St. Joseph schools first to bar concealed carry in Berrien County

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — The St. Joseph school board’s agenda Monday night was long and chalked full of important construction bids for the district’s school system.

However, what might be the most interesting item was the last one board members approved. The board often changes or alters its district’s polices, but NEOLA Policy 7217 was in relation to weapons on school grounds.

Much to the elation of Superintendent Ann Cardon, St. Joseph schools became the first district in Berrien County to restrict concealed carry permits at school while banning weapons altogether for visitors.

“To me, it’s a common-sense policy,” Cardon said Tuesday. “Our No. 1 priority is educating kids, but we must also make sure they are safe while doing so without something like that hanging over our head.”

The district’s policies are handled by NEOLA, a company that writes policies for various schools. Cardon said the service is used to get updates on changes in laws that may affect policies.

The policy was able to be changed following a court ruling in December.

The issue came to a head after Michigan Gun Owners, a nonprofit organization that acts on behalf of gun owners’ interests, sued Ann Arbor Public Schools in April 2015 after its Board of Education created a policy that banned guns on campus.

The lawsuit claimed school districts don’t have the authority to make laws about guns.

While state law allows individuals with concealed pistol licenses to openly carry their firearms in schools, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in December 2016 that the law does not pre-empt school districts from enacting their own firearms policies.

As soon as the ruling came through in December, Cardon said the district’s board members encouraged the administration in changing the policy.

The first reading came in February, before it was approved Monday night.

Cardon said based on her discussions with other superintendents in the county, she expects other schools are not far behind in doing so.

She added there has yet to be an incident where a visitor openly carried a firearm on school grounds.

“We’ve been fortunate in that matter,” Cardon said. “The community has been respectful of that. Bringing a weapon is tremendously disruptive to a school setting.”

Other than Kalamazoo Public Schools – which approved a policy of its own on Feb. 2 – Van Buren Intermediate School District Superintendent Jeff Mills said he wasn’t aware of any other district in Southwest Michigan that’s banned concealed carry permits from their premises.

Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit said the open carry has seen its challenges with schools due to a loophole in two overlapping laws.

Many schools already possessed the right to ban firearms from school grounds. But prior to the Michigan Court of Appeals ruling a few months ago, a second law allowed gun owners with a CPL to carry a gun openly on school grounds.

“The law had allowed a loophole,” Heit explained. “If they had a CPL, they could open carry in a school. In general public, open carry is legal. Because it was a unique situation being in a school, we could ask them for a CPL. But that ability (to carry in a school) has since been closed based on the recent court ruling.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 8, 2017)

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Construction in sight at St. Joseph schools

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

ST. JOSEPH — Nearly $600,000 in renovations and construction projects were approved by St. Joseph school board members Monday night.

Among the project bids accepted by the school board included the reconstruction of the high school tennis court, the renovation of the football field at Dickinson Stadium, and resurfacing of the high school and Upton Middle School athletic tracks.

Superintendent Ann Cardon said the plan is to have work done on all these construction projects by August – before the next school year begins.

In each case, the lowest bidder was chosen for the project. Kathy Hamilton, chief financial officer for the school district, said each project will be paid for from the building and site fund.

“We wanted to be ready to roll these items out as soon as the kids are out the door, because they (the projects) can take awhile,” Cardon said.

For the high school tennis court reconstruction project, the district agreed to pay $398,687 to Rieth-Riley Construction Co. – a Goshen, Ind.-based company that has a Benton Harbor office.

Cardon, who referred to the tennis court reconstruction as “long overdue,” said the last time the tennis court had this much work done was 13 years ago.

“This needs to be done,” Cardon said. “We’ve been sealing and filling in the cracks as much as we could. We’re actually meeting with (the company) on Wednesday.”

Dynamic Sports Construction, based in Texas, will be paid $146,894 to resurface the athletic tracks at the high school and middle school.

The board also accepted the bid of $46,764 from Turf Services, Inc., based in Spring Lake, for turf surfacing of the high school football field.

Cardon said the plan will be to remove the top 6 inches of grass and begin reseeding. This project is also why the high school graduation ceremony is being moved to the Shadowland pavilion this year near Silver Beach.

Other items

The board discussed the district’s building and site project list, which lays out potential projects through 2020. Cardon said each project on the list will still have to be brought to the board for final approval.

Taking into account the two preventative maintenance contracts – for the high school and middle school – along with the purchase of 250 MacBook Air computers for incoming sixth grade students, the school board approved more than $887,000 on Monday.

The three-year preventative maintenance contracts was a way for the district to ensure the district’s equipment is ready to go and is up to date, Cardon said. In the high school alone, Cardon said there are about 60 pieces of equipment to look after.

The board also approved a budget amendment for the 2016-17 school year. This was the second amendment made this year, after the board amended its general fund in December.

With increasing revenue, Hamilton proposed a resolution to amend not only the general fund, but the food service fund, building and site fund, debt retirement fund and the 2016 capital projects fund.

The next St. Joseph school board meeting is at 6 p.m. on April 17, which will be held at the Brown Elementary School Media Center.

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 7, 2017)