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June 20, 2021

5/28/2021 2:10:00 PM
Fall levy referendum getting new consideration by Chisago Lakes School Board

The Chisago Lakes School Board meeting had a much calmer tone to it on Monday, May 24 after a tumultuous April meeting. Only four of the six board members were present at the meeting, as member Brenda Carlson had a softball game in Becker, and member Melissa Donovan wasn’t present. The meeting had already been moved back from Thursday because there wouldn’t have been a quorum present.

Board chairman Mark Leigh, who was aggravated and frustrated much of the April meeting, opened by addressing the community as a whole, starting the first public meeting since then. He said, “I want to acknowledge that it was a difficult meeting for all of us, and I want to apologize for raising my voice at times and not acting as I should have as a board chair. As a board, we realize we need to work on some things and our goal is to do that in terms of working together and communicating better.”

As is typical, the first order of business on the agenda was open forum, which was originally set up to be for community members to speak their mind without any input or back-and-forth from the board. It was more of a sounding board, according to Leigh, but he acknowledged that the board is looking at some ideas to change the format.  “If there are some questions brought forward, we will respond to them in a timely way,” he said. “We do take and listen to what people say, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be further action or anything that night. I don’t want to make it intimidating and don’t want to banter back and forth. We just want people to be able to speak their mind and feel heard.”

Two open forum participants expressed dismay at budget cuts that were approved over the last few months, and with how the district has handled finances. Lauren Paulbick described how at her job, the employees suffered negative effects on their wages, but their supervisors stepped up and took an even larger wage reduction, and she was asking why the district hasn’t done the same. “We cut the resources from our children in order, in part, to increase your wages while proposing a tax levy to the community,” she said. “We all need to make sacrifices and it’s my expectation of you as leaders to step up.” She proceeded to request that the board amend the budget reductions and take into consideration wage reductions or freezes for the district leaders.

Superintendent Dean Jennissen did offer to forego a scheduled $10,000 raise in a previous cut year, but the board rejected it, saying they wanted to honor the contract because Jennissen was being paid below average at the time.

Sarah LeVasseur was the next speaker, and she led off saying she was disappointed that she had sent an e-mail to  district leaders and the school board on April 21, and she only received a response from two of them. She said the four board members and insinuated Jennissen, as well, “hid behind a blanket statement.”

“We hold our kids and students to higher standards and they are not the adults and leaders,” she continued. “The time is now and you need to start doing better for our children, community and teachers.”

Board member Jeff Lindeman, who was at the center of the controversy during the April meeting, was also scheduled to speak on the open forum, but when his turn came up, he decided to hold off. “I want to delay my request to speak in public to give this board the chance to do the right thing, so I will not be speaking in open forum,” he said.

Lindeman had attempted to introduce two new agenda items prior to the meeting, including potentially rescinding a consulting and marketing agreement in relation to a potential operating levy in the fall, and to reconsider cuts that were made to the allied arts program at the middle school.

Potentially walking back on the consulting and marketing agreement was added to the agenda, but the allied arts cuts were not, and that is assumed what Lindeman was going to address in an open forum setting.

To answer any questions that Lindeman or any other board members may have on the middle school allied arts cuts, Chisago Lakes Middle School Principal Ralph Fairchild was brought in during the communications portion of the meeting.

Fairchild explained what the cuts meant. “If I’m a sixth grader at the middle school next year, here’s what my schedule will be.

Sixth graders will have a math period, a social studies period, science every day for one period, two periods of English language arts, just like they’ve always had in the past. I will have one period split between physical education and either band or choir. Those are the things we are keeping,” he explained. “We are adding a new version of advisement and flexible learning time that we’re working on to be something productive so we don’t have to pull kids out for interventions. There will be more sections of seventh and eighth grade allied arts. More sections of English in seventh and eighth grade. More sections of math in sixth, seventh and eighth, we expand from three lunches to five lunches, reducing the size of each all while reducing costs.”

The middle school will also move to a pod model where students will have the same classmates in their core classes throughout the quarters. “It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have,” Fairchild said. He continued, saying the only thing that will be eliminated is the one quarter long allied arts classes at the sixth grade level, which include Project Lead the Way, Health and Computer Skills. “All of those classes will still be available at the seventh and eighth grade level for students.”

Lindeman said he’d heard from a lot of parents about losing those classes, and he asked Fairchild how supportive he thought students and families are of cutting some allied arts.

“In a vacuum, they wouldn’t be supportive, but where do the cuts come from then?” he asked. “If we cut an English program, there would be just as many vocal people upset. That’s what happens when you cut. It’s going to hurt somewhere.”

Lindeman responded, saying, if nothing else, the district needs to do a better job of communicating what could happen. He said some parents felt blindsided by the allied arts cuts. “We always have to meet that challenge to let the public know before we make that decision. It might be more of a big philosophy thing, but it hit us all hard after the decisions were made,” he said. “We need to look at that and do a better job of that as a board. I’m sad they’re not going to get allied arts. I hope we can bring them back if we find ourselves in a better financial state.”

Fairchild and Lindeman also discussed study halls going away, but Fairchild said there was a misunderstanding on the issue and that it’s actually a positive thing. “We’re hoping with this flex learning time that students will have the opportunity to see the teachers they need to see for help, not just their assigned study hall teacher. Right now, that only happens if your study hall hour lines up with a teacher prep hour, or if the student stays after school. This would give us a chance to work that out a bit better.”

In other business, during the Director of Business Services update, the board discussed COVID-19 money. Community members in attendance had some things to say about the money when Lindeman queried why there are cuts being made when there is potentially almost $4 million worth of coronavirus relief funds that have come or could be coming in the future. Typically the board hasn’t allowed discussion amongst meeting attendees outside of open forum, but they did allow community members to speak freely.

The director, Robyn Vosberg-Torgerson, had said there have been discussions about using some of that money in ways that would reduce cuts, but using one-time funds for recurring costs isn’t allowed. Her slides broke down a little over $1 million of Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) from the federal government, and Chisago and Washington County. That money had to be spent by the end of 2020. A majority of it was used to prepare the district for full scale distance learning, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and food distribution while students learned from home.

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund has provided nearly $200,000 in funds so far, and there is a large sum on the horizon. The district has been approved for almost $800,000 in the second round of ESSER, which Vosberg-Torgerson’s slides noted was for “underserved populations, mental health, technology, sanitizing/cleaning and summer school.”

The third round of ESSER is also expected when the applications become available. Vosberg-Torgerson said those applications should be available by the end of May. That round will be the biggest at nearly $1.8 million and needs to be spent by September of 2024. Vosberg-Torgerson noted the allowable uses as 20 percent on learning loss, 80 percent on underserved populations, mental health, technology, sanitizing/cleaning and summer school.

“I know the community is thinking ‘wow, there’s a lot of money there.’ When you look at that, and we’re cutting, I think a common question would be ‘huh?’” Lindeman said. “It seems like an awful lot of money, so why are we cutting so much?”

“This is one time money, so it’s a conversation to be had going forward,” Vosberg-Torgerson said. Lindeman acknowledged that it does seem like there is a lot of unknown from the federal government on how the district will be able to use that money. “It just seems like a lot of money with just a few words next to it,” he said. “I want to make sure it’s spent in the right way. Let’s be as creative as possible in working with this money.”

Jennissen noted, “Robyn will bring forward a preliminary budget in June,” he said. “Those are complicated in that sense, but we are trying to use that money as best we can for expenses because of COVID and for summer school plans. Part of these funds would also potentially be to hire teachers back for the stress areas in Taylors Falls Elementary and Lakeside Elementary where class sizes are potentially too big if we get more students coming back from Wildcat Academy. A big piece of it is enrollment driven. If we’re approved for the money, we would likely be bringing forth a recommendation to bring back two teachers and also looking at one at the primary school.”

That is when some community members chimed in. One said that his taxes are already out of control and while he understands that’s not just the school, he said they need to factor that into decisions they make.

“I’m fine if you need more money, but you need to do a better job of communicating on where the money is going,” one community member said. “If you want money, there will be scrutiny on how it’s spent.”

“There are inequities in the pay groups. It’s just the way it is,” Lindeman said. “We pay severances that are out of hand. We pay health insurance that are out of hand. I don’t think we’re mismanaging money, we just have less money available. We’re underfunded but I know our taxes are very high, but that’s something we have to balance out. Stay woke.”

Jennissen eventually touched on COVID-19 numbers within the district and said they are mostly positive. He did say cases can still affect a large number of kids and place them in quarantine, and there’s some parent frustration at that end, but they have to follow Minnesota Department of Education guidelines or risk losing their state funding. The same applied for the mask mandate. Despite Governor Tim Walz lifting the requirement to the general public, the governor’s stance on masks within the schools did not change until the school year is over. Jennissen said the district will have to follow those rules.

One parent in attendance insisted that if they weren’t actively fighting the mask mandate that they were in support of it. “We can’t just secede from the Department of Education,” Jennissen said. “We are a public school.”

The board did amend their mask requirement to reflect any changes at the state level. If Governor Walz lifts the mask mandates within school districts anytime before the school year is over -- something that is not expected -- the district would then simultaneously lift the mask mandate as well. The district felt they wanted to be proactive in that step and not be caught with a mask requirement in place despite a potential state level lifting.

In another large business item, the board was potentially going to decide on if they’ll go forward to a levy vote in the fall, but board member Lori Berg started by saying she was uncomfortable making that decision with two members missing. “Levys are one of the biggest decisions to make as a school board,” she said. “I feel a level of discomfort making this decision without a full board and consider tabling this discussion until everyone is here.” Lindeman seconded the table, agreeing with that sentiment. Lindeman then suggested scheduling a work session to really hash out the decision, and the board agreed.

“It’s not just a matter of levy, but it’s the amount and what it’s going to be spent on. We have thought of this for quite a while. It hasn’t just come up in the last few months, but has been thought of for some years now,” Leigh said. “We have to determine what makes reasonable sense and it’s a really difficult time right now. We know that we’ve been struggling with communications and a lot of people are criticizing us for not being open. Whatever we do will take some time to get there. We were hoping to discuss whether to go out for an operational levy, but if we plan a work session, it would be my intent that we have a full board at the June 17 meeting and make a decision at that point.”

The board was in full agreement to table the decision, set a work session to discuss only the levy, and then vote in full on if they would pursue the levy at the regular June board meeting. The work session date wasn’t set at the meeting, as they needed time to match everyone’s schedule up.

In the same breath, reconsidering the levy consultant agreements was brought forward. Almost $11,000 had been spent on the consultants already, and the original contract was for $45,000. Most of the money that had been spent was to put together a survey that was going out to certain demographics to gauge support of a fall levy.

Lindeman, who voted to approve the consultants at the regular March meeting, asked how much it would be to finish the survey. “I’m not sure the staff and community are interested in spending more money,” he said. “We have $10,500 invested, but this is really tough. When I hear from [the public], they don’t like the idea of spending that money.”

There wasn’t an exact cost to just finish the survey, so the board was in full agreement to have the consultants stop their work until the board can figure out if they will be going for a levy in the fall or not, and if they deem consultants to be necessary still.

Senior student representative Ann Nelson was attending her last board meeting, as she’ll be graduating in early June. She thanked the board. “I’m grateful for my time as a student rep. I’ve learned a lot and it’s helped shape who I am and what I want to do later in life,” she said. Nelson said she would be attending St. Thomas University for business administration. “So this definitely had just a little bit of an impact on me,” she joked.

Jennissen thanked Nelson for her time. “You’ve done a great job here representing yourself, and the student body,” he said.

On the lightest note of the evening, Prairie Farms was awarded the district’s milk bids. Lindeman joked that they better have a strong supply of chocolate milk because when he subbed recently at Taylors Falls Elementary, the chocolate milk ran out and there was a “near mutiny” among the students. The joke elicited laughs throughout the board room, a welcome reprieve from the serious nature of the past few meetings.

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