LAS Board of Education Recap: Testing Data, Summer Projects & Budget Amendment

The Lowell Area Schools Board of Education met Monday, Jan. 22, for their monthly work session meeting. Board member Jessica Curtis was absent, but all other members were present for the meeting. There were no public comments at this meeting.

MAP Testing Data

Director of Curriculum Dan VanderMeulen presented to the board the winter MAP testing data for reading and math.

The results show students’ “growth” (improvement in scores from Fall 2023 to Winter 2024) and also their “achievement” (the percentage of students who scored at or above the median range when compared with scores from other same grade-level students from across the country). The results were as follows:

Alto Elementary

  • In math, 72% of students showed growth in their scores from fall to winter with 63% of students in fall and 71% in winter scoring above the national median.
  • In reading, 61% of students showed growth in their scores with 65% of students in fall and 67% in winter scoring above the national median.

Bushnell Elementary

  • In math, 61% of first-grade students showed growth in their scores from fall to winter with 55% of students in fall and 57% in winter scoring above the national median.
  • In reading, 70% of students showed growth in their scores with 54% of students in fall and 60% in winter scoring above the national median.

VanderMeulen noted that in the fall, 22% of Bushnell students scored in the lowest range for reading, but by winter, the percentage of students falling in that lowest range was down to only 9%, a significant improvement.

Cherry Creek Elementary

  • In math, 62% of students showed growth in their scores from fall to winter with 51% of students in fall and 60% in winter scoring above the national median.
  • In reading, 56% of students showed growth in their scores with 59% of students in fall and 61% in winter scoring above the national median.

Murray Lake Elementary

  • In math, 63% of students showed growth in their scores from fall to winter with 63% of students in fall and 66% in winter scoring above the national median.
  • In reading, 58% of students showed growth in their scores with 66% of students in fall and 70% in winter scoring above the national median.

Students will have MAP testing again in the spring, and the hope is that the percentages continue to go up, both in growth and in achievement scores. VanderMeulen said that this kind of testing is more of a snapshot of student learning at that time, and that its real importance is that it can give teachers a way to gauge where students may need extra help and adjust instruction accordingly.

Summer Sinking Fund Projects

Superintendent Nate Fowler presented the board with a list of parking lot and roof repairs for the district. The list detailed both roofs and parking lots that have been repaired and those that will need attention soon. Parking lots are typically on a 30-year schedule for replacement; roofs depend on the particular warranty given at last replacement.

Recently, the Bushnell Elementary parking lot and the transportation lot went through extensive repairs, as did the service drive between Bushnell and the middle school. Roof repairs over the past few years have included repairs at Alto Elementary, Cherry Creek Elementary, parts of the roof at the high school and the administration building roof. Upcoming repairs include the roof at the Wittenbach Wege Center.

Some additional potential upcoming projects that the district could use sinking fund dollars for include increased security at various buildings, updates to the high school computer lab, the purchase of new business/budgeting software and a bus washing station at the transportation building/bus garage.

Regarding the bus washing station, Fowler said that he had concerns about the cost of putting in an extensive washing station, including the impact on electric and water bills and possible necessary upgrades to plumbing and sanitary sewer systems. Fowler said the district was looking into what improvements could be made to the current bus washing system that could increase the capacity to wash buses efficiently and without making numerous expensive upgrades.

Of the proposed bus wash station, Board Vice President Laurie Kuna said that she could see the value in making sure the buses could be washed efficiently and well. Kuna explained that the district would always need buses and that they are expensive (about $140,000 per bus) so she felt that regular washing that could increase the longevity of vehicles should be a priority.

The high school computer lab was originally built as a drafting lab. Fowler explained that the set up of the room and the layout of power outlets really isn’t conducive to the learning that takes place there now. The lab needs replacement furniture, new computers and a new layout that would include desks but also a dedicated space for collaborative work and team projects.

Chief Financial Officer Sonia Hodge said that the financial team had recently received two quotes for the new budgeting software. She said the quotes are very different: one company says that they could have the district up and running on the new software in about three months while the other company, with a much higher quote, said that they would need about nine months to even get the district started with the basics. Hodge said that more research on the two companies was needed and that based on the disparity of the quotes, the team would look into a quote from a third company.

Budget Amendment Discussion

Hodge said the current challenges the district’s budget is facing include the loss of ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) grant dollars from the federal government — which are set to expire on Sept. 30, 2024 — declining enrollment rates and declining birth rates seen across Kent County, and an increase in one-time, categorical funding from the state.

Categorical funding is money from the state with strict spending guidelines in place. Hodge explained it as the state saying, “…Here’s this amount of money, you have to do this with it…”. This is in contrast to the state giving the district money towards the foundation allowance, where the district can decide how best to use the funding depending on where it is most needed.

Hodge shared a quote she saw recently in a newsletter for the Association of School Business Officials International that illustrated how schools all over the country are facing challenges with ESSER funding ending. Hodge explained, “This is all of us. We are all facing these same questions…this is not just Michigan, this is not just Lowell. There are districts across the nation and across the world that are dealing with these same issues.”

The ASBO International quote was:

“K-12 education will be experiencing several financial shocks over the next few school years, which will force district leaders to right-size their budgets and make tough decisions. The winding down of federal aid, declining enrollment and birth rates, economic downturns impacting state revenues, inflation, and increasing student needs are just a few challenges facing districts as they aim to maintain fiscal sustainability.”

One specific concern for the future of the district’s budget is the fact that declining enrollment means a decline in state funding, as districts are paid a per-pupil amount. Fewer students means less funding. Coupled with the loss of the ESSER federal funding and the certainty of rising operational costs, the projected outcome is that this will cause a gap between the district’s revenue and its expenditures. The discontinuation of ESSER dollars may also mean that staff that was hired on with that funding may need to be let go, and that programs started with that funding may need to be discontinued.

District Calendar

Fowler said the district has been seeking input regarding when the school year should begin and end.

In recent years, Lowell Area Schools has started the school year two weeks before Labor Day. For the 2024-2025 school year, this would mean a start date of Tuesday, Aug. 20, which is an earlier start than ever before. That’s because Labor Day also comes early this year. Fowler said that it is the board’s right to set the first day of school, and that no decisions need to be made immediately, but he encouraged the board to begin some discussion about whether they feel that date should be changed.

The board ended the meeting with some discussion related to board policy review, and then went into closed session for negotiations at 7:36 pm. The next board meeting will be held on Monday, Feb. 12, at 7 pm in the administration building. The public is welcome to attend.

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