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High schools parents want more communication with school leaders after fire

Bishop David Kagan of the Diocese of Bismarck (right) speaks with Monsignor Patrick Schumacher at his side Friday afternoon at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Dickinson, N.D. (Forum News Service)

DICKINSON, N.D. — Trinity High School has a new leader in place and a nomadic class schedule ready to start again on Monday, but some parents are still clamoring for more of a voice.

During a public meeting at the St. Wenceslaus Life Center room Friday afternoon, the Dickinson Catholic Schools board of education announced it has named Trinity Chaplain Rev. Kregg Hochhalter the school’s dean of students — an announcement that drew applause from many in a crowd of about 200.

“I want you all to know that the Diocese will do all that it is able, in cooperation with Dickinson Catholic Schools, to get everything put back together,” said Bishop David Kagan of the Diocese of Bismarck, who spoke briefly and answered a couple of questions.

Still, some parents expressed lingering concern about Trinity’s future to school leaders.

“I can’t speak for everyone else, but I can speak for myself,” said Sandra Kuntz, a Dickinson attorney with children in the Trinity school system. “As a parent, my voice has been silenced and that is not acceptable. I haven’t found a single statement in the Gospel or the canons ... we’re supposed to follow that says anything other than the parents are supposed to be the primary educators. When you silence our voice, you make us unable to be a part of that.”

Speaking before the board, Kagan and Rev. Justin Waltz ­— the Diocese’s delegate for Catholic education — during a 15-minute question-and-answer session at the end of the 35-minute forum, Kuntz offered her help to the board as the Trinity community continues to recover from a Monday morning that ravaged the 53-year-old high school.

The school’s former principal, Thomas Sander, is incarcerated in Dickinson after being charged with arson and endangerment by fire, both Class B felony charges, in connection with the blaze that left the building unusable for the remainder of the school year.

“I’m asking that you look around this room and invite those that have that primary responsibility to be a part of administering this rebuilding,” Kuntz said. “We would like to see a rebuilding team, not just a single board that comes from one perspective and thinks they’ve covered all of the angles. I think that huge piece went missing after our parents and children were silenced.”

Kuntz was referring to a shakeup of the Trinity school board and administration last spring and led to the hiring of Sander.

Visiting Trinity for the first time since the fire, Kagan toured the school early Friday afternoon before a private board meeting.

“This is a difficult time,” Kagan said. “That’s maybe one of the big understatements of the week.”

Kagan said the announcement of Hochhalter’s promotion was already in the works, but necessitated expedition following this week’s fire and aftermath. The announcement was originally planned for next Friday and he was originally set to take the position on July 1.

“Effective today, I have appointed Father Kregg Hochhalter to be the dean of students for Trinity High School,” Kagan said. “With the assistance of Father Waltz, my delegate for Catholic education, Father Hochhalter has generously agreed to dedicate the next several years to Catholic education. With Father Waltz’ help, he will begin a course of instruction and study to obtain the proper administrative and teaching certification. As the dean of students, he will be able to function as the principal, except for just a few things, which can be taken care of by other staff.”

A Trinity graduate, Hochhalter said after the forum that he is looking forward to the challenge of his new position.

“I’m happy to serve Trinity High School,” Hochhalter said after the forum. “I’m a product of the school. I’ve spent 13 years in the school building. I went away for a couple years to get my education and now I’m back serving as dean of students and I’m looking forward to it. Just like I told the bishop a month ago, I’m happy to serve the school in any way I can. I cannot wait to bring the school out of this time of tragedy and sorrow to a time of great success.”

Though Hochhalter said he has a master’s degree in theology and a bachelor’s in philosophy, he does not have a higher degree in school administration, which was a question asked by one forum participant.

Hochhalter, however, will complete that education over the next two years, Waltz said. Waltz added that the plan is to eventually add a principal that would oversee all Trinity students.

“The Diocese of Bismarck has had a long-term plan for Father Hochhalter since long before this situation came up,” Waltz said. “Father Hochhalter is qualified as a dean of students and has been approved by AdvancED. We just want the Dickinson community to understand that we are moving forward with a plan that is only going to make Trinity High School stronger. We’re setting the course for the future of Trinity and it’s a bright future, the Dickinson community can be assured of that.”

Though there was concern in some voices, others used the forum in an attempt to rally support from all sides of the Trinity community.

Andrew DesRosier, the school’s athletic director, read a prepared statement from longtime head boys basketball coach Gregg Grinsteinner, who was unable to attend the meeting.

“We have two choices to make,” Grinsteinner’s statement read. “Come together and get stronger, or let ourselves defeat ourselves.

“Today is not the day to tear our family apart.”

Aside from Kagan’s quick tour of the building, the school remains inaccessible to the public.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms is expected to return Tuesday for further investigation. The building will remain secure until investigators have their case “refined for trial,” said Rev. Patrick Schumacher, chairman of the Dickinson Catholic School board.

Dickinson Catholic Schools President Steve Glasser said over the next week, school officials hope insurance materials begin coming together so they can better answer questions about personal items of students and teachers still inside the building.

The building was insured for $17 million through Catholic Mutual Group.

Glasser said updated information will continue to be made available on the school’s website,

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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