Board’s vote against non-renewing contract of special education teacher means Olson and administrative team have to come up with something else

    The day after the Crookston School Board, on a 3-2 vote Monday evening, approved a budget reduction package of a little more than $400,000 for the 2019-20 school year put together by Superintendent Jeremy Olson and his administrative team - reductions necessitated by another dip in student enrollment this school year - Olson and his team huddled on Tuesday to figure out what to do next after the board voted against non-renewing the contract of a special education teacher, which was included in the overall reduction package.        

    After the meeting Monday, Olson told the Times he wasn’t sure what would be done in reaction to the board’s votes. “There is no Plan B right now,” Olson said.

    The board first approved the resolution that approves the entire budget reduction package, which Olson said is being made possible by the move of first grade from Washington School to Highland School, a reconfiguration that he said has creates “scheduling efficiencies.” The vote was 3-2 in favor, with board members Kari Miller and Adrianne Winger voting against, and in doing so saying they were most concerned by the decision to not replace retiring choral instructor Belinda Fjeld with a full-time choral instructor at Crookston High School. The plan is to have elementary choral instructor Jill Dalzell also take on high school choral duties, with orchestra instructor Haley Ellis and band instructor Matt Torgerson each taking on more elementary music responsibilities.

    Based on continued talks with the music staff and Pirate Fine Arts Boosters, Olson asked for flexibility in the reduction package to potentially hire a two-hour per day choral instructor, or 2/10ths full-time equivalent, to ease some of the impact of not replacing Fjeld with another full-time instructor. If the “right person” can be found for that position, he said, a hire will be recommended. If that happens, the budget reduction package will total around $408,000. If the .2 FTE music position is not filled, the reduction package totals $431,700.

    While voicing her opposition to losing a full-time choral instructor at the high school, Miller recommended that other budget trimming options be considered. While stressing that she realizes the district is getting smaller enrollment-wise and that trend adversely impacts the budget and necessitates a response, she said the choral program benefits many kids during their school years and into adulthood, and that singing in choir costs students very little money compared to some other activities. “There has to be other alternatives to look at,” Miller said. “Maybe look at sports.”

    Things got muddy when the board had to subsequently vote the reduction of two members of the teaching staff, two personnel actions included in the reduction package. While many of the reductions in the package are the result of attrition, Olson noted, Matt Curry was to be placed on unrequested leave of absence from his .67 FTE physical education position, and Washington School special education teacher Wendy Willits was to have her probationary teaching contract terminated/non-renewed. The board “very reluctantly” approved on a 3-2 vote the Curry reduction, with Miller and Winger again voting against, but when the Willits resolution came to a vote, board member Patty Dillabough joined Miller and Winger in voting against, which means the board approved the resolution regarding the reduction package itself, but not the Willits’ contract non-renewal, which was part of the package.

    Asked Tuesday if it’s possible for the board to approve a resolution establishing the budget reduction package as a whole, but then minutes later vote against a specific staff-related reduction that’s part of the package, Olson noted that the board is required by statute to have separate, roll-call vote resolutions for every individual staff member proposed to be placed on unrequested leave of absence or have their probationary teaching contracts terminated/non-renewed.

    “So it is possible to discontinue a position while not discontinuing the person in the position,” he explained.

Comments, concerns

    The CHS choir/orchestra room’s seating area was at capacity for the meeting, with mostly teachers and staff but some community members as well. During the open forum that began the meeting, a handful of people went to the microphone to express their concerns with various aspects of the proposed reduction package. The final person to speak was a mother who said her son is in special education and on an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) at Washington School and that he’d made tremendous progress while working with Willits. She said she feared what would become of that progress if Willits lost her job.

    “As a parent and not an educator, I really rely on these people. …We’re not the only family that feels this way,” the mother said. “My son has come such a long way.”

    While stressing that voting to reduce the budget and cut staff was obviously no fun and nothing that board members ever want to do, board chair Frank Fee, after the board voted against non-renewing Willits’ contract, said the reduction is going to have to come from somewhere.

    “I guess we’ll instruct the administration to come up with something else,” Fee said. “There will probably be another person cut, so it’s just going to go from one person to another.”

    The difficulty of placing Curry, who was in attendance at Monday’s meeting, on unrequested leave of absence was not lost on board members, either.

    Noting it’s the first time as a board member that he’s had to approve budget reductions of this scale, Dave Davidson said it was “extremely difficult,” and he noted that Curry and his wife had been considering a move to Crookston. “It really, really hurts to lose young people like this,” Davidson continued. “But we don’t have a choice, in my view.”

    Later in the meeting, Davidson noted that for many years he was a teacher and union member and had a very different perspective when it came to budget reductions.    “But no matter what side of the table you’re on, these kinds of decisions suck,” he said.

    The reduction of the district’s English Language Learner (ELL) instruction staff from two to one, a move made through attrition, also sparked concerns Monday. Andy Pokel and Katya Zepeda said the reduction sends the wrong message from a district that says it’s committed to narrowing the achievement gap, when ELL instruction serves as the access point for many Crookston students looking to achieve more in the classroom. Zepeda noted that the East Grand Forks School District has four ELL instructors. “People of color are watching what is happening here,” she said.

    Olson said the reduction is being made because the ELL program brings in around $30,000 in revenue and has around $120,000 in expenses. Asked by Zepeda if the number of ELL students is decreasing in Crookston because they’re finding ELL programming elsewhere, Olson said the number of ELL students has decreased here because of the success of the program, in that students are becoming proficient enough as English speakers to exit the program.

    Every board member thanked everyone who spoke at Monday’s meeting as well as those who’d called them, emailed them or otherwise communicated with them about the budget reductions. “It’s awesome that the community is concerned and cares about kids,” Winger said.

    Fee said he and the rest of the board care about kids, too.

    “Every year we’re losing these kids and it’s just taken its toll,” he said. “I’ve gotten the calls and emails, too, but when I get emails saying we don’t care about the kids…that’s as far from the truth as it could be. If you think that, you’re wrong.”