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Rio Rancho Schools Amend Science Policy

By Elaine Briseño
Journal Staff Writer
    The Rio Rancho school board voted Monday to amend a controversial science policy, which opponents said was a ruse to insert intelligent design into the science classroom.
    The board removed a sentence from the policy that deviated from state standards, and replaced it with language taken verbatim from the standards. The sentence that was removed was seen by many opponents as a way to slip religion into the classroom whenever teachers were discussing evolution.
    The two board members who introduced the policy, Don Schlichte and Marty Scharfglass, also apologized to the science teachers at the high school for not consulting them before proposing and then adopting the policy last summer.
    "When we brought the policy forward, we should have talked to the science staff," Scharfglass said. "It was a mistake not to do that."
    An opponent of the original policy, Rio Rancho High School SciMatics Academy head Dan Barbour, lauded the board's action after the meeting.
    "It's a decision that brings the community together," he said. "It's a victory for both sides. It retains the emphasis on critical thinking and removes the language with religious undertones."
    Scharfglass said after the meeting that although the amended policy just restates exactly what state standards say, it is necessary to make sure the standards are being enforced in class. That standard is that students be allowed to discuss alternative ideas to evolutionary theory.
    More than 100 people packed the meeting room and overflowed into the hallway to hear the board's discussion. More than 30 people spoke, with those supporting and those opposing the policy about even.
    The change made to the policy followed comments from Rio Rancho Superintendent Sue Cleveland. She said the most concern and controversy over the policy arose from the sentence:
    "When appropriate and consistent with the New Mexico Science Content Standards, Benchmarks, and Performance Standards, discussions about issues that are of interest to both science and individual religious and philosophical beliefs will acknowledge that reasonable people may disagree about the meaning and interpretation of data."
    "Most of the discussion was that this change in language from the state standards opened the door to different interpretations of the standards," she said.
    A motion by Scharfglass proposed replacing that sentence with one taken verbatim from the state standards:
    "Students shall understand that reasonable people may disagree about some issues that are of interest to both science and religion (e.g., the origin of life on earth, the cause of the big bang, the future of the earth)."
    The board approved the motion 4-1, with only Margaret Terry voting against it. Board president Lisa Cour, who opposed the policy when it was adopted in August, said she wanted it to go away, but in the spirit of compromise would support it with the amendment.
    Terry said even though she is a practicing Catholic, she could not support the policy, even with the amendment.
    "In my gut, I feel this is a backdoor policy for intelligent design," Terry said before the vote. "This policy is not honest because it is a backdoor for religion. I don't want religion in public school. That belongs at home or in the church."
    Intelligent design is the concept that life forms are too complex to be explained solely by Darwinian evolutionary theory. It points to an intelligent designer, presumably divine. Opponents of the policy, many of them teachers at the high school, have claimed the policy is a guise to force instructors to teach intelligent design.
    Schlichte and Scharfglass have said their intention was not to introduce religion into the classroom. Instead, they have argued that the policy encourages critical thinking.
    Schlichte, the head pastor at Rio West Community Church, admitted his biases but said the policy should not reflect his bias.
    "I don't want students bringing in Bibles," he said during the meeting. "The intention never was to teach creationism or intelligent design. It's so kids can have the opportunity to say 'I don't agree with the interpretation of data' (in regards to evolution)."
    Although the policy does not mention intelligent design, it was mentioned many times by opponents and proponents during the public-comment period of the meeting.
    Joseph Renick, executive director of the New Mexico Division of the Intelligent Design Network, spoke to the board in support of keeping the policy.
    "One of the primary jobs of districts is to teach objective science," Renick said. "It is a good policy. It's clearly written and supports state science standards. Parents are entitled to this policy."
    Barbour read a prepared statement opposing the policy, saying he was speaking as a unified voice for science teachers at the high school.
    He said the policy has become a divisive issue in the classroom.