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Chisago Lakes Schools

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January 22, 2022

1/14/2022 1:26:00 PM
Chisago Lakes District gives the green light to explore permanent online offerings

The Chisago Lakes School District has begun the process of offering a completely online offering to students starting next year.

Director of Curriculum Sarah Schmidt was on hand at the organizational school board meeting on Thursday, January 6 to ask the board for permission to get approval from the Minnesota Department of Education to offer online options beginning in the 2022-23 school year.

“This step is just the district moving forward to get approval and keeping that door open,” she said. “We started looking at this for last year, so a lot of the work has been done over the last two years, but we’ve just been working on MDE requirements and after approval, we can mold and perfect the program. But, we can still choose not to offer it for any reason or offer specific grade levels.We’re not beholden to one solid plan this night, just keeping the door open to do it next year.”

Schmidt went on to explain that there are currently 117 students who live in the district who choose an online program in a different district, noting that Centennial, Forest Lake and North Branch all have online offerings.

“We have basically lost those students,” Schmidt said frankly. “That’s a big loss of revenue to have them choose another option. And if we build a good program, we can also attract new kids to our program.”

Superintendent Dean Jennissen added that although he’s heard financial concerns about offering a permanent online option, he’s on board with this. “There’s concern about how does this work, and how are we able to fund this,” he added. “When peeople ask how can we afford to do this, I say how can we afford not to do it?”

He noted there are students  who live within the Chisago Lakes district who are enrolled in online programs based out of Worthington, Fergus Falls and Houston, MN.

“The idea behind the program is to have it of high quality and not just canned instruction,” Jennissen added. “We want to create interaction and higher level curriculum for our students. Things are different in how education is delivered, and if we can do this at a higher level, that’s something our community will appreciate.”

Board member Jeff Lindeman was a bit hesitant, asking if the district should focus on the programs they do currently offer and work to make those even more exceptional. He was concerned that not all 117 students would just jump right back to Chisago Lakes and that all this work would be done and it would be a break even or slight detriment to district finances.

But, board member Lori Berg said that even if it was just break-even for a few years, she’d be fine with that because they would just be expanding the offering for communities. “What’s right for some students isn’t right for others, and we just want to be sure to have those options available,” she said.

Board member Brenda Carlson agreed, saying looking at it as a businessperson, she feels offering the most options is what will bring in the most students in the long run.

Jennissen and Schmidt also noted that there would be opportunities for current staff to take online responsbilities if they so chose, and that it could potentially create more teaching spots or boosting part time teachers to full time.

Schmidt said the web site would go live right after the meeting, and then the district would reach out to the 117 families to guage their interest in returning to the district.
The board unanimously approved Schmidt to bring the plan to MDE and to report back to the board with more information as things unfold.

The board denied a second one year unpaid leave of absence for Taylors Falls first grade teacher Laura Greene.

Greene had first requested a year long leave of absence in August of 2021, and she asked for another one to be considered at this meeting.

Although the board lauded Greene as an educator and a person, they have never granted two successive one year leaves of absence and didn’t want to set a precedent going forward. Teachers are allowed to take a one year unpaid leave of absence, or a three to five year leave of absence, but it’s not typical to go year-by-year.

Lindeman was in favor of granting the second leave request, citing the district contracts with the teachers that say each one year leave could be assessed individually and there may not be a grievance process involved.

Board chairman Mark Leigh said he understood the district-teacher contract, but that the district was worried about setting a precedent for any sort of legal action outside of the contract in the future. “If we grant this one, and don’t grant the next one, there’s potential for a lawsuit that we then have to defend ourselves against, and we don’t want that.”
The board was unanimous in their praise for Greene, but moved to deny the request. Leigh, Berg, Carlson, Sarah Aadland and Dani Strenke voted in favor to deny the request and Lindeman abstained.

The first meeting of the year is always organizational in nature, but the board moved through those fairly easily. Everything was largely unchanged from last year, with Leigh remaining the chair, Berg the vice chair, Carlson the treasurer and Strenke the clerk. All the board members also kept their committee assignments with the excpetion of Aadland joining the non-certified bargaining committee, taking the spot of Leigh.

The district’s depositories, legal counsel, official newspaper and authorizations were all passed unchanged from last year and unanimously.

Jennissen did say there was an uptick in COVID cases at the schools after Christmas break, but they would continue to monitor the situation.

However, on Tuesday, January 11, Jennissen sent an e-mail to parents saying, “Last week was a tough week in terms of a rise in positive COVID cases, specifically in staff cases. This week is starting with staffing challenges. Our goal is in-person learning through the district, but we have to staff appropriately. If we are unable to continue to staff our programs, we may need to temporarily move to distance learning. We will evaluate each individual site’s ability to stay open and will strive to avoid a district-wide move to distance learning.

“Winter months are always challenging when it comes to illness, and COVID only compounds the challenge. We are doing our best to maintain in-person learning and we appreciate your continued understanding and support.”

Jennissen ended the e-mail by saying if anyone is interested in helping with sub shortages for teachers, paraprofessionals, food service, Kid’s Club, custodians or bus drivers to reach out to Julie Willeck at jwilleck@isd2144.org.

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