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Hochhalter named Trinity dean; parents express need for a voice in wake of fire

Bishop David Kagan of the Diocese of Bismarck, right, speaks with Monsignor Patrick Schumacher at his side on Friday afternoon at St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church in Dickinson.

Trinity High School introduced a new leader Friday, just in time for classes to restart on Monday.

But some parents are still clamoring for more of a voice in the wake of a Monday morning fire that has rendered the school unusable.

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During a public meeting at the St. Wenceslaus Life Center room Friday afternoon, the Dickinson Catholic Schools board of education announced Trinity Chaplain Rev. Kregg Hochhalter has been named the school’s dean of students. It 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 questions.

Still, some parents expressed their lingering concern about Trinity’s future to the assembled 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 that say 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.”

Kuntz was one of a handful who offered her help to 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  half-hour forum to discuss the fire that canceled classes at the 53-year-old school this week and has caused 7-12 students to move to classrooms at various Dickinson Public Schools and at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

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 Dickinson Catholic Schools board and administration last spring, which led to the hiring of Sander in July.

Kagan toured the school for the first time since the fire Friday afternoon before attending 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 Hochhalter 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, the 29-year-old 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,” he said. “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 an Bachelor’s in philosophy, he does not have a higher degree in school administration, which was a question asked by one forum participant.

Hochhalter will complete that education over the next two years, Waltz said, adding 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 as 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.”

Dickinson City Commissioner Carson Steiner asked Kagan if Trinity could expect financial help from the diocese in the fire’s aftermath. Steiner asked if the diocese can offer financial support to both Trinity and Bishop Ryan High School in Minot, which had an elementary school irreparably damaged by the Souris River flood of 2011.

“The way it works between the diocese and all of its Catholic institutions is that the diocese always is the guarantor of any type of loan, long term or short term,” Kagan said. “Whether it’s capital improvement or rebuilding a school or parish, that’s how it works. There are extraordinary circumstances where the diocese can make what we call a bridge loan to see people through in the short term. We’ve done that in the past.”

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,

Amongst the voices of concern, the overwhelming sentiment from Bishop Kagan, parish priests and school officials was patience and support.

“The devil does not have the last say in this,” Waltz said.

Press Managing Editor Dustin Monke contributed to this story.

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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