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Levy, childcare and clean air on ISD 166 agenda

The September 17 meeting of the School District 166 school board started on a high note, with a report from the school’s student representative, Hazel Oberholtzer.

Oberholtzer shared the results of an informal study she had done with her fellow students after the first day of school, asking if things are going better with distance learning compared to when it was first instituted last spring. She had a response of 46 students, who felt positive about the start of the new school year. Oberholtzer said she asked what was better and students replied they felt they had more interaction with teachers and a better schedule to follow.

Oberholtzer said she gave the option for survey takers to give comments and she said the main response was “Why are we not in school?” She said students pointed out that School District 166 is a small school and there are much larger schools around the region that are in session, either in person or in a hybrid model. Oberholtzer noted that she has no answer for those students.

School Board Chair Dan Shirley said distance learning will be held until at least midquarter, in October, when the safe learning model will again be reviewed.

School sets levy at maximum allowed
In financial matters, the school board agreed to set its levy as the maximum amount allowed. School Financial Director Lori Backlund said just what that number will be is not yet available, as the school is awaiting revenue numbers from the Minnesota Department of Education. However, she said, based on the school’s financial data the levy would be 7 percent lower than last year.

Backlund stressed that the school’s financial data is unknown at this time, but advised setting the levy at its maximum in case that amount is needed.

The school board asked about the impact of students withdrawing from ISD 166 on school finances and Backlund said it is not yet known. For budgeting and levy purposes, schools use the population of the previous year. The impact of students leaving the district will not be felt until later in the school year.

According to the principal report in the school board packet, as of September 15, there have been 50 un-enrollments. There have been a few new students, making the overall enrollment drop 45. The school has gone from 431 students in September 2019 to 386 today. The elementary and middle schools saw the decline. High School enrollment is actually up one as students enrolled in post-secondary education opportunity programs still count as an enrolled student in the district.

School and YMCA collaborate on child care offering
While ISD 166 planned on offering childcare for nearly all parents considered “”emergency” and “essential employees” on the list provided by the State of Minnesota back in August, the most recent directive from Governor Tim Walz changes who is eligible for this childcare support.

The previous order allowed for support for “Tier 1” critical workers, such as healthcare or public health, law enforcement, judicial, educators and childcare providers, but also for a “Tier 2” list of frontline workers. The Tier 2 list included employees such as food distribution workers, utility workers, waste management, etc.

At the beginning of September, Principal Myers and the school district safe learning task force worked to set up a system for providing care for children of Tier 1 and Tier 2 students at no charge to those families. The care was to be provided during regular hours.

The school is close to being filled with students whose parents fall in the Tier 1 category, Myers told the school board. To help the parents in the other “Tier,” who no longer qualify for the free childcare through the school, a partnership has been formed with the Cook County Community YMCA.

Because there is a charge for that student support, the school has heard from many distraught parents.

Board member Lunde said she empathized with those parents. She noted that if school was open, as could be allowed under the MN Department of Health guidelines for opening schools, these parents would not have to pay for their child to be in school during the day.

Lunde asked how the YMCA could charge for this childcare, noting that the school is paying the paraprofessionals that are with the students. Board Member Deb White also questioned the fees. Principal Myers said the fees go to the Cook County Youth Agency Coalition (CYAC), not the YMCA. That coalition supports community children.

Myers added that the school and the YMCA are doing the best they can to provide financial assistance. There is a sliding scale for childcare, based on the free and reduced lunch criteria. And scholarships are available, using the COVID-19 pandemic CARES Act funding.

Myers said the school has no other option. She said it either had to work with the YMCA to help provide childcare assistance under this format, or close the program to just the families whose workers fall under the Tier 1 category.

She added that having the expanded childcare program also benefits school paraprofessionals who otherwise might have been laid off.

The board thanked Myers for explaining what was happening. Board Member Carrie Jenson said she had heard from many parents who were confused and frustrated by the change in childcare options. She suggested having some sort of question and answer session with parents.

Myers said many parents had reached out to her and she believes she has been able to answer their questions. She invited parents to call her at the school at 218-387-2273 or email her at mmyers@isd166.org.

The board again thanked Myers and school staff for their hard work during this difficult time. Jensen noted that the program is the best it can be in the current parameters.

Investment in air purifying system approved
There were many questions about the purchase of an AtmosAir Solutions air-purifying system for the school building. The cost to install such a system in the entire school building would be $214,639, but School Maintenance Director Tom Nelson recommended making the installation in phases, covering classrooms, the halls and cafeteria first for a cost of $77,335.

The remainder of the system is for the school gyms, which, Nelson said are large enough and have a sufficient air turnover that it is not critical to install at this time.

There was considerable discussion about how the air system would be paid for. Options include school health and safety funds, long-range building maintenance funding and CARES Act funds, which cover expenses related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was agreed that some of the CARES Act funding should be used, but Board Member Sissy Lunde noted that the school should hold some of the coronavirus-related money in case it is needed at some point in the future.

Nelson said that would be wise and pointed out that part of the funding was in the budget already, under health and safety as the school was already considering the air purifying system. He said last year 30 percent of the student body was absent at some point because of the flu. The air purifying system would help prevent that, as well as allay some COVID-19 pandemic concerns.

The school board voted unanimously to move ahead with the purchase of the first two phases.

In other business:

  • The board considered the employment contract with Principal Megan Meyers for her temporary appointment as superintendent in the absence of Superintendent Dr. Bill Crandall for medical reasons. It was agreed the school attorney should review the contract. Once the attorney makes his decision, a special school board meeting will be called to make the final approval. The contract will be retroactive to when Meyers took on the position.
  • The school board reviewed the student and staff handbooks and voted to approve them for the 2020-2021 school year.
  • The school board set its Truth-in-Taxation hearing for December 17, 2020 at 6 p.m. at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts. That may be changed to a virtual meeting via Zoom, depending on community health conditions at that time.
  • The board accepted the resignation of Alpine Ski Coach Charles Lamb with great regret and many thanks for his dedication–and time spent in bitter cold at the ski hill.