School board work session and special meeting, back-to-back

by Barbara Cameron

The six members of the Deer River school board had a decidedly full evening ahead of them on Thursday, Sept. 24. They began with a workshop at 6 p.m. that included discussion about the budget, the new building project just approved by voters, the issue of concurrent enrollment in high school and college classes, and a presentation about becoming a full service community school.

Following the workshop the full ISD 317 Board of Directors held a special meeting to handle three agenda items: certify the levy, act on an employee resignation and decide on a resolution in support of concurrent enrollment.

Superintendent Matt Grose, Administrative Assistant Tiffany Johnson and Business Director Jennifer Drotts were also present.

Bond sale. Jeff Seeley from Ehlers, the district’s financial planners, had driven up from the Cities to present board members with the pre-sale report for the $9,590,000 of general obligation school building bonds to be issued. The bonds will finance the acquisition and betterment of school sites and facilities, including the expansion project. The term is slightly over 17 years. Interest will be paid every six months starting next August.

Because the district expects to issue no more than $10 million in tax exempt debt during the calendar year, the bonds can be designated at “bank qualified” obligations, thus broadening the market for them and resulting in lower interest rates. To keep interest down, there will be two bond issues, one for the $9,590,000 in 2015 and the second early in 2016 for the last million. Sale date will be Oct. 19, the date of the next school board meeting. Seeley expects the sale to generate a premium. This is structured as a wraparound, so once the old debt is paid off, the new proposed tax rate associated with the new bonds will start off low for a period of years, keeping the tax impact down, and then increase to pay off the new debt over the final eight years.

Seeley said the district has an A+ rating now, and he anticipates no problems at all in selling these bonds. He expects to receive four to six bids on the morning of Oct. 18. Closing is Nov. 18, the date the district can actually spend the money. Local banks, as well as investment services, have vehicles available if they are interested in entering this competitive bidding.

Community school model. After Seeley’s presentation the group moved down the hall to the resource room for a video conference with Cathy Bogen from the Meyers-Wilkins Community School Collaborative in Duluth.

Anna Brelje from Education Minnesota in St. Paul also presented information to the board members. She joined the group in person with several handouts and descriptive information about full service community schools. Because of a new state law recently passed, there is a funding opportunity for Deer River if the district is interested in pursuing this model as a way of approaching equity in our schools.

Brelje described the community school concept as NOT a top-down strategy, but a ground-up approach that organizes and incorporates the resources of the community in a set of partnerships with the school such that the school becomes the “hub” of the community. The school is open to everyone all day, every day, evenings and weekends for a range of supports and opportunities. Full service community schools have a strong instructional program designed to help all students meet high academic standards. They offer enriched learning opportunities for students and families. And they have a full range of “wraparound services” from health, mental health and social service people to promote well-being and remove barriers to learning.

The board members listened and spoke with Bogen, one of the founders of the Myers-Wilkins Community School, an elementary school which has been operating for 16 years. The school is an integrated effort governed by a leadership team of parents, school staff and community members who are all focused on the kids. The collaborative staff work closely with the classroom teachers, so school and after school are “on the same page.” As Bogen described the closeness of this collaboration, “All the children are all our children.” The breakfast program is the start of the day, and even the bus ride home is staffed by caring adults who work with the kids.

Bogen said their school has been very successful. They are in a high poverty area, but they meet their achievement goals.

Chair Brad Box asked about the healthcare piece, and if the local providers saw it as a threat or an opportunity when the school wanted to incorporate those services. Bogen called it “win-win” because so many families didn’t have a healthcare home and only used the emergency room.

The board members and the two speakers noticed the many similarities between what Deer River is already doing and what community schools are about. The major difference seems to be the level at which they operate. The community schools have a full-time site coordinator as overseer and grant writer, a person with some background in legal issues, a person who is the jack-of-all-trades, the glue that holds everyone together.

Sarah Bellefy said they were already doing a lot of the activities of a community school, but that they would benefit from having a coordinator to bring it all together. Brelje commented, “You’re already a community school without the title,” but this grant would help them identify other needs that current partners aren’t meeting.

Brelje talked about the application process and the needs assessment. It’s not just about academic achievement, but separating out the information to reveal the opportunity gaps. This would look at enrollment, retention for students with disabilities, free/reduced lunch numbers, suspension and expulsion data, parent engagement strategies, needs for wraparound services, support of positive school climate and behavior strategies, community needs for early childhood, physical/mental health, job training and adult education.

For the grant application the district needs to establish at least two new types of programming based on needs assessment results and community assets. These are selected from: early childhood, academic enrichment, parental involvement, mental/physical health, community involvement, positive discipline practices, or something else (based on needs).

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