LAS Board of Education Recap: Security Improvements, Computer Lab Renovations

The Lowell Area Schools Board of Education met Monday, March 11, for their regularly scheduled monthly meeting. Jessica Curtis was absent, but all other board members were present for the meeting.

Student Council Report

Lowell High School Student Council President Antonio Casarez was in attendance to give the board an update on high school happenings.

Casarez reported that the girls’ gymnastics team went to the state finals recently, and he congratulated the wrestling team for winning the state championship for the 11th year in a row.

He also mentioned a Career Fair would be held at the high school on Thursday, March 14, and a blood drive would take place the next day on Friday, March 15.

Casarez congratulated the cast of the high school’s recent musical, Beauty and the Beast, which had its final shows this past weekend.

Security Updates

The board had before them a few items to vote on Monday night, including a high school security camera replacement project. This was for the purchase of new security cameras and would be funded with a security grant received from the state last year.

Superintendent Nate Fowler said four companies submitted bids for the job, but Hillard Electric won out because they had a low bid and previous experience with the district. In 2019, the company worked on security and technology for the 2019 bond projects for LAS.

During discussion, Board Secretary Pat Nugent asked whether the cameras would replace existing cameras or install cameras in new locations. Fowler replied that it was a bit of both. Some new cameras being installed would improve coverage on the exterior of buildings, and some replacement cameras would also mean better coverage and better picture quality. The board unanimously voted to approve the additional cameras.

In addition, the board was asked to vote on entry door replacements, which would also be purchased using last year’s security grant. The proposed project includes the replacement of two exterior doors at the high school and the replacement of the front exterior door at the Wittenbach Wege Center which has some corrosion.

The board unanimously voted to approve the replacement of the doors and all related hardware for roughly $50,000.

High School Computer Lab Update

The last item before the board was proposed improvements to the high school computer lab; the board was being asked to authorize construction company Owens-Ames-Kimball to issue awards to various contractor companies for the work. The amounts awarded will include $49,500 for general trades, $55,800 for mechanical and plumbing and $20,580 for electrical. The renovations will serve to improve the space for engineering and computer design students.

Fowler said these bids came in below the projected cost of the project, and he was excited about the improvements. Fowler explained that the renovations had been “a long time coming” and added that the existing room limits the ability for students to work collaboratively and to experience what it would be like to work in a career in computers.

The board voted unanimously to approve the bids received and to use money from the district’s sinking fund for the renovations.

Human Resources Update

Dustin Cichocki, Director of Human Resources, said there will be tables set up for Lowell Area Schools, Yeiter Learning Center/Curiosity Corner and the transportation department at the Lowell Expo on Saturday, March 23. Cichocki remarked that the Expo gives LAS an opportunity to greet the public and answer questions as well as actively recruit staff for the district, including substitutes, paraprofessionals and bus drivers.

Cichocki mentioned that biweekly meetings with the central office administration staff were also currently taking place to talk about early retirements, position changes and transfers for next year.

Budget Update

Sonia Hodge, Chief Financial Officer, said she’d been working with an attorney to negotiate the contract with Skyward for the new financial software.

The financial department is also working on and awaiting several grants from the state that were passed over the summer.

Curriculum Update

Director of Curriculum Dan VanderMeulen reported that the first session of a parent education series took place last week. The workshop series, which focuses on student mental health, was offered to all parents of 6th-12th graders in the district. VanderMeulen remarked that the first session was an “engaging night” and focused on the science of adolescence and the reality of raising adolescents. The second session will be Wednesday, March 13, and the last session will be the following Wednesday, March 20.

Also this week, the administration team and professional learning team were focusing on the district’s vision statement — “Learners today, leaders tomorrow, Red Arrows for life” — and considering how to further develop the statement, its meaning and the intention behind it.

Staff are taking part in the second session of a series focused on trauma training this Friday while the students enjoy a half day.

VanderMeulen also reported to the board that there were open spots for the Professional Learning Communities Conference in August if they’d like to join. The three day conference will take place at Grand Rapids Christian High School this year.

Public Comment

Retired LAS teacher Kim Lum said she was there to speak about dreams. She said she often wondered about the dreams of the residents of Lowell and asked the audience and board, “What are your dreams?” Lum went on to say that serving on the board of the Lowell Historical Museum, she often thought about the community members who made the museum a reality and what dreams may have motivated them.

For March is Reading Month, Lum brought books to show the board, one of which was a biography of Ben Franklin, whom Lum said was a personal hero of hers for his championing public libraries. Lum commented that she had fond childhood memories of walking to a library near her home and bringing “stacks of books” home.

Ada resident and LAS schools of choice parent Stefanie Boone said she had attended the parent education series on adolescence last week and thanked LAS for providing it. However she added that she was “…not necessarily sure that it’s something that the schools need to dive into and take on as an expense, because I’m sure there’s expense involved…”.

Boone said she did have a key takeaway from the session in that, “…it’s ok to disagree, but we need to be respectful while we do that.” Boone commented that in the last three years, she has run into situations where, “…I might not agree with everything that’s going on in the schools, but I’ve been as respectful as I possibly can be with that.”

Boone went on to say that, “…in response, I have most recently received a cease and desist letter from [LHS Principal] Mr. Gough, and Mr. Fowler has confirmed that he approved that as well.” She said she wanted to “make the board aware,” suggested that the letter didn’t align with the message of being respectful and called it “a direct trampling on first amendment rights.”

Source: Instagram

In late January, Boone posted a portion of the cease and desist letter on her public Instagram page. That letter refers to “derogatory, disrespectful, disparaging and/or threatening comments on social media platforms” but does not provide specific examples. In Boone’s Instagram post, she quotes a Bible verse which states “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Apparently, Boone had previously posted this verse on social media in reference to LAS staff and that is what prompted the cease and desist letter. However, she denies that she was being threatening. “This is not a threat. This is a promise from God,” Boone wrote.

Superintendent’s Report

Responding to public comment, Fowler thanked Lum for, “…triggering fond memories of riding my bike to the public library when I was a kid…”. He added that the public librarian there had been a great mentor and a positive influence in his life.

In addition, Fowler remarked, “And we do agree on that idea of disagreeing, and disagreeing being ok…we want to continue to promote that with our kids…in a respectful manner, and sometimes, we have put some parameters on that and how we’re going to conduct our business with that…we’ll continue to work through how we disagree respectfully and how we do that appropriately.”

Referring to the matter of a Lowell High School teacher’s recent arrest, which was discussed at the previous meeting, Fowler said he wanted to provide an update: LAS received a resignation letter from James Christians and a long term substitute would take over his class for the remainder of the school year.

Fowler went on to say that the district recently received emergency radios supplied by Kent County that were installed in each school’s office and have a direct line to Kent County Dispatch in the event of an emergency.

LAS is also updating the digitized map of the district that is used by emergency personnel and continues work on a threat assessment plan.

A student wellbeing survey that will go out to students this month focuses on mental health and determining students’ sense of belonging at LAS.

Fowler said that March is Reading Month kicked off with Bushnell first grade teacher Emma Bailey’s class receiving the honor of state champs in the Michigan ReadBowl, logging more than 60,000 reading minutes in five weeks. The ReadBowl is a reading competition for elementary students across the globe.

Fowler echoed the congratulations to the cast of Beauty and the Beast, the girls gymnastics team and the wrestling team for their recent successes. He also congratulated the girls’ basketball team and individuals who qualified for state finals in gymnastics, bowling and skiing.

Fowler commented how proud he was of the students at LAS, not only for their successes, but for how well they represent the district at festivals, meets and games by being respectful and kind.

The Lowell Community Expo will take place Saturday, March 23 from 9am-2pm at Lowell High School, and Fowler encouraged community members to come out and see displays with information on the May bond proposal, including concepts for the proposed construction projects. Voting for the bond proposal will be on May 7.

Board Communications

Board Vice President Laurie Kuna said she had the opportunity to read to a Bushnell first grade class last week and observed of the students, “…I see the love of learning, the attention to detail, the respect that’s being taught from our teachers to our students…it was an awful lot of fun.”

Board Member Jen Dougherty said that after seeing the production of Beauty and the Beast, she needed to give a shout out to the set designers and backstage crew, saying they did an excellent job.

Board President Brian Krajewski echoed the congratulations to Lowell athletes and thanked the coaches as well as the community, parents and teachers for helping to shape the remarkable and respectful students that represent the district so well.

Krajewski remarked that in his first job many years ago, he remembered his boss making a comment about how he wished that more was taught to young adults about “email etiquette.” He felt this sentiment translated to social media today and how posts or comments on social media can be misinterpreted. He added that he wished that we could do more with education about social media and online etiquette and incorporate that into student learning so that, “…as (students) continue to grow, maybe they can educate others in our community about the importance of how social media can be taken out of context and cause potential harm.”

Krajewski also mentioned the importance of mental health in the Lowell community and said, “If you need help, get help. There’s no shame in that.” He said he was glad that as a district and as a board, LAS continued to make mental health a priority.

The meeting adjourned at 7:47pm, and the next board meeting will be held on Monday, March 25, at 6 pm in the administration building. The public is always welcome to attend school board meetings.

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