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Editorial: MLK Jr. Day instruction falls short

Red Wing Public School students got Martin Luther King Jr. Day off after all — part of it, anyway — courtesy of Monday's ice storm. A year ago, School Board member Arlen Diercks argued that the 2016-17 academic calendar should treat federal holidays as no-school days.

"We should be promoting Martin Luther King Day the day before we take it off and we should be honoring it," he said during the debate.

Steve Anderson, a fellow board member, disagreed with that approach. "It is much more respectful to Dr. King and the efforts that he did to spend a day in the classroom emphasizing what he did."

There are good arguments on both sides, and the board voted to hold classes. The problem is that the upper grades didn't spend Monday learning about King and civil rights — or the minimum 60 minutes that state law requires.

At the elementary schools, Sunnyside students had lessons in class and Burnside had an assembly before the weather-related two-hour early release. Twin Bluff Middle School students started the day with an announcement and had lessons in social studies classes. Sixteen high school students traveled to the Twin Cities for an MLK breakfast and to see the new movie "Hidden Figures," which is about black women's contributions to the space program.

Meanwhile, at least half the student body apparently got next to nothing. Some students didn't have social studies on Monday because of the rotating schedule. A few students said they received a couple minutes of instruction in other classes, while other students said they never heard Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned, period.

The good news is that they are wondering why nothing was done, a positive reflection on their understanding of civic rights and King's legacy. But the district fell short in meeting the spirit of the day as Diercks and Anderson had envisioned as well as meeting the letter of the law.

Minnesota statute 120A.42 reads, in part, that a district may contract with its teachers to offer instruction on select holidays provided that a clause to this effect is inserted in the union contract and "at least one hour of the school program must be devoted to a patriotic observance of the day."

The Education Minnesota Red Wing 2015-17 contract has no such clause, but that's no surprise because lawmakers revised state statute in 2016. Still, 60-minute lessons are in order or the district shouldn't hold classes.

A survey of other districts in Goodhue County found that they, like Red Wing Public Schools, met the requirements on Veterans Day 2016. It appears the others met them again on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this week.

Half of the region's schools will hold classes Feb. 20 (Washington's Birthday, aka Presidents Day) when the same instruction requirement applies. The Red Wing Public Schools calendar committee will meet next week to discuss the 2017-18 academic calendar.

The School Board is set to vote Feb. 6 on that calendar. We hope Diercks and Anderson again lead a healthy, productive discussion. These instructional opportunities matter — for our children and for ourselves.