A parent complaint about registration procedures for an after-school Bible club is prompting a review of policies regarding outside materials at Albany schools.
Matt Mellenthin, whose daughter is a first-grader at North Albany Elementary School, spoke to the Albany School Board on Monday. He said he wasn't happy to learn his daughter had brought home a brochure advertising a Good News Club to be offered by Child Evangelism Fellowship at a nearby church and requesting the return of a permission slip to the school.
Mellenthin said he feels school staff time spent disseminating or collecting material affiliated with a religious organization amounts to endorsement. He said he is pursuing a formal complaint through district channels but needed to make board members aware immediately because the permission slips were due back this week.
By policy, Albany school employees are not allowed to direct students in religious exercises, nor are district funds to be spent on religious activities.
"The fact that the school district directed teachers to physically insert the evangelical flyer into the backpacks of small children can lead to no other conclusion (than) that the school district encourages public school families to join Child Evangelism Fellowship," Mellenthin wrote in his letter to the board.
Board members agreed to have administrators investigate.
On Tuesday, Interim Superintendent Tim Mills said he'd found seven elementary schools, including North Albany Elementary, had distributed the Good News Club brochure. After-school clubs have begun at the other six schools: Sunrise, Lafayette, Periwinkle, Waverly, Clover Ridge and Timber Ridge.
North Albany Elementary encompasses students from Oak Grove this year, which would make eight schools once that club begins. The Democrat-Herald contacted other elementary schools in Albany and found South Shore Elementary also has a Child Evangelism Fellowship-sponsored Good News Club this year, bringing the total to nine.
If a school district allows public and private organizations to rent its facilities after hours, it cannot discriminate against those organizations based on whether or not they involve religion, Mills pointed out. However, he did find a problem with the way Child Evangelism Fellowship had distributed its information.
Groups and organizations that want to reach out to Albany schools are required to send their material through an online system called Peachjar, which the district has used since fall 2015.
District officials must approve any material received through Peachjar. Once approved, the material is made available through Peachjar, rather than the district, for parent viewing. Parents also have the right to opt out of the material being distributed.
Mills said North Albany Elementary has been told it cannot accept returned permission slips for the club, and that Child Evangelism Fellowship must go through Peachjar to receive them.
It's unclear whether the organization has been sending out paper brochures all along, Mills said, but he said representatives were told, both this year and earlier, that Peachjar must be used.
"We've reached out to the Good News Clubs to make sure they follow procedure," he said.
David Becker, local director of Child Evangelism Fellowship of Oregon Inc., sent a general statement to the Democrat-Herald about the organization but did not immediately respond to specific questions about how it contacts schools.
"Child Evangelism Fellowship is (a) worldwide organization that provides fun, energetic, Bible-centered after-school programs called, Good News Clubs," Becker wrote. "Good News Clubs are taught by trained volunteers. For children’s safety, every volunteer is screened according to a rigorous Child Protection Policy."
Mills said he did not have complete information yet as to whether the physical materials that came to schools were reviewed by principals or received any other official approval before being sent out. He said he knows of no other group sending out paper registration forms at present.
"I think our office manager folks are trying to be accommodating," he said. "We will follow up and make sure we're clear on our procedures."
Mellenthin said he's pleased the district took immediate action but said he'll continue to move forward with his complaint.
“I wouldn't consider it a resolution. This is the start of the investigation to see who participated in this," he said. "Basically, public funds were used to promote the evangelical church. We're just starting to get these answers now."
Mellenthin said he understands the district is bound by law to be nondiscriminatory in terms of facility access, but that he strongly disagrees with anything that smacks of promotion.
"We fought for a long time to keep a separation between church and state. Those walls are breaking down around us," he said. "This is a clear failure that has furthered those intrusions of church and state. In this case, they've actually facilitated it."