Northfield Public Schools, School Board Meeting
March 13, 2023
Submitted by Connie Martin, Observer, League of Women Voters
The meeting was called to order at 6:00 p.m. All members physically present except for Ben Miller (present on Zoom).
Several additional items in the Table File were added to the agenda and approved.
- 8th grade student at the Middle School. He thanked the board for adding agriculture program to Middle School. Objects to middle school sports being eliminated, believes this will only make declining enrollment worse, since many students come to school for sports. He also believes this will weaken high school sports. Participation in sports has helped his own physical and mental wellbeing, social skills.
- Parent Julia Breeland: Presented objections to books found in middle and high school libraries. She wants to know who approved books, specifically graphic novels suggested for age 14 & up. She reviewed books for “morality”, found underage drinking, hypersexualization of young people. Read a book excerpt aloud that contained profanity and discussed LGBTQ experiences, but didn’t announce the title or author. She is also unhappy with books excluded from the library (C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”, books by Dr. Seuss).
Discussion/reports: Dr. Hillman reviewed the budget, explained process & impacts of budget cuts. Declining school district revenue is caused by declining enrollment, chronic state underfunding. The decline in enrollment is due to lower birth rates, lack of affordable housing in Northfield. State funding has not kept up with inflation. Special education cross-subsidy is also a considerable expense (paid from general fund for students with disabilities, not reimbursed by state). Explained budget review process, and how they received and used public input on reductions. Priorities were arrived at using recommendations provided by public, staff and teachers. However, these priorities are now conflicting because there is not enough funding for all of them. In response to feedback at the last school board meeting, several line items were changed, including: (1) Activity fee structure revised to maintain middle school programs. (2) Keep activity bus with higher activity fees. (3) Reduce high school staff FTEs. Many Minnesota school districts are having exactly the same problem. He has received many calls & emails from concerned parents and students.
Greg Gelineau, Middle School principal, presented a report on the implementation of a 6-period day. The proposed schedule was created using feedback from middle school staff. Students in grade 6 currently have 5 core classes, plus PE and health. For a 6 period day the number of core classes must drop from 5 to 4, so they propose combining reading & writing. A priority was to retain 1 period for electives. If a student wants to take 2 music classes, teachers will work together to share students during that period. There will be no study halls, since there will be no adults available to supervise them. Seventh and eighth grades: reduce electives from 2 per day to 1 per day. The Amistades program currently runs every day; with the new schedule all electives will be every other day, including Amistades.
Amy Goerwitz: With a 6-period day, would the period lengths be longer? Mr. Gelineau: Possibly, or they may add a short “home room”; teachers want a way to connect with kids since there are no study halls. Ms. Goerwitz: Are there any studies on class length for middle school students? If we go to 6 periods, is it possible to have a flex-time schedule like at the high school? She is concerned about losing electives for 7th & 8th graders (losing 2 electives/year). What percentage of kids currently choose to have study hall? Mr. Gelineau: 105 students already do not have a study hall, about 25%. Ms. Goerwitz: Is there any way to reduce FTE without reducing periods from 7 to 6? Mr. Gelineau: There is no longer a way to reduce “bits & pieces,” now we are down to reducing full positions & programs. Robert Coe: In an ideal world would we ever contemplate this change for academic reasons? Mr. Gelineau: No. There are some silver linings, for instance adding electives in 6th grade. Students that struggle can have an easier time being organized with fewer classes. Hopefully teachers can find more time to work with individual students with this schedule.
Jeff Quinnell: He wants to hear from parents/kids. What do they want out of education? He is not persuaded that reducing from 7 to 6 class periods is the best way to go. What services do we want to keep? What are the district’s core services? Mr. Gelineau: Some school districts do block scheduling with longer periods. Mr. Quinnell: What usually happens in study halls? Mr. Gelineau: Many students study in small groups, with some talking.
Mr. Hillman: This is about the budget. 14% goal for reduction. We are using priorities developed by last year’s team, to keep the best things we already have but stabilize the budget. Mr. Gelineau did what Mr. Hillman had asked him to do: balance reductions with keeping programs. There are not many silver linings. We have already made systems more efficient, and there are no more small cuts to be made. We are balancing priorities to preserve as much as possible. Some electives will still be offered, but not as many as before. We cannot put off cuts until next year, that would be fiscally irresponsible.
Corey Butler: Was survey participation what you expected? Mr. Gelineau: Yes. Staff was receptive, made suggestions. 68 well thought out responses. Mr. Butler: Was the survey anonymous? Mr. Gelineau: No. Mr. Butler: Does Spanish replace art? Mr. Gelineau: Only in 6th grade. Because music is offered every day, we must partner Spanish with art. Mr. Butler: When will this be more fleshed out? Before we vote? Mr. Gelineau: What specifics do you want to know? Mr. Butler: Would like to know length of class periods and class sizes before the vote in April.
Jenny Nelson: She expressed concern with eliminating study halls, since many students receive homework help from staff. If students can’t get help at home, where they get help? After school program is good, but not everyone can access it. Mr. Gelineau: Teachers are required to do 4 hours of instruction and 1 hour of prep. If study halls are kept in a 6 period day, teachers would have to switch off or use possible flex time. All teachers are required to do 1 hour of prep for every 4 hours of instruction. Ben Miller: Are there ways to support students if they lose study halls? Mr. Gelineau: We will continue to have conversations with teachers, encourage them to add in more work time in class. The 6-period day will be especially challenging for special education, to give those students the support they need.
Ms. Goerwitz: 10 years ago, reading & writing were separated, she wonders if there is advantage to keeping them separate? How can we maintain high reading scores?
Claudia Gonzalez George: Why does Spanish have to replace art? Mr. Gelineau: Because music has to be offered every day, Spanish has nothing to go opposite it. It would either have to be PE or Art, and PE is a required course. We will need to address specific needs for each student, and work with families for viable solution. Ms. Gonzalez George: What about services for EL or other services? Mr. Gelineau: Those will need to go opposite an elective. We will need to get creative, combine some classes, co-teaching. Special ed will need similar solutions. In order to meet student needs, teachers can get creative for solutions.
NOTE: For more detail on the budget, see the Table File at https://northfieldschools.org/wp-content/uploads/Regular-Meeting-Table-File-03.13.2023-1.pdf
Alternate options for Middle School activity fees: Finance Director Valori Mertesdorf prepared a printed report with alternatives for increasing the fees by percentages. In order to keep programs stable, all fees would need to increase by about 50%.
Ms. Goerwitz suggested a different approach: using a fee for the activity, and a separate fee for transportation. Seems more fair than raising fee for everyone, especially for non-traveling activities. Ms. Mertesdorf: For every activity there is some component that makes it expensive. She will look at that model and bring it back next meeting.
Mr. Miller: Concerned with interdependence of middle school & high school programs. They are not as separate as they appear. Can we spread fee increases across full 6-12 grades, not just the middle school.
Mr. Butler: How many students pay 100% of activity fees (no scholarships)? Ms. Mertesdorf: About 80%. Mr. Quinnell: Sports and other activities are about 2-3% of total budget, and provide lots of bang for the buck. Mr. Miller: Are there current scholarship opportunities? Ms. Mertesdorf: Families that qualify for FLRP pay 40%, those that qualify for reduced lunch pay 20%. Students can ask for a full waiver, no one is denied as long as there is a need.
Mr. Hillman: Activities are one of few areas in budget where a fee can be raised. We want to consider equity and participation, and participants in need can use “angel fund” on website for financial help. We do not want to decrease access. He is confident this can be done.
Budget appropriation for transportation last year: Mr. Hillman: Reduction target is difficult to reach. NPS system is very efficient, there is not room for many reductions without increasing ride times or distances. We have been studying this for months with Benjamin Bus.
Ms. Mertesdorf: NPS has 23 morning routes, 23 afternoon routes, spread over 3 counties. Streamlining would cut services for many families, and potentially 450 students could lose transportation. We also considered time changes, route changes. annual bus passes, increase length of ride time for rural students (currently 1 hour), annual charge for students living less than 2 miles away, and surcharge for activity.
Recommending: No change to boundaries/timing. (1) Moving to opt-in system for transportation (currently opt-out). This will increase efficiency, and students will need to have bus passes. (2) Charging fee for services, no fee for students who qualify for FRLP or reduced meals. Potential fee levels $250-350 per student, for students living less than 2 miles from school. Family cap is recommended, but has not been not calculated yet. This would raise between $205,000-$286,000. Several other districts have fees ranging from $100-475/year. (3) Collaborate with City to plan a direct route road (Aspen St to Southbridge Dr) so students can walk to school more safely. (4) Allow for more flexibility for arrival/departure, coordinating with each building. (5) Review transportation for activities. There is currently a lot of variation in the amount of transportation/participant.
Mr. Miller: How would these recommendations impact revenue? Ms. Mertesdorf: A fee for service is the only suggestion that would bring in money. The rest are cost reductions. Number (4) would require additional supervision time, would have to work with each building to avoid unanticipated outcomes/expenses.
Ms. Goerwitz: Schools used to require a bus pass, did that change? Ms. Mertesdorf: Students are encouraged to fill out the form, but there are students who do not notify us about transportation changes. No one is turned away regardless of whether they fill out form. The existing process is looser than it could be. Ms. Goerwitz: Will more students drive to the high school because of the fee? What about parking? Ms. Mertesdorf: There is not enough parking as it is. With enrollment decline it may balance out, but we don’t know whether it would have an impact. Mr. Hillman: We don’t know whether it would impact the high school, we’re not sure how many more students would drive. At other buildings more parents will drive and drop off students. Ms. Goerwitz: If more parents drop off kids before work, will we need more building supervisors? Mr. Hillman: These are unintended consequences. We are trying to anticipate them, and balance with budget numbers.
Mr. Coe: If we move to a fee-based model, is there a way to move elementary students who are closer than .75 miles to fee based? Ms. Mertesdorf: Most of the transportation cost is for rural students. She does not have data about elementary school.
Mr. Hillman: Discussed reductions in FTE, which were based on enrollment. Class sizes will remain manageable even with the reduction, for example math course sizes will be 21-30 . No AP courses will be reduced. No departments were eliminated.
Debt Service 2023-2024: Ms. Mertesdorf presented the debt service report. This is a restricted fund of school district, which is required by statute to levy 105% of debt. State aid helps offset the cost. The debt service is primarily held in outstanding bonds, which are mostly paid off. The goal is to keep debt service payments consistent from year to year, to provide consistency for taxpayers.
NOTE: For further detail on the district’s debt service, see the Table File at https://northfieldschools.org/wp-content/uploads/Regular-Meeting-Table-File-03.13.2023-1.pdf
Prairie Creek Site Visit: Mr. Hillman visited Prairie Creek School on March 6. This was his annual site visit & report. NPS is only one of two districts in the state authorized to have a charter school. Mr. Hillman said his visit was a “joyful” experience.
- Prairie Creek has limit on enrollment, and allows for 25% fund balance three years out. But have experienced deficit spending over the last couple of years, and are working to balance their budget.
- The school is using a theme of “reset” this year after pandemic. Parent volunteers are very important for school programs, but were disrupted during pandemic. Need to re-teach expectations for both students & parents. They are looking at what traditions might need to change.
- School plans to shift to an ”affiliated building” corporation, since they cannot legally own building. This would allow for greater transparency about lease, more input & authority over building & grounds management.
Mr. Miller: Was formerly on Prairie Creek board. He supported the affiliated building concept, and public transparency. He was encouraged by Mr. Hillman’s report.
District handbook & approval: Superintendent goals developed annually. This year he is re-imagining how handbooks are presented. This project was supposed to be completed by 3/30, he asked to extend time frame to 6/30. There are 13 different handbooks. This project will make them consistent and updated across all 13. Handbooks are 1) informational; 2) reiterates board policy; 3) administrative operations (specific to each school). It is very time consuming to get them all to match. At this point the content is now consistent, and he is looking for a more useful presentation and format. The Board formally approves all handbooks every year after review.
Ms. Goerwitz: Loves the idea of making handbooks more modern, multimedia, more engaging. She still wants board to be in the loop for comments even if they don’t require board approval. Ms. Gonzalez-George: She wants to be more involved with handbooks, for example on dress code differences, to ensure that what is operational conveys the intent and aligns with board policy. Mr. Quinnell: the handbook has to conform with state & federal laws. How does that work? Mr. Hillman: We will reference state & federal statutes & requirements within the handbook. We will also list officers for appropriate government agencies (Title 9, etc.).
Policy Committee Recommendations:
Policy 902, district facility use policy. Erin Bailey presented changes to policies. This was mostly cleaning up language, setting consistent rental fees & energy fees, and creating a mechanism to add facility if comes on mid-year.
Ms. Goerwitz: She is confused by the fee structure, why separate energy fee & rental fee? Ms. Bailey: Renters do not pay both fees for entire length of rental. This supports local nonprofits. Mr. Quinnell: Question on gym space availability. Ms. Bailey: Gym space is very tight, these are the most requested spaces for rental. Requests are higher now than before pandemic. Gyms are booked almost every night from early November until about now, when activities can start going outdoors.
Policy 203, operations of school board. Recommendations from policy committee: 1) Codifying responsibilities 2) language changes around learning environment 3) materials to support instructional process. This also includes governance training for board chair.
Ms. Goerwitz: (1) Wants to add a responsibility of board: To advocate for school district within community and state. (2) On board officers section, chairperson serves as ex-officio member of all committees, but should not have to attend all meetings of all committees.
Superintendent Operations & Strategic Plan Update: Mr. Hillman attended the awards ceremony for YouthBank. Non-academic activities such as these help youth participation & learning. YouthBank is a student-based activities funding program. It is essentially a community-based group overseen by HCI. Funds are contributed by a variety of community organizations, and youth decide where money goes (in the form of grants).
Winter activities successful, particularly in the first year of girls’ wrestling. Many athletes qualified for state in different sports (gymnastics, XC skiing, hockey, alpine skiing, knowledge bowl team and others). Congratulations to all coaches, athletes, participants, parents…
Consent agenda: Approved by roll call vote
Modification of 2022-23 superintendent focus area: Change completion date from 3/30 to 6/30 for handbooks (see above). Approved by roll call vote.
Items for information: Enrollment report: Total enrollment was down 14 students this month. One student transferred to non-public school, one to ALC, 1 graduated early, 4 moved away, one moved to Prairie Creek. If a student doesn’t attend for 15 days, they must remove him/her from the rolls.
Ms. Goerwitz: Are part time ALC students reflected in numbers? No, they are not.
For more detail on enrollment, see the Table File at https://northfieldschools.org/wp-content/uploads/Regular-Meeting-Table-File-03.13.2023-1.pdf
Public meetings: Mr. Hillman: Public meetings on the budget will be held on March 16 and 23 at 6:00 p.m. Meetings are likely to go 6-8:30 p.m. Ms. Mertesdorf and Mr. Hillman will present reasons for budget cuts at beginning of meeting; most of the people attending may not understand the reasons for budget cuts. No questions will be taken during that time. Then everyone will break out into 7(?) rooms; each room will have board members and administrators. Board members will ask for feedback on the budget, administrators will keep people on time and keep order. Everyone will have a chance to talk, and will not be allowed to repeat until everyone has had a chance. For the last 45 minutes they will reconvene in the auditorium, and individuals will have the chance to comment, with a limit of 2 minutes each. Board members will be seated on the stage for last session. At end of that meeting, board members can do a brief reflection if they like.
Mr. Butler: Last time board members shared what happened in smaller rooms, not necessarily this time? Mr. Hillman: You can bring forward the high points of smaller room discussions if you like. Please encourage the public to attend & participate.
Adjourned 8:43 p.m.