LAS Board of Education Recap: Department Reports, Emergency Safety Update

The Lowell Area Schools Board of Education met again this past Monday evening in the administration building for their regular September board meeting. Board Vice President Laurie Kuna was absent, but all other board members were in attendance.

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Student Council Report

The new student council president, Antonio Casarez, gave the board a very thorough and engaging report on events and activities happening at Lowell High School.

He mentioned last week’s bomb threat and resulting “soft lockdown” at the high school, and said that “…everything about the threat was taken seriously by the staff and the student body across the board.” He added that the seriousness with which staff took the threat served to “…create an environment that I feel I was protected in; not to mention the assurance given at the end of the day by informing everybody about the situation.”

Casarez noted happenings at the high school that he felt were going well, including senior parking spots, the new study hall and a school-wide assembly with motivational speaker Cam Awesome who had a “…message about not giving up”.

Lastly, Casarez reported on upcoming events at the high school, such as a blood drive on Thursday and the Homecoming dance, which will have a Hollywood theme this year.

Introduction of New Staff

The recent hires at LAS were in attendance at the meeting and stood to be recognized as Superintendent Nate Fowler read their names and their new roles.

Staff who were introduced included a kindergarten and a first grade teacher at Bushnell Elementary School, an interventionist for the high school, a sixth grade social studies teacher, a second grade teacher and two fifth grade teachers for Cherry Creek Elementary, an elementary-level social worker, school psychologist and two cognitively impaired (CI) classroom teachers, one for the high school and one at the elementary level.

The new hires had the opportunity to have dinner with the board members and superintendent before the meeting to talk with and get to know them.

Human Resources Update

Director of Human Resources Dustin Cichocki said that his team was still conducting interviews for a few positions as well as training some new hires that weren’t at Monday’s meeting, including a part-time physical education teacher for Bushnell.

Cichocki said that two new full-time bus drivers and one part-time driver are currently in the training stage and should be ready to go soon. He added that the part-time driver might be a name folks would recognize: Gary Blough, a previous LAS Board of Education member who retired after serving in that role for 12 years.

Budget Update

Chief financial officer Sonia Hodge presented some preliminary budget figures to the board, noting that LAS was able to add $540,000 to the fund balance for this year. That brings the fund balance to just over $7 million and 14.9% of expenditures.

Hodge explained that last fall and winter, she had talked with the board about preparing for the fiscal cliff that could occur when federal ESSER grant dollars run out. She said that being able to add this significant amount is a crucial part of the financial preparation needed to maintain the fund balance. She said that “…the district has done a good job of being frugal, even in good times, and allowing us to plan for the future.”

Curriculum Update

Director of Curriculum Dan VanderMeulen reported he had been working with Sylvan Learning, as well as middle and high school students, to arrange for tutoring in all subjects during the school day for high school and middle school students who need extra help. Tutoring will start at the beginning of October for high schoolers and at the middle school shortly after that. It will likely be offered three days a week.

VanderMeulen also mentioned the world language resources that had been used in recent years for Spanish and French classes will need to be updated, as the company that provided the materials will no longer be producing them. He said that French and Spanish classes at the middle and high school will need to pilot some new programs to choose one that works best.

According to board policy, reproductive health materials for fifth through twelfth grade students will need to be reviewed and possibly updated. VanderMeulen will form a new advisory committee to look over the resources and any potential changes will be presented to the board in the spring.

Public Comment

Lifetime Lowell resident Perry Beachum was the first to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting. He was there to speak about the “Lowell Kids 1st” group and their president and spokesperson, Ada resident Stefanie Boone.

He described the group as “…a small group of citizens that is trying to impose their narrow-minded views and philosophies onto the school board without consideration of views and philosophies of all that live and attend Lowell schools.” He continued, saying:

“First, there was the recall attempt of select school board members. Some of the most vocal (Lowell Kids 1st members) do not reside in the district. One such member has and had children attending Lowell Area Schools through school of choice. These students have excelled in the classroom and extracurricular activities, enough so that they were able to get scholarships to higher educational institutions. This same person tried to have criminal charges brought against the school board; the county prosecutor found that no such actions were warranted. Now this person is encouraging parents not to fill out the free and reduced lunch form…during Covid, the school was eligible for Covid funds and the leader of this group chastised the school for accepting funds related to Covid. Doesn’t this additional money benefit our students and schools? I question her motives when her school tax dollars go to the district where she resides and not to Lowell schools where she sends her children…the one question I have for the school board is: what is the approximate cost and resources that has been spent in response to this group’s actions which ultimately reduces the funds for students, for education?”

Next, retired LAS teacher and Lowell resident Kim Lum stood to speak about the tradition of Lowell’s Pink Arrow and how it was the result of “thinking outside the box” and coming together as a community. Lum described her ideas about how the people of Lowell could work together and think outside the box using the word “pink.”

She said the “P” in “pink” is for persistence – that the people of Lowell needed to persist to make a positive difference. The “I” she said stands for integrity – we all need to put aside our differences and “…work with integrity to accomplish what needs to happen here.” She said that was “needed” (for “N”). The “K” she explained stands for kindness. She ended by saying that “…we don’t have to agree, but we have a wonderful opportunity to work together and keep working together. Go Pink Arrows, go Lowell!”

Lastly, Byron Center resident Bob Pickard stood to comment and spoke to Fowler directly, saying, “Superintendent Fowler, I want to tell you, you’re doing a good job with your security. My grandson goes to Cherry Creek; I picked him up this afternoon; I love the security over there. I had to wait in a long line, but it’s well worth it…I know we have good security, we can lock our doors and our entrances, but what happens when someone with these assault rifles comes in our schools?”

His proposal for a solution to this threat, which he presented to the board back in May, is to hire veterans, who would be armed, to work security in schools. He said that he had been going around to various school board meetings and proposing his idea and asked that the board consider it.

Superintendent’s Report

Fowler said that this meeting was the first to be recorded with a new permanent camera that has been installed in the boardroom to live-stream and record all regular board meetings.

He also mentioned three upcoming community forums to discuss the 7 mil levy and some of the needs of LAS facilities. These include possible upgrades to mechanicals at the high school and restructuring of Cherry Creek Elementary, which was built in 1973 as a middle school. The community is invited to the three forums, which will be held on 9/18, 10/10 and 11/7 at 6:30 pm. The first forum will be held at the middle school. The public is invited to attend to discuss the ways in which they’d like to see improvements happen at LAS.

Fowler remarked that he wanted to address school safety and security, especially in light of the recent bomb threat and evacuation of the football stadium during the severe weather a few weeks ago. He said that the way staff, students and the community worked together and helped each other through those emergencies was inspiring, but that those experiences also highlighted the ongoing struggle of communication during emergencies. This is especially true if a building loses power and internet service. Fowler said that he has been working with first responders and local law enforcement to address these concerns and look for possible solutions.

Fowler read aloud a statement from the Kent County Sheriff’s Office regarding a recent bomb threat incident. The threat was made against Lowell High School and resulted in a soft lockdown in which students remained in classrooms but continued to receive instruction while the building was searched. A juvenile has been identified as the person responsible for the threat, and that person is being charged with making a false report or threat of a bomb, a felony offense.

The statement from the Sherriff’s office said: “In general, most teens do not intend to carry out these acts, however, these types of threats create a substantial disruption in people’s lives, cause needless stress and worry amongst students, staff and parents. This is also a drain on our public safety resources and is a safety issue for our community. Our team of law enforcement at the Kent County Sheriff’s Office take these threats very seriously.”

Fowler said the threat didn’t come from a Lowell student, but nevertheless had an impact on the Lowell community. He added that the incident was a good reminder that there are serious consequences to making these types of statements. He added that “… if you see something, say something,” meaning that if a student or community member hears someone making a threat like this, tell an adult as soon as possible.

Board Comments

Board member Jared Blough said that he wanted to thank the new teachers.

Tom Kaywood joked that student council president Casarez had the first ever audience applause after a student council report and said that he did a great job.

Jen Dougherty said that it was nice to start a school year “normally” with Meet the Teacher Night and Smart Start. She added, “It’s nice to be back in our community fully. It’s wonderful.”

Brian Krajewski praised the district’s response to the recent bomb threat and said that he had confidence in the procedures that LAS has in place for these types of emergencies.

He also thanked Hodge for her budget report, saying, “For those who don’t know…the fund balance allows us to be able to not have debt or interest payments on paying bills and staff. It keeps us at a level that we have the ability to have cash flow, which is very important to us. It also allows us to weather the storm. And it’s something that we spend a great deal of time, making sure that we have because it gives us a comfort factor as the economy, shifts and changes… just know that we’re in a very good space and I’m very grateful for that.”

Krajewski encouraged the public to attend one of the upcoming community forums to talk about school facilities and possible improvements. He said that he was able to attend the recent ribbon-cutting ceremony at the middle school, and “…see an old school turned new.” He said that recent repairs and restructurings were all done in a way that they could “…save money for the district, save money for our taxpayers and build a world class facility.” He added that he was “…looking forward to that in our next adventure that we’re going to be talking about over the next couple of weeks and months.”

The meeting adjourned at 7:41 pm. The next school board meeting will be a work session for the board and will be held on Monday, September 25, at 6 pm.

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