With only six district patrons in attendance at its regular monthly meeting last Thursday, the Northeast Hamilton School Board postponed a decision until January 9 on whether or not to enter into a whole grade sharing agreement with Webster City CSD.
Throughout this fall, the NEH School Board has invited financial analysts to report on the financial status of the district at public meetings. Since 2008, NEH's student enrollment has been declining and because enrollment is tied to state funding, the district is potentially facing running into a deficit in FY 2015.
The advertised agenda for Thursday's meeting noted the final decision to the question would be made, but after such a small community turnout, the Board felt it best to delay the vote until the January 9 meeting.
"This vote is so important, I don't see why there is a reason not to do it then," said Board member Marlin Pruismann.
Prior to making its decision, each board member voiced an opinion about the district's current situation.
District Three board member Bruce Mark lead off the discussion.
"Going on any longer, we may be in jeopardy of losing our grade school," warned Mark.
A past board member before being elected to the post again this fall, Mark told the board that it will be faced with difficult choices when it comes time to draw up a budget under the current circumstances.
"It will be an eye opener when we have to decide where to cut money," hesaid. "It's going to happen sometime. I feel we need to be proactive rather than go another year".
Board President Roxanne Anderson asked the rhetorical question of who loses out in budget cuts.
"It's the kids who miss out one way or another," she answered. "They have missed out already on opportunities because of budget cuts".
"I am concerned," voiced District One board member Eric Patterson over the school's finances. "I wish we could go on as long as possible. I'd like to see a couple more head counts because people in the community would prefer to keep it like it is. But finance drives it".
Mike Rapp, representing District Two, agreed with Patterson on staying the course with partial day sharing but pointed out the reality of the situation.
"I agree with your concerns but I think we are missing the boat if we do something that jeopardizes the grade school," said Rapp. "Most people want to keep it the way it is but they don't get the jest of the finances".
In order to retain the status quo, the school would have to cut more from the budget, said Rapp.
"You talk about cuts, but don't know where we'd cut," said Rapp. "We are so thin, it would be difficult to find cuts".
Rapp highlighted the recent history of NEH's decisions. He noted that patrons blamed the cost of administrators' salaries as the reason why the school had to to enter into partial day sharing.
"With partial day sharing, the big thing was the administration," explained Rapp. "So we cut there but it didn't steam the tide of kids lost".
Board member Marlin Pruismann admitted his views had changed regarding the matter after attending the state school board members' convention and speaking with other schools facing the same situation.
"No doubt we need students - 40 or 50 more in the district next year," said Pruismann. "Without those numbers, we don't get financing".
Pruismann felt the district could continue one more year in its current arrangement of partial day sharing with Webster City, but without an increase of student enrollment, the district would eventually be forced to make a decision of whole grade sharing.
"With 56 open enrolled-out students, we would be lucky to get 20 back," he said, adding that he'd love the idea of welcoming 70 more students back into the district. "But the reality is, we aren't going to get them".
Pruismann admitted he analyzed the district's situation and he noted the impact it would have on his own family.
"I had never thought of an important point of view - my grandkids," he said.
Pruismann noted conversations with other board members from across the state who have been faced with the same situation. One man told him that his granddaughter, who is currently a high school senior in a merged school district, is now taking classes that were not even offered at her former school.
"The writing is on the wall," said Pruismann.
If the district would enter into whole grade sharing, Pruismann said he would work for keeping a strong elementary in the NEH district with a strong district identification.
One thing he felt was important would be for the district to develop a day care facility.
"We just need to plan on this being the final graduating class of NEH," he said.
"It is not the end of NEH," said Mark.
"It would be the final graduating class of NEH, but we would retain our own board and own tax base," said Pruismann.
Pruismann said his main goal is doing what is best for future generations, including his grandchildren.
"How are our kids prepared for the jobs of the future?" he asked. He also considered the driving force behind his decision was the trade skills academy being developed at Eagle Grove for surrounding high schools. "Just compare the classes at NEH compared to those at Webster City".
One district patron noted that the Board had announced it would hold a community meeting to discuss the issue but the meeting was never held.
Pruismann proposed the board delay its decision until January 9 in order to hear more citizen comment and to draw more of the public to the meeting.
When Board member Mark questioned the need to delay the vote, Pruismann said he felt the issue was so important and more citizens should be present to discuss the issue and to witness the vote.
"We have had three meetings," said Mark. "People have had the opportunity to be heard. Me, personally, I don't see the reason to wait and take an extra celebratory year to run our reserves down. We know we are going to lose money and the kids will have more opportunity, so why not just do it," said Mark.
Board members Anderson, Rapp and Patterson questioned why more people were not in attendance to the meeting.
"It is not typical for the community not to be here," noted Rapp.
"I don't see what it would change," said Mark of the delay. "It won't change the facts. In fact, I am such a believer that I make a motion to enter into whole grade sharing with Webster City".
One district patron asked the Board which grades were being considered for whole grade sharing.
Rapp admitted the Board had never discussed specifics, but Mark and Rapp said they had assumed they were talking about grades 7-12.
"I should have stated that in my motion," said Mark.
"I want people to know that the facts aren't going to change, but we want people to know that on January 9, the final decision will be made," said Pruismann. "We've got to get this decision made and life has got to go on".
Anderson agreed with the delay.
"I am not comfortable with the idea that we are 'slipping' it through with only six people at the meeting," she said.
Mark's motion to enter into whole grade sharing with Webster City died for a lack of second.
Considerable discussion took place in holding the Jan. 9 meeting and the wording of the agenda considering the topic. The meeting will take place during the regular board meeting on Jan. 9 and the board will vote on the issue of entering into whole grade sharing with Webster City CSD.
NEH Supt. Larry Frakes noted that if the district entered into a whole grade sharing agreement with Webster City, it would open space within the school for a licensed day care facility.
"That would eliminate problems or concerns," said Frakes. The district had worked to open a day care facility earlier this year, but met with one of the state's regulations which mandated the facility be located within the school building. The district abandoned the idea in October.
Frakes also cautioned the board about extending partial day sharing one year with whole grade sharing to begin the following year.
He said current middle and high school staff may decide to seek other long-term employment opportunities rather than stay for the single year.
"What will we do then?" he asked.
Administrative Assistant Dennis Bahr voiced two points for the board to consider - budget cuts and teachers leaving.
"When it comes to budget cuts, we are bare bones, we can't cut anywhere," he said. "And if experienced teachers leave, what will we do?"
Board members opined of families that had already left the district through open enrollment and what this pending decision would have on the district's future.
"People knew we needed them but they chose to leave," said Anderson.
A patron spoke up and noted that the district changed its decision from partnering on partial day sharing with South Hamilton to Webster City.
"Either way, we needed them," said Anderson.
"People are very short sighted if they take their children out of this school," said Bahr. "It is a diamond".
Bahr noted that he had set January 1 as the deadline for two reasons: First - It is the contractual date NEH needed to notify Webster City if it wished to continue with partial day sharing; and Second, if the whole grade sharing option was chosen, the time it would give NEH teachers an advantage in seeking positons elsewhere before other schools entered into staff negotiations.
"People tell me this sucks," said Anderson. "But how can it suck if they can send their children to a great elementary school with great teachers and then send them for more opportunities to better themselves?"
In other business, Supt. Frakes introduced the Iowa Department of Education option of operating on hours of instruction versus days of instruction.
School districts have the option as of July 1, 2014 to set school calendars on 180 days or 1080 hours of instruction.
Supt. Frakes reported that NEH teachers prefer the hourly option because hours will count on early out days whereas days attended may not.
Ninety percent of all Iowa schools are opting for the hourly choice, said Frakes. He noted that the school calendar would still remain at 180 days of instruction and would not affect the schedule.
Currently, NEH has 1260 hours of instruction which is over the state requirement, noted Frakes.
Supt. Frakes noted that there were five applicants for the school nurse position and that one would be chosen on Dec. 13. The district needs to have licensed personnel on campus in order to dispense prescriptions throughout the entire school day, he said.
The Board approved the purchase of a new water meter as requested by the City of Blairsburg. Pruismann, who serves on the city board, abstained from voting.
The Board voted to obtain one procurement card for district purchases. As described by Board Secretary Kathy Biere, the card will be issued only with permission from the administration. It would be used for purchases such as transportation fuel and on-line purchases which would then qualify the school for rebates.
Board member Bruce Mark requested that the Board receive a line-item accounting of all purchases.
"I am not against it," said Mark. "I just want oversight".
The Board approved a lunch account policy that permits the lunch staff to call account holders who have a deficit balance of $30. With a negative balance of $50, the account is frozen and students will only receive a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a carton of milk until the account is brought up to date. The policy will take effect following the Christmas break.
It was noted that there is an unpaid balance of $1,199 from students who have left the district.
Supt. Frakes reported that with the district's seven busses, three are used for daily transportation and three are held in reserve. He asked the Board to consider letting bids for one bus not in use. The Board followed Frakes' recommendation.
Supt. Frakes also noted that the district may want to consider downsizing its fleet of three vans and one pick-up truck in the future.
The bus barn is complete and is awaiting Alliant Energy to place a utility pole and run wiring, said Supt. Frakes. The work is expected to be completed soon and the school busses will be stored inside the building over the Christmas break.
Supt. Frakes asked the Board to consider hiring hourly help to assist in snow removal on the school grounds.
In other news, Supt. Frakes asked the Board to consider rental of the building located east of the school. He suggested that building could be developed as a fitness center or as a day care facility unaffiliated with the school district.
The Board approved hiring Jerry Klaver as assistant boys basketball coach and Ashley Davis and Kim Schimp as co-assistant play directors.
The meeting adjourned at 9:38 p.m.