Melanie Tatge was smiling as she left Monday night’s Hills-Beaver Creek School Board meeting.
On the agenda was a recommendation to hire a teacher and a paraprofessional in the elementary grades.
The board approved both measures, much to Tatge’s relief.
“I’m excited about the choice that they’ve made to have a positive impact on the kids,” she said.
Tatge is the mother of a child in H-BC’s first-grade class, which has 31 students learning under one teacher.
She declined to describe what the year has been like in that classroom, but she expressed delight at the board’s decision Monday night.
“The kids will get more one-on-one attention,” she said.
The extra teacher will help out part-time in the mornings only. The first-graders will be split between two teachers to cover lessons in core classes, such as math and reading.
H-BC School Board members approved the measure unanimously, but not without lengthy discussion.
“Why now — with only 62 days left in the school year?” board member Karin Moser asked.
“Where are we getting the money? We’re in Statutory Operating Debt — why would we want to make it worse? … That’s my concern.”
Board members Amy Fick and Jim Keuter expressed similar concerns.
“I don’t want to deficit spend,” Keuter said. “I don’t want to do that anymore.”
Superintendent Todd Holtaus said an opportunity presented itself when an accounting oversight revealed $28,000 in federal grant funds.
The money is from REAP — Rural Education Achievement Program — which allows small, rural districts more flexibility in how they spend Title funds. The money is spent and then reimbursed later.
When the $28,000 reimbursement was discovered, Holtaus said H-BC administration saw it as a way to alleviate elementary staffing shortages.
“We couldn’t do this in August, but we can do it now,” Holthaus said.
“The district didn’t get into this situation (debt) overnight and we aren’t going to get out of it overnight. Yes, we’re operating in a negative situation, but we’ve got a pretty big number of students in first grade.”
Fick asked if administration had considered utilizing high school student volunteers in elementary classrooms as an alternative to paying new staff.
Board member Lois Leuthold said students already volunteer on a limited basis, and that most qualified high school students are simply too busy to commit large segments of time.
Board member Tim Baker pointed out that the high school volunteers do good work, but that these contributions are no substitute for consistent classroom staff.
“That will never come close to what a paraprofessional can do,” Baker said, advocating for the paid staff. “We need this bad; the kids need this bad.”
Moser ended up making the motion to approve the staff hires, and Fick seconded the motion, which was passed by the entire board.
The para is approved for 62 days at 7.5 hours per day at a total estimated cost of $7,600.
The teacher is approved for 64 half days at a total estimated cost of $9,199 (including insurance).
The grand total of the two hires for the remainder of the year is roughly $16,800.
The positions will be advertised and filled as soon as possible.
Flexible Learning Year
The H-BC School Board voted to submit a request to the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education for permission to implement the Flexible Learning Year (FLY) program for the next three school years.
If the FLY is approved, the first day of school in 2013 will be Monday, Aug. 19. In 2014 it will be Monday, Aug. 18, and in 2015 it will be Monday, Aug 24.
State law forbids schools from starting classes before Labor Day, but districts can seek an exemption to the law if they can prove the early start benefits students.
For the past three years H-BC has joined 24 other districts in southwest Minnesota to participate in a common calendar.
Informal surveys among teachers and families show little opposition to the calendar, but only weak support.
The primary benefit of FLY is to allow teachers more student contact days (seven) prior to the April test date.
Also, districts can pool resources for staff training dates through common calendars. Some districts have noticed savings of both time and money in this area.
In addition, the early start allows the semester break to end at the winter break as well as coinciding with college semester breaks to meet the needs of post-secondary students.
Prior to FLY, the fall semester ended two weeks after the winter break, which some say is wasted time — as teachers were re-teaching materials forgotten over the break.