Observer Report on the Northfield School Board from Connie Martin

School Board Meeting, February 27, 2023

The meeting was called to order at 6:00 p.m. Following approval of the agenda, public comments included several students and parents from Northfield Middle School expressing concerns about potential budget cuts to out-of-school activities, transportation, and languages.

Announcements/Recognitions: Superintendent Matt Hillman was recognized as the Minnesota Superintendent of the Year and presented with a bell and plaque. Mr. Hillman announced that World Down Syndrome Day is on March 21, and will be observed by NPS with a video on inclusion.

Committee Reports:  None

Action Items:  Most discussion pertained to the 2023-2024 proposed budget, which will reflect less money because: (1) inflation was not accounted for by state when determining school allotments; (2) declining enrollment (due to declining birth rate and lack of affordable housing in Northfield). Potential places to cut the budget were listed in detail and discussed at this meeting. Some of the cuts include (a) elimination of 6 elementary sections due to declining enrollment, (b) Middle School cuts to out-of-school activities, (c) changing transportation walking boundaries from ¾ mile (elementary) and 1 mile (secondary) to 2 miles. Mr. Hillman and Director of Finance Valori Mertesdorf went through these cuts, explaining that their priority was to maintain a high-quality program. While the capital project levy passed, it won’t kick in until 2024-2025, and does not address these budget items.

There will be two public hearings in March to address these potential budget cuts, and the budget will be approved on April 10.

Board questions on the proposed budget:

Robert Coleman asked about transportation details, including potential fees for transport and how many families would be affected. Ms. Mertesdorf said that they are looking at a $200-250 annual fee per student (no fee if a family is FRLP); other districts use this model. He also asked about middle school sports, which may move to a community education model, based on student interest. That would mean competition within a school but not between schools. Another possibility would be finding existing youth organizations to take over these sports. Community Education may take over nonathletic activities. Mr. Coleman pointed out that cuts to middle school sports will affect high school sports.

Ben Miller also questioned the transportation model, and asked how much the fee would raise, and how many kids would be affected. Estimated 50-70% at the middle school.

Jeff Quinnell responded to a letter from a parent about how cuts to middle school athletics would disadvantage the high school sports. He advocated a deeper dive into activities to see if there was a way to retain them.

Amy Goerwitz requested a list of what will remain of middle school activities, and feedback from high school athletic coaches’ concerns for programs. She would like to know how these cuts will affect student for each activity. She also expressed concerns for safety if students have to walk farther on busy streets. Mr. Hillman responded that he has spoken with varsity coaches at the high school, who expressed concern and a need to look at the big picture. He will do an analysis on the cost per student. They must also consider Title 9 when making budget cuts.

Ms. Goerwitz also questioned the transportation fee structure, which will be $700/family maximum. She believes this will increase the number of cars dropping off children.

Jenny Nelson asked how the public hearings will be announced. Mr. Hillman said that families will be notified directly, and that notices will be carried in the Northfield News, on KYMN, and on social media. Concerning the hearings, she also asked how the board could be open to new ideas, and whether there is a pathway to revisions. Mr. Hillman explained the process, that perspective can be shared in smaller groups, then the large public group again. Public feedback does make a difference.

Ms. Nelson also emphasized the importance of middle school sports and other activities in social development.

Corey Butler wants to engage with the community and see how the community feels about this potential budget. He also wanted to know how capital projects affect this budget. Ms. Mertesdorf answered that levies and bonds are not part of this budget process.

Ms. Goerwitz asked about the potential middle school restructured school (dropping from 7 to 6 periods each day). Would this reduce the number of electives? How would that affect high school electives? Mr. Hillman said there would certainly be an impact with fewer electives, possibly fewer study halls. A six-period day maintains class size.

Claudia Gonzalez-George stressed that school staff is already stretched thin. As far as middle school activities, this is a proposed budget, not a final budget.

Ms. Mertesdorf gave a detailed explanation of how they arrived at financial targets, and Mr. Hillman emphasized that the board’s feedback can guide change, and that all current programs have value.

Legislative Action:  Mr. Hillman strongly encouraged people to follow legislative actions concerning education, and request their legislators fund existing mandates that are currently unfunded. He would like to see the state’s budget surplus used for education, and encouraged people to call or write their legislators.

Additional Online Learning Day Authorization:  Primarily about weather events, allowing one additional online day for weather. The other alternative is to cancel school altogether, which is not optimal. Mr. Miller asked about flexibility and comparison with other schools; Northfield currently has a 5-day limitation for online learning. Mr. Quinnell asked if this additional day would affect the state requirement for days in school; Mr. Hillman responded that we are not close to the state minimum.

The meeting adjourned at 8:06 p.m.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s