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Brainerd Public Schools: Student, staff efforts to keep untenured teacher fall short

Brainerd School Board members discuss matters during their board meeting Monday, April 22, at the Washington Educational Services Building. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

Despite both student and teacher opposition, a first-year English teacher at Brainerd High School will not return this fall.

When the news of school district plans not to renew Steven Fetzik's contract broke, juniors Douglas Mikkelson and Aiah Smith-Seelen were among students spearheading a petition to combat the matter.

More than 30 students signed the petition, which Mikkelson and Smith-Seelen said they started because of Fetzik's knack for relating lessons to current events and his particular way of treating students more like adults than kids.

The petition, however, never made its way to administration, and Brainerd School Board members voted to not renew Fetzik's contract during a meeting Monday, April 22.

Mikkelson said in an email after the meeting he decided not to share the petition with the board after talking the issue over with a counselor.

"I decided that forwarding the petition probably wouldn't do much because there was already a story about it in the paper and the meeting was just hours away," Mikkelson wrote, referring to a story about the petition that ran in the Sunday edition of the Brainerd Dispatch.

"This is all just really disappointing," Mikkelson continued in his email. "We did what we could."

Fetzik's students weren't the only ones fighting for him to stay. Forestview Middle School teacher Dave Pritschet advocated on Fetzik's behalf at Monday's board meeting, asking board members during the public forum to discuss their options more before taking action.

"I think in a situation where you've had constituents bring up concerns, that it's something that's worth discussing," Pritschet said. "There's a difference between, 'You didn't do what I wanted you to do,' and 'You didn't listen to me.' If you discuss it and you decide in a way different than I see it, at least you listened to me."

Though the school district does not need to give a reason for releasing an untenured teacher, Pritschet suggested the board do so.

"There should be a reason for releasing an untenured teacher," he said, "especially one of the caliber that he is."

Pritschet said options like giving Fetzik another probationary year could be discussed before making a final decision.

Board members, however, had few words to say before voting on Fetzik's nonrenewal, an item included in Monday's consent agenda.

"I believe that every board member, or almost every board member, has talked to Superintendent (Laine) Larson today, so we have had discussion individually," board chair Sue Kern said.

Unanimous approval then came for the items on the consent agenda.

On Tuesday, Pritschet said during a phone interview he was disappointed the board did not have more discussion about the issue during the meeting. He did, however, say he was appreciative to board members for responding to his written correspondence about the matter both before and after the meeting.

"In my view, Steve (Fetzik) is a master teacher. He's well-respected by his peers, well-liked by his students," he said, also noting the school's debate program could use someone like Fetzik.

Pritschet, who currently coaches both speech and debate at Brainerd High School, is stepping down from the debate team next year after 26 years, as coaching both programs is a big time commitment, and the seasons overlap.

"I wanted to resign while I still loved it," Pritschet said. "My saying is I want to walk away when it still leaves a hole in my heart. I don't want to be one of those people who hold on and keep doing something until they start resenting it."

With someone like Fetzik—the former debate coach at St. Francis High School—coming into the district, Pritschet said he felt he could step down without putting the program in jeopardy.

But after Monday's board meeting, both coach and students are worried about the team's future.

Maddie Schuld, BHS senior and captain of the speech and debate teams, voiced her concern about the future of debate in Brainerd.

"I, of course, am a huge advocate for speech and debate, and honestly those programs have given me skills that are irreplaceable," Schuld said during the meeting's open forum. "My debate coaches have taught me life lessons, and they've really mentored me and advocated for me all throughout high school, and it really saddens me that it looks like we're not going to have a debate program next year."

Pritschet said he doesn't know of any other experienced or qualified debate coaches in Brainerd, though he would be willing to support someone wanting to take it on.

Fetzik declined to comment on the issue Tuesday, and because the matter is a personnel issue, Superintendent Larson said after Monday's meeting she and board members could not comment on it.

Theresa Bourke

I started at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and the Brainerd School District. I follow city and school board officials as they make important decisions for residents and students and decide how to spend taxpayer dollars. I look for feature story ideas among those I meet and enjoy, more than anything, helping individuals tell their stories and show what makes them unique.

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