ISD 166 looks at budget, approves preschool changes
WTIP file photo

ISD 166 looks at budget, approves preschool changes

For the first time in a very long time, the COVID-19 situation at School District 166 was not the topic of lengthy discussion at the March 17 school board meeting. Other than a statement from Superintendent Chris Lindholm that things are going well, there was little discussion and the meeting instead focused on usual school board business.

WTIP spoke with Lindholm after the school board meeting and he affirmed that there has been minimal impact on school and staff attendance through February and into March. He said, “It’s been a really a breath of fresh air to have a month under our belts here, kind of operating as normal.”

The school still recommends wearing masks on campus, but it is not required.

There was, however, public comment at the school board meeting regarding how COVID-19 contacts are handled. A parent expressed concern about what he felt were different standards for vaccinated versus unvaccinated students who have been exposed to COVID-19. He said it has been determined that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people can spread the coronavirus, so a stricter quarantine and requirement for a period of masking for unvaccinated children is not only unfair but not necessary. The parent said he feels that causes division in the school.

The school board does not respond to public comment during meetings but can address questions later. The board did not give a response and WTIP asked Superintendent Lindholm for his thoughts. He replied, “Well, I fully respect the difference of opinions that are all out there in the community. And you know how to handle the situation with COVID has been a never-ending struggle for the last couple of years. The valid concern here is treating people differently.

“And that is exactly why the district worked really hard to make sure we could ramp up a test-to-stay option for students. So, in reality, we treat the vaccinated and unvaccinated students who are determined to be a close contact in very similar ways. If you’re a close contact vaccinated or not, we ask you for that 10-day period after having been a contact to wear a good mask to protect yourself, and the people around you. So you don’t spread it. And that’s the same whether you’re vaccinated or not vaccinated.

“We encourage people who are vaccinated to take the test, we ask our students who are not vaccinated to for sure to take the test and they can test to stay or quarantine up to them. But having that test-to-stay option is really a good tool we’re happy to be able to offer now that we have enough tests on hand,” said Lindholm.

Reviewing the budget

At the meeting, there was a lot of conversation about the school’s 2022-2023 budget. Of special note is that the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, related to the COVID-19 pandemic will not be available after 2023.

WTIP asked Lindholm what those funds have been used for and if this will cause financial difficulties for ISD 166 in the future. Lindholm said yes, and noted that some school districts across the country are referring to that end of funding as kind of a “fiscal cliff” situation.

Lindholm said ISD 166 has been using those funds to keep class sizes small, for extra paraprofessionals, enrichment activities, and remedial learning activities. He said the funds will be used this summer to help students with learning loss situations and for mental health.

Lindholm noted that much of the funding received was used for technology in the district, which enabled students to learn from a distance or in class.

And, he said the money was used for protective equipment and materials related to COVID-19.

Lindholm said the board needed to have this discussion, to ensure they were using the funds properly and to determine how to use them before the deadline of September 2024. He said it is important to use the funds in a manner that doesn’t ultimately create ongoing expenditures beyond when they’re available.

Another interesting item considered during the budget discussion is the addition of a “high reliability coach.” Lindholm explained that this position is part of the “high reliability school” program, which he said is a “framework for excellence in leading schools.”

It’s a method to ensure that schools are minimizing mistakes and teaching and learning with excellence. Lindholm explained that the coach role is a position that a staff member fills to provide instructional coaching to peers and assists in evaluations in the school’s quality assurance program (Q-Comp).

Asked if this is an added expense for the school district, Lindholm said no. He said these funds are currently being used in the peer monitoring program with a number of different people involved. He said this will be a realignment of those funds for a single person to assume that leadership role. Lindholm added that it is hoped a current teacher will want to fill that position.

Changes for ISD 166 preschool program

There will be an addition to the budget to add staff to the ISD 166 preschool program. Lindholm said that is due to the lack of child care in the community, an ongoing conversation. He said the school wants to try to solve the problem.

“So ultimately, we added two positions,” said Lindholm. “One is an Early Childhood Special Education position, which is needed simply due to the increase in the number of students needing services for special ed in the early childhood program.

“But the other position is a preschool teacher.  We are posting a third preschool teacher position in hopes of offering opening up a third section, and taking in more students and being able to offer parents of three-year-old children a full day option,” he said.

That is likely good news for families, but there is also news of a fee increase for preschool at ISD 166. WTIP asked Lindholm to explain the fees and the sliding scale fee program which the school board approved.

Lindholm said the sliding scale fee will go into effect in the 2022-23 school year. School districts are required by statute to make sure that preschool is affordable to all of the families. He said the rates were calculated by looking back at the 2018-19 school year, which was pre-COVID-19 and the last year that full fees were charged. The school district applied an inflationary factor and created the sliding scale fee, which tops out at $530 per month for a family that makes $120,000 or more.

Lindholm said that is the start of the fee and then the cost is scaled backwards to less and less, based on a family’s income. He said parents concerned about the fees can talk to the school about financial assistance. The fee for families in the $25,000-$39,000 would be $265 and under $25,000 will be free.

Lindholm said there is a preschool registration event on April 13 and he encourages parents to attend to learn more about the sliding scale and possible financial assistance.

Staff resignations and hiring

Normally approved in the fall, the position of head football coach was on the agenda. Lindholm said that is because training for football begins before the actual season. He said the district wanted to make sure the new coach has an opportunity to be engaged in the planning for the summer camps, and weightlifting over the summer months. Steven Anderson, who was already on the football coaching staff applied for and was offered the head football coach position.

The school board accepted, with regrets, the resignation of Andrew Feddema, social studies teacher and activities director. He submitted his resignation for the end of the year to accept a teaching job in the Twin Cities. Lindholm said, “We’ll be sorry to see him go and wish him the very, very best in his next position. “

In addition to now needing to hire a social studies teacher, the school will need to decide how it wants to fill the activities director job. Lindholm said the position will be posted internally and he said it is hoped that a staff member would like to take on that role.

Finally, the school board expressed regret that Finance Director Lori Backlund is retiring soon but also said they were happy to welcome Theresa Oberg. Oberg has started working in the office with Backlund in the office. Lindholm said, “It’s been a very strategic move that we overlap the two positions so that they do have time to work together.”

WTIP’s Rhonda Silence spoke with Superintendent Chris Lindholm about all of these things and more. Here’s their conversation.