school and the ministerium to have an open discussion about the program rather than simply doing what is expected.

Carlson described the release program as unique and recalled people outside the district expressing amazement about it.

“I think it is very important,” she said, while acknowledging that it adds a lot of work for school staff, especially preparing younger students for the outing and accommodating students who don’t go.

“I can tell you as a release time teacher, at least in our parish, we don’t always have a lot of the younger families coming to church,” Carlson said. “I just think that if you can plant one little seed in these kids, it’s worth it.”

Regarding the second motion, Bagstad questioned whether the policy might tie the hands of a future school board, but noted that policies can be changed if needed.

Dodge explained that he wanted the policy to take the pressure of supporting the release program off the superintendent and transfer it to the school board.

Bagstad acknowledged that the community currently supports having release time as part of its educational system.

Both motions passed unanimously.