LAS Board of Education Recap: Final Community Forum, Smaller Class Sizes

The Lowell Area Schools Board of Education met Monday for their regular monthly work session meeting in the administration building. All board members were present except for Tom Kaywood.

Public Comment

Retired LAS teacher and longtime Lowell resident Kim Lum said that she had enjoyed attending the three community forums to discuss proposed improvements and repairs for the district.

She went on to urge the board and community to fill out an online survey put out by the Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce regarding the town’s slogan. The question posed is whether “The Next Place to Be” still fits as Lowell’s tagline or whether it’s time for a change. Lum said the survey is not just for residents of Lowell (one of its questions asks for your relationship to the community) and needs to be filled out by the end of November.

Auditor Report

Next, LAS Chief Financial Officer Sonia Hodge introduced auditor Marc Sawyers from the firm Hungerford Nichols. He helped facilitate the district’s annual audit, and Sawyers gave the board a large packet of information containing the audit report for the school year ending 6/30/23.

He said that this was his second year working with Hodge and that it had been a “smooth transition.” He added: “We appreciate her commitment to us…preparing for the audit, providing requests…to be completely frank, we’re quite annoying in an audit, there’s a lot that goes into it, a lot of exchange of documentation…there’s a lot of involvement we have throughout the year with Sonia and her team…we appreciate that.”

To sum up the report, Sawyers explained that both the district’s expenditures and revenues were up from the amount in the last audit in 2022. He said that was due in part to investment earnings going up as well as general cost increases. Sawyers commented that this was true for districts across the state. He said that the district’s government fund balance was at about 15% remaining at the time of the audit. He explained that the state recommends between 10-20% so LAS is right where it should be.

Overall, he said that the financial team and district were “prepared, responsive and very easy to work with” and that there were no major changes or findings other than an excess fund balance in food service. That is something he said is the case for the majority of districts in the state right now and is a result of increased reimbursement rates during the pandemic.

Class Sizes

Superintendent Nate Fowler presented the board with an annual report on class sizes, specifically at the elementary level. He said those are trending smaller with fewer students per class.

Fowler explained that especially since the pandemic, enrollment numbers have been declining. The fact that enrollment has been declining for districts across the state has been discussed in previous meetings, and for this report in particular, Fowler said that the starting class sizes in 2021 did not reflect virtual learners. As a result, the numbers look lower than they actually were.

Fowler went on to say that LAS has rebounded since then somewhat, but some discussion still needed to take place regarding the pattern of smaller class sizes. He added that, “Having a smaller class is an advantage to those teachers and to those learners, but are we able to sustain that fiscally? …these are some of the conversations we’re having.”

Another item to be considered in all of this is that there have been smaller class sizes in some of the “exploratory” or elective classes at the middle school and high school. Fowler said this may present the question, “Are there some opportunities to maybe change some of our staffing size as we go through this?”

Board Vice President Laurie Kuna asked Fowler directly, “When you’re talking about staffing and smaller class sizes, are you talking about cutting teachers or are you talking about ways to keep those teachers, perhaps teaching a different type of class?”

Fowler answered that by saying, “The goal would be to keep the teachers…it’s just going to depend on the realities of what enrollment is going to be, what type of deficit we’ll actually be facing as we go into a budget amendment this winter, what the revenue consensus and what anticipated state increases would be…it could be both, but the goal would certainly be to keep teachers, keep staff.”

Professional Learning Communities

Director of Curriculum Dan VanderMeulen said that he wanted to speak with the board about the importance of professional development (PD), or adult learning, and to look at options for scheduling time for LAS staff to learn throughout the year. He added that he thought PD should be “…not something extra that we do, (but a) part of what we do…a part of working at Lowell Area Schools, the fact that we have these collaborative opportunities to work with teams…”.

VanderMeulen said that ideally, he’d like LAS staff to have adult learning once a week. He’d like the board to think about opportunities to make that a reality and to consider how that could be achieved, including looking at other districts to observe how they approach PD for their staff.

Community Forum # 3

The third and final community forum regarding the May 2024 bond proposal and what district repairs and improvements Lowell residents would like to see was held November 7 at the high school. Fowler said that the event was well-attended and that the feedback was positive, especially in regards to no increase in taxes for Lowell taxpayers.

He noted that there was quite a bit of discussion about the addition of an orchestra room at the high school, and several community members expressed concern that the proposed project wasn’t slated to begin until 2030. Addressing those concerns, Fowler said that, “We have had some follow-up conversation with architects and construction…I think it would also involve some feedback…with our bond experts, too, about what do those series of bonds look like, are there ways to flex the work we have designed at Cherry Creek…?” Fowler went on to say that a survey for additional community feedback is ready to go out to stakeholders soon.

Regarding the bond proposal, Kuna asked when repairs to the Lowell Performing Arts Center (LPAC) were proposed to take place, saying, “The big things should happen first…to me…where’s the bang for your buck?” Kuna mentioned the musical coming up in March, as well as plays and concerts, and said repairs and upgrades to the LPAC should be high on the list.

Fowler said there is a huge price tag on the total repairs and renovations needed and that for some things, like the LPAC, “…we’re trying to do some upgrades as we go.” Fowler agreed that there were repairs to the LPAC that need to be made, including some speakers that stopped working and some “dead spots” where sound isn’t amplified well.

Board President Brian Krajewski added he thought that because LAS takes such good care of its facilities, people don’t necessarily realize how old and in need of repair things are.

The meeting adjourned after less than an hour and board members went into closed session for the superintendent’s evaluation. The next Board of Education meeting will be held on Monday, December 11 at 7 pm in the administration building.

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