From the grocery store to the high school’s hallways, Smithville is buzzing over district efforts to terminate the contract of high school Principal Rudy Papenfuhs.
And that has some concerned that his supporters might take out their frustrations in November.
The Smithville School District is asking voters on Nov. 4 to increase the property tax levy by 79 cents per $100 of assessed valuation for 25 years. According to Smithville Power of One, a group supporting the levy increase, school taxes on a home with a market value of $100,000 would increase by $150.10 a year. The money would build a third elementary school, to open in fall 2016, and pay for improvements to other facilities.
A similar question failed in April 2013.
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The district placed Papenfuhs on administrative leave on Sept. 9. Two weeks later, it released a report listing multiple claims of policy violations, including that Papenfuhs provided a student with prescribed medications, took a student to a Chiefs football game without a parent or guardian present, allowed a student to drive his car, bought a car for a student, shared a sexually explicit video with a student and texted a student with a comment, “There is nothing I don’t love about you … .”
Smithville Police Chief Jason Lockridge confirmed an ongoing investigation involving the allegation that Papenfuhs shared prescription medicine. However, he has not been charged with any crime or accused of inappropriate physical contact.
Papenfuhs has not commented to The Star.
He has a due process hearing set for Thursday — less than three weeks before the election.
Todd Justice, a former city councilman who has sent three children to district schools, said the district’s handling of the Papenfuhs matter “has put me at a crossroads.”
“I’m so disappointed in the leadership and how this matter was handled,” Justice said. “I don’t know if I want to give them my vote now. I can imagine there’s quite a few people thinking the way I’m thinking right now.”
Justice said much of his frustration has come from the way media reports and the district’s allegations have portrayed Papenfuhs.
“The relationships that my family has had with Dr. Papenfuhs has been with the utmost professionalism,” he said. “I find him very caring. He’s been helpful. He was doing this to help kids in trouble, and I think that’s being used against him. And if that’s the case, that’s sad.”
Superintendent Todd Schuetz has recommended that the school board terminate Papenfuhs’ contract. He said his interest is providing a safe environment for students, “and we have policies and rules in place” to do that.
“We can’t allow consistent violation of those policies,” Schuetz said, “and I’m not in a position where I can weigh policies and determine if the person’s intentions are good.”
He said Papenfuhs was put on notice in September 2013 that he was to maintain appropriate boundaries with students.
The superintendent said passing the levy increase remains a top concern.
“The fact remains that we’re in dire need of additional space for our students as we continue to grow,” he said. “We continue to march on to accomplish that.”
Shelly Kawecki said Papenfuhs helped her son, Anthony, apply to colleges. He’s now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she said, studying mechanical engineering thanks to Papenfuhs’ help and payment of his application fee.
“My son struggled a lot,” she said. “He was extremely bright and received a lot of bullying and criticism throughout his years at the high school. ... Dr. Papenfuhs saw that break my son’s spirit, and so he stepped in and took him underneath his wing.”
Kawecki said that despite her frustration with district administrators, she supports the levy increase.
“I am still 100 percent behind (it),” Kawecki said. “I believe if this leadership takes this direction with terminating the principal, then maybe new leadership may be needed.”
An organization led by Kawecki and other parents called Citizens for Rudy Papenfuhs has organized to recall board members if they terminate his contract.
The group will be able to make its case tonight during a school board meeting and plans on showing its support for Papenfuhs during his due process hearing.
One of the main proponents of the levy increase, Michelle Kruse of Smithville Power of One, said she has heard from a few voters troubled by the Papenfuhs matter. She urged them to keep those concerns separate from the levy increase, which she said would provide space and security for schoolchildren.
“If personnel is what you want to vote for or against,” she said, “there’s another election for that.”
The Star’s Joe Robertson contributed to this report.