The Lowell Area Schools Board of Education convened this past Monday evening, May 22, for both a special meeting and a work session immediately following. All board members except Jen Dougherty were present for the meeting.
The board began with a special meeting to discuss two action items: the Kent Intermediate School District biennial election and an overnight student trip.
For the Kent ISD election, the recommendation before the board was to select one representative to vote on behalf of LAS in the upcoming election on June 5, 2023. That election is for two seats on the Kent ISD Board. Board secretary Pat Nugent volunteered to perform the duty of voting representative, and Tom Kaywood will serve as alternate.
The next action item was to decide which two of three possible candidates should receive the LAS district’s vote for the empty ISD board seats. During their discussion on the matter, Nugent noted that candidate Andrea Haidle had extensive experience working on the Kent ISD Board already and also that he felt another candidate, Anne Hamming, would “…better understand the interests of Lowell schools.” Board Vice President Laurie Kuna mentioned that the district Hamming represents, Thornapple Kellogg Schools, was comparable in size and “issues in common” with LAS.
Ultimately, the board unanimously agreed the LAS votes should go to Haidle and Hamming for the two available seats.
The last action item was regarding a request before the board to approve a student overnight trip. The trip, proposed by Lowell High School Spanish teacher Sarah Ellis, would be for students to visit Spain in the summer of 2025. The motion carried unanimously to approve the trip.
Work Session Meeting
Only one audience member stood to speak for public comment Monday evening.
Byron Center resident Bob Pickard, now retired, worked as a custodian for Wyoming Public Schools for 22 years. Pickard voiced concerns about student safety and school shootings. He said that in the last few years of his employment, it became difficult for him because as custodian, he was instructed to ask unknown people in the hallways why they were there and who they were. He said that all he had to protect himself was “a broom handle or a mop.”
Pickard said he had “recently partnered up” with a security company who hires veterans to work security detail for various events and proposed having armed veterans patrol and protect public schools. He explained that he felt veterans were a good choice because “…they’re combat ready, they can handle any situation, they can have a concealed weapon…we have to have someone inside to defend our children and our staff.”
K-5 Math Manipulatives
LAS Director of Curriculum Dan VanderMeulen presented the board with two quotes for needed math manipulatives for K-5 classrooms. A few months ago, the board approved the purchase of a new math curriculum for K-5, and to go along with the new program, some supplies would need to be purchased such as dice, tiles, blocks and various other “hands-on” learning materials.
A specific cost was not mentioned for the materials, but VanderMeulen did say that one of the quotes was for about $800 per teacher/classroom and another was much lower, at about $500/classroom. He recommended the board approve the cost of materials from the company with the lower price point. The board will vote on whether to approve the math manipulatives at the next meeting in June.
Facilities and Operations
Superintendent Nate Fowler discussed the ongoing challenge of a bus driver shortage within LAS and some possible solutions for the coming school year. He said that advertising for recruitment of new drivers would continue over the summer. Trainings and certifications would also be scheduled over the summer so that current LAS employees, including paraprofessionals, coaches or food service employees could become certified as drivers if they were willing and able.
Fowler said that if, over the summer, the district was unsuccessful in hiring new drivers, some changes to next school year’s bus schedules may need to be considered. Some of these changes could include consolidating current routes, eliminating buses having to go down dead end streets to save time, less bus seats for school of choice students and so-called “hub stops.” These would involve buses first taking some students who live in larger neighborhoods close to school to a large, central stop and dropping off those students. Then, the bus would return to school to pick up and take home children who live further from school.
Fowler also discussed recent issues at Bushnell Elementary with water leakage. He said that the school had to be closed last Tuesday, May 16, because of a plumbing leak in the ceiling of the building. He said that there was an additional leak that occurred a few days later in the same hot water line as the first incident. Fowler said quotes were being gathered, and the district would have to decide whether this is an issue that could be fixed with a temporary band-aid repair or if it were something that would need some larger, more in-depth repairs or replacement.
Director of Human Resources Dustin Cichocki said that the advertising for custodial staff and administrative assistants was successful, and all of those positions are filled for the 2023-2024 school year. He commented that the search continues for a replacement for a Director of Operations for LAS. The last day of the current Director, Steve Turnbull, is June 30.
Cichocki also congratulated LAS bus drivers who participated in the Bus Rodeo Regional in Caledonia this past weekend. Four drivers — Trevor Harrison, Julie Matthews, Dale Holister and Sara Nevarez — placed in the top 25 in the competition, and the Lowell bus driving team placed 5th out of 13 teams overall.
Chief Financial Officer Sonia Hodge presented some projections for the future of the LAS district budget. She explained that some of these projections will depend on what Michigan’s economy will look like over the next several years. Hodge explained that, “…in the next few quarters, they’re all expecting the economy to go down a little bit and then to recover fairly quickly.” Hodge went on to discuss state funding and said the funds school districts receive from the state for “ongoing expenses” (like wages, benefits, supplies, utilities) were not expected to increase significantly in the next few years.
Hodge said the Lowell school district might experience a significant decrease in student enrollment and that could have a noteworthy effect on the district budget. Enrollment has been directly affected by the birth rate in Kent County, with the rate of live births steadily dropping over the last several years. For example, in 2012, there were 8,958 live births in Kent County, and at last count in 2022, there were 7,893 live births.
Overall, Hodge said the budget for next year was still a waiting game, and the final numbers depend on numerous factors including several items the district won’t know until June/July of this year. Those items include how much at-risk funding and special education funding schools will receive, the Title and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) funding, and the foundation allowance — known as the per-pupil amount. There will need to be an ongoing analysis of inflation and how that may impact operating expenses for the district, and finally, enrollment numbers won’t be known until October of 2023.
Hodge said that in June, the board could expect a special meeting to go over truth in taxation and to have a budget hearing. Then, the budget can be adopted at the June regular meeting. At the June work session meeting on June 26, there will be a final budget amendment.
District Vision/Strategic Action Plan
Fowler brought the board’s attention to documents concerning the district vision, vision statement and strategic action plan for the district. He said that the documents were last updated in 2002 and suggested the board and the administrative team work together to update the documents.
Board members, along with Cichocki, VanderMeulen and Fowler, went through the documents line by line and suggested changes, updates and additions. Fowler said that they could give it another look at either the June or August work session meeting and try to finalize a new version.
Marsha Wilcox Community Service Award
Nugent offered a proposal to the board of a candidate he felt was deserving of the Marsha Wilcox Award, an annual honor given to someone in the greater Lowell area who both shows support for public education in an outstanding way and is a leader in the community as well. No name was mentioned specifically, but several board members spoke up to say they had worked with this person and agreed they were very deserving of the award. The final wording of the award will need to be revised and written up before the recipient is given the award during an upcoming meeting.
Public Comment Sheet
There are some additions to the sheet that community members wanting to give public comment at Board of Education meetings need to fill out. Namely, the sheet now goes over policies and expectations for public comment and asks the person for their street address as well as city, state and zip code.
The meeting adjourned at 7:52 pm. The next Board of Education meeting will be Monday, June 12, at 7 pm in the administrative building.