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  • Last modified 66 days ago (Dec. 22, 2023)

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Ill will toward newspaper limits Santa letters

Staff writers

Letters from Marion Elementary students will not appear in this year’s Dear Santa section because of a boycott by teachers.

All other schools in the county are participating as usual.

The Record’s office manager, Cheri Bentz, asked for the letters Nov. 29, encouraging them to be handwritten with artwork and including any misspelled words because authenticity “adds to the charm.”

Bentz told school contacts the paper would pick up the letters Dec. 13 and urged the schools — as Centre did — to include clear spelling of the students’ names because younger students’ handwriting often is hard to read.

Marion Elementary principal Jenna Fanshier responded Nov. 30, thanking Bentz for reaching out and saying she would “present this opportunity to our teachers and will keep you in the loop!”

Bentz followed up twice afterward but received no replies. She finally was told Dec. 14, after it was too late for the Record to offer to let parents submit children’s letters on their own, that no letters would be provided.

Discussions revealed

Although nothing was said to the Record, plenty of activity occurred behind the scenes, as revealed in correspondence obtained Monday by the Record under the Kansas Open Records Act.

School secretary Natalie Hett sent teachers a message asking: “The Record keeps reaching out to me regarding Santa letters. Would you like to submit Santa letters to the Record, or do you have any thoughts?”

Two years ago, teachers took to social media to criticize a Record editorial as attacking children. They participated in the Dear Santa section a year later. But this year, they renewed their criticism, saying the editorial attacked not students but them.

First grade teacher Rebecca Hofer replied to Hett’s note:

“I would prefer not to submit letters. They have criticized us (our teaching) for children’s writing in the past, and they have spelled kids’ names incorrectly in the past. As a result, I prefer not to do this project.”

Fellow first grade teacher Denise May added:

“This is why 1st grade will not be submitting letters.”

A note from Fanshier to teachers indicates that the question was discussed further at a staff meeting the next day.

No details of that discussion were provided, but pre-kindergarten teacher Shawn Hake wrote:

“I missed some of the discussion about letters to Santa at the staff meeting yesterday. I sent home a letter template for my parents to help their kids fill out, then they send it back to me and I take the letters to the library. The library will mail a letter to the children. The library also sends the letters to the newspaper.

“Is this OK or do you want me to ask the library not to send the letters on to the paper and then let the parents know? Or what?”

Hett asked Fanshier: “Can we just say we will not be participating in the publication of letters to Santa this year?”

AI used to draft form letter

Fanshier responded by inviting unspecified others to edit a document called “Base letter to newspaper.”

She included with the request a note stating: “This needs much editing, but here is what AI generated as a base model. I will try to get to this later today.”

The form letter, with fill-in-the-blank sections, states:

“Subject: Grateful for the Invitation, Regretful Decline.

“Dear [Newspaper Editor’s Name],

“I hope this email finds you well. First and foremost, I want to express my sincere gratitude for extending an invitation to us to share student letters to Santa Claus in the upcoming edition of [Newspaper Name]. It is truly an honor to be considered for such a heartwarming feature, and we appreciate the opportunity to be a part of spreading holiday joy.

“After careful consideration, we regret to inform you that we won’t be able to participate in this wonderful initiative this year. While we are enthusiastic about the prospect of showcasing our students’ creativity and holiday spirit, our current schedule is quite packed, and we want to ensure that we can give this opportunity the time and attention it deserves.

“We genuinely appreciate the efforts of [Newspaper Name] in fostering community engagement and celebrating the festive season. We hope that our schedule will allow us to collaborate in the future and contribute to the uplifting content that your newspaper consistently delivers.

“Once again, thank you for considering us for this opportunity, and we wish you and the entire [Newspaper Name] team a joyful and successful holiday season.

“Warm regards,

“[Your Full Name]

“[Your Position]

“[Your Contact Information]”

No version of this letter was sent to the Record.

Tax story also criticized

The only other correspondence provided by the district in response to the newspaper’s open records request was a weekly report sent just this Friday to school board members by Superintendent Justin Wasmuth.

The first of four points in letter, which otherwise dealt exclusively with extracurricular activities and early dismissal, dealt with the newspaper.

“Our elementary teachers made the decision not to send in Santa letters to the paper because of the editorial from two years ago that felt like an attack on their teaching,” Wasmuth wrote.

He added that reporter Phyllis Zorn “called me to ask why, and I gave the feeling from MES.”

“She disagreed with the viewpoint, and Jenna also talked to her and we did send pre-K letters but other teachers did not want to go through with it,” Wasmuth wrote, even though no pre-kindergarten letters ever were received from the school. “I back that decision for now as I don’t know how the newspaper would spin the letters coming in.”

He went on to address another matter involving the newspaper and a news article, which he incorrectly described as an editorial, by Eric Meyer in the Dec. 13 issue.

“In Eric’s editorial this week the rise in taxes was brought up with a paragraph on the rec raise in mills,” Wasmuth wrote. “After taking to Nick about this yesterday and discussions with Kristi and Jordan about the actual numbers, I will not write a written response back to dispute because the numbers are close but trying to explain the miscalculations might raise false suspensions of our money handling.

“If you have not read it, Eric is saying taxes are way too high and us getting the bond passed in May was not a good idea (paraphrasing).”

The news story did not express any opinion about whether taxes were too high, too low, or just right or on whether passage of a bond issue for a new concession stand and locker room had been a good idea or a bad idea.

What it did say was that countywide tax bills, the first half of which must be paid by today, increased considerably because of increased government spending and increases in appraised values of property.

It noted that the amount of tax money being raised by the school district increased 4.27% or $31,788.44 in a state-mandated fund and 3.97% or $63,152.28 in a second local option fund.

Both increases were in addition to $49,129.49 in new tax revenue for a recreation district spun off from the school district.

All figures came directly from the county clerk’s office, which is responsible for sending out official tax bills.

The news article did not offer specific numbers involving the bond issue, but it did point out that interest being paid to continue past debt and undertake the concession stand and locker room project exceeded the amount of increased spending by the district.

In other words, school district taxes might have declined if the bond issue had not been approved — a point that then-Superintendent Lee Leiker conceded was true in interviews before the bond issue was approved.

Responses to boycott

When initially contacted about the boycott, Wasmuth insisted the editorial teachers were miffed about had been published last year rather than two years ago.

Fanshier initially said she was not sure why teachers did not send letters, noting that some were working on take-home projects.

“All I can tell you is about pre-kindergarten,” she said. “The others I have no comment on.”

School board president Nick Kraus said the editorial two years ago “was not taken well.” He, too, initially said the editorial had been printed last year rather than two years ago. A verbatim reprint of the editorial appears on Page 2 this week.

Mayor-elect Mike Powers, who promoted a “Marion: Stronger Together” campaign this fall, did not return calls seeking comment.

Last modified Dec. 22, 2023

 

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