This past Monday night, the small conference room in the Lowell Area Schools administration building was standing room only as many teachers, students and community members crowded together to listen in to the monthly Board of Education meeting. All board members were present.
Bushnell Elementary Report
The meeting started out adorably with three first graders from Angie Christians’ class there to demonstrate their math skills and play a math card game with the board. The Bushnell Elementary students didn’t let the larger than normal audience deter them from their mission and cheerfully instructed board members how to play the game.
After playing a few rounds, the children rejoined the audience, and Bushnell principal Erin Walters took to the podium to introduce Carmen Tawney, who was hired about a year ago as a Math Coordinator for the school. Tawney taught in the LAS district for 28 years and had worked as a math interventionist for the past five years before she was hired on to her current position.
Tawney explained the math intervention program she recently introduced to Bushnell teachers and students. It focuses on hands-on learning, allowing students to use manipulatives (like the card game played with the board) that lets them touch, feel and experience math in a whole new way.
And looking at recent MAP test scores, the program is working well. When Tawney started in her role in the winter of 2022, students who were struggling in math and needed extra help were showing only about 30% growth in their test scores. Since the new program was introduced, students tested in the winter of 2023 jumped to 84% growth overall.
Sonia Hodge, Chief Financial Officer for LAS, presented next on an amendment to the district’s budget for the 2022-2023 school year.
She talked about some of the factors that can affect potential revenue for LAS, including a slight decrease in student enrollment numbers (partially due to a downward trend in Michigan’s overall birth rate) but also a significant increase in the per pupil dollar amount allotted for each student from the State of Michigan. Additional money comes from the millage that Lowell voters approved last November. Hodge said she takes into consideration other sources of money the school district may receive, such as grants, when fine-tuning the budget.
On the expenses side, more than 80% of LAS’s budget goes to salaries and benefits for employees. Other yearly expenses include utilities, basic instruction needs, supplies, repairs, etc. Hodge said that when she currently looks at all of the expenditures and revenues for the 2022-2023 school year, LAS is projected to have a slight overall operating deficit. However, by the time we get to June 2023, she predicts that the deficit will be brought back up to zero and the district may possibly even have a bit of a surplus.
The last slide in her presentation was a graph that showed how, from year to year, school expenditures are fairly predictable, staying mostly the same throughout the years. The revenue schools receive, however, in grants and funding varies widely from year to year and can be very unpredictable. That makes budgeting a school district’s finances a challenge.
Eight people spoke during the public comments portion of the meeting.
Stefanie Boone, an LAS parent who submitted a formal challenge for the book “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” expressed her disappointment in a committee recommendation that the book remain in the LAS high school library with its check-out restricted to seniors only, as it was before. She asked the board to override the committee decision, which had been made on a 6-1 vote.
Boone said the committee that had been appointed to read, review and then make a decision about whether the book should be removed was “very biased,” and she felt that keeping the book in the library violated board policy on controversial issues. She also noted that her child recently received a detention for “f-bombing a girl in the hallway,” and the book in question contained multiple swear words.
Several other Lowell parents stood and spoke about the book “All Boys Aren’t Blue” to voice their support for keeping it in the LAS library. Resident Parker Liu said that he and 15-20 other community members ranging in age from 30 to late 70’s formed a book club to read and discuss the memoir. After a lengthy discussion across several meetings, all book club members voted that the book should remain in the LAS library catalog.
One LAS eighth grader in attendance stood to make the comment that books should not be banned from LAS libraries “…because students and their parents should be able to decide what’s appropriate and important for their child to read, and no one should be telling other parents what their kid can or cannot read.”
Several other residents voiced their support for Media Specialist Christine Beachler. One Lowell educator, Sarah Ellis, who has taught at LAS for 17 years, said that she was “…deeply saddened that for the last two years, (Beachler has) received a lot of harassment via social media and bullying by a small but vocal group of people…” Ellis said that, as Beachler’s colleague, she has witnessed how it has affected Beachler and her ability to do her job. She urged everyone to keep in mind the theme of Be Nice Week which is happening this week at the high school: kindness, community and compassion.
Outside the topic of books, Doug Lee, owner of Jam’nBean Coffee Company, shared that he has hired student workers in the summer for decades. He graded LAS a D- for the education it provided. When explaining the reason for the low grade, he pointed to the number of marijuana stores in Lowell, which he implied was related to the quality of the school district.
Other Board Business
The board voted unanimously that new middle school furniture would be purchased from local furniture company Enwork. The furniture will cost about $38,000.
AED trainers were purchased and staff will go through training regarding how and when to use defibrillators.
Stop The Bleed kits were also purchased for all LAS buildings, and staff will receive tourniquet training as well as CPR training.
Friday, February 17, will be a half day for students and a professional development day for K-12 staff to hear part two of a DEI training.
Student council member Emma Sage reported that the high school met their goal for their January blood drive. She said that exams were coming up in March and that this week is Be Nice Week, which focuses on kindness to self and others and prioritizes inclusion and anti-bullying.
Superintendent Nate Fowler said that he disagreed with the public comment that the book review committee was biased. He said that the committee was formed according to board protocol and that the committee engaged in “thoughtful, deliberate conversation, not just about the excerpt that we heard, but the work of literature as a whole, and the value of that in the library.” Fowler said that the committee’s decision was now before the board and that the board would continue discussion on the matter at the coming meetings.
Fowler wished winter athletes who have started state tournaments good luck and also wished luck to LAS musicians who would soon be starting to go to festivals where their performance would be rated. He reminded everyone that next month the high school musical “Matilda” would be showing at the high school Performing Arts Center.
Fowler mentioned the issue of school safety and security and said that, statewide, there were issues at several schools recently with “swatting” incidents. These occur when students make false reports to law enforcement. He said that it was a good opportunity to talk with students about the danger and disruption that these kinds of incidents cause. He said many hours of training and learning were continuing to go into the district’s threat assessment process, and the radio system for security was now online and ready to go. He stressed the importance of keeping all LAS students safe and secure.
Fowler welcomed Jessica Curtis back to the board and thanked all the community members who were interviewed for the seat. He said he was heartened by so many people from the community willing to step forward and make that commitment to the district and to LAS students.
Brian Krajewski thanked students and staff for their math presentation at the start of the meeting and thanked Emma Sage for the reminder that it was Be Nice Week. He also thanked the book review committee for their report and recommendation regarding the challenged book. He said he looked forward to the dialogue the board would have at the next work session meeting to “…put some finality on that discussion.”
Laurie Kuna said that as a retired English teacher and published author, in regards to the book challenge, that no person there in the room and no child at LAS has ever been forced to read a book that they did not want to read. She said this is a free country and that people should have the right to read what they want to read.
The board adjourned at 8:27 pm to go into closed session for bus driver negotiations. The next board meeting will be a work session and will take place on Monday, February 27, at 6 pm.
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 9:35pm on Feb. 15, 2023 to clarify the identity of one speaker during public comments.
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