LAS Board of Education Recap: Truth in Taxation, New Bus, Summer Programs

The Lowell Area Schools Board of Education met early Monday evening for a truth in taxation hearing at 6:50 pm followed by their regular monthly meeting at 7 pm. All members were present for the meeting.

Truth in Taxation Hearing

Michigan state law requires school districts to adopt a budget for the coming year before the school year begins. They must also hold a public truth in taxation hearing, in which they discuss the proposed budget, including expenditures and revenue for the district.

Chief Financial Officer Sonia Hodge was there to walk the board and the public through the current budget, the proposed budget and projected tax rates for the 2024-25 school year. She also reviewed the budgets and tax rates from prior years.

Hodge explained that the county provides calculations to the district to let them know how taxable property values have changed since the previous year. With that information, the district can calculate what the new tax rate will be for the coming year.

This year, the district is subject to a Headlee rollback because taxable values have risen faster than the rate of inflation, so the tax rate will be reduced. Based on these calculations, the millage rate for the sinking fund this this year stands at .9682 mills.

For non-homestead properties, there is an operating millage in place that was passed by voters in November of 2022. Hodge said that last year, the district was able to get that number back up to the 18 mills that the state assumes the district will collect. This year, because of the Headlee rollback, the new rate will be 17.9082 mills. This rate is only applied to properties that are not primary residences.

The projected tax rate for homestead properties this year is 7.9682 (down from 7.9766 in 2023). Hodge said that for Kent County residents, that rate would be split between summer and winter tax bills.

Hodge also presented the board with a final, amended budget for the 2023-2024 school year. For the 2024-2025 proposed budget, the financial office has to make their best guess as to what it will look like based on prior years’ expenses and revenues. The proposed budget will need to amended because there are still many unknowns, including wages and benefits, possible grants and funding and enrollment numbers, which can’t entirely be known until closer to the end of the school year.

Action items

The board unanimously voted to accept the amended 2023-24 budget, the proposed 2024-25 budget and the proposed millage rates.

They also voted to continue the district’s membership in the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB), which provides rater reliability training (necessary because of a change in Michigan’s evaluation laws), continuing education services and certifications, legal advice for the district and legislative updates from Lansing.

The board voted to continue their membership with the Michigan High School Athletics Association (MHSAA) so that middle and high school athletics teams can continue to participate in state-sanctioned athletics contests. By accepting the resolution set forth by the MHSAA, the district agrees to abide by the policies that have been laid out and is then permitted to have LAS athletes take part in state tournaments.

A motion to participate in the Michigan School Business Office’s (MSBO) school bus purchase program passed unanimously. The program allows for competitive bidding amongst Michigan school-related businesses for school buses and allows the district to indicate the type of bus they’d like to purchase, what features they’d like the bus to have, and then choose which bid to accept from multiple businesses. Hodge explained that allowing the MSBO to run the program for the district is a huge time-saver and that the cost is $150 per bus purchased.

The board also voted to purchase three new buses for the district for roughly $445,000. The 71-passenger buses will be identical and will have the same functionality and features as the district’s current buses.

A motion to approve the district’s acceptance of the TIPS purchasing consortium resolution was also passed. TIPS is a national purchasing cooperative that makes purchasing various products for LAS an easier task and also allows competitive bidding for the best prices. The consortium is a free service for school districts to use.

Finally, the board approved the purchase of new furniture for the high school computer lab for $81,000, including computer tables, chairs, and soft seating for student collaboration.

Human Resources Update

Director of Human Resources Dustin Cichocki said that the office was currently working on exit interviews from retirements and resignations within the district as well as going through the process of hiring new teachers and support staff for the coming school year. Closing year interviews and evaluations with supervisors are currently being finalized.

Curriculum Update

Director of Curriculum Dan VanderMeulen said that staff will be going through a virtual rater reliability program and then an in-person professional development session. The in-person professional development will allow district employees to look at learning and instruction, how successful it was for this school year, and discuss any changes needed for next year.

VanderMeulen said summer learning will soon be underway, with K-5 summer school starting June 17. In-person instruction for high schoolers needing extra credits is beginning soon as well.
This is the first year that high schoolers can attend summer school at LHS. They previously they had to travel to the Kent Career Technical Center if they needed to make up credits.

Readers on the Move, a popular summer reading program that takes place in several school buildings and the Kent District Library, is set to begin June 19. Readers on the Move encourages summer reading by offering the time and space to gather for reading and offers prizes as incentives for completed reading.

Fifteen incoming sixth graders will participate in another summer program, Math on the Move, which helps students prepare for middle school level math. Participants were recommended by their teachers for the program. New this year, an art camp at the high school for kids ages 7-15 is being facilitated by high school art teachers. The camp runs from July 22-26.

School libraries will be open for students over the summer from 10am-2pn at the middle school on Wednesdays and at the high school on Tuesdays.

Two new English Language Arts resource programs will be piloted next year, and staff who are training for the programs met last week and will meet again next week to go over the new resources. A total of 18 teachers in the district will pilot the new programs in hopes of reaching a consensus as to which resource to adopt for the 2025-26 school year.

Public Comment

Parker Liu addresses the Board of Education.

Former Board of Education member Gary Blough, who is now helping the district by driving school buses part-time, stood to urge the board and community members to spread the word about the need for new drivers next school year. Blough said that though the transportation department was short drivers this past year, they had a “really good year” and didn’t have to cancel any routes. Still, at least three drivers are needed for the 2024-25 school year.

Retired LAS teacher Kim Lum came to say thank you to LAS and to the board for the graduation ceremony several weeks ago. Lum said she appreciated the fact that family members who couldn’t attend in-person were able to watch the ceremony via YouTube. She said she also appreciated the fact that not only did the valedictorian and salutatorian give speeches, but that students were able to vote for a third speaker for the ceremony. Votes were cast for which one of their peers students wanted to hear from most, and that student also got a chance to speak at graduation.

Lum said she loved that the seniors walked the halls of their elementary schools before graduating and thought it was very motivating for the elementary students to see that. She added that she’d like to see the seniors walk the halls of the middle school as well.

Sue Arsulowicz, a resident of Lowell, addressed the board, saying, “Please explain to me how I could attend two board meetings where there was supposed to be two readings and a discussion of three board policies…regarding no longer prohibiting teachers or other school employees from assisting a student from getting an abortion and never hearing the word abortion in those meetings?” Arsulowicz said that there was “no real discussion” of the policies and questioned whether the board revised the policy because state law instructed them to do so or whether, “…you wanted teachers to have that right?”

Lowell resident Parker Liu thanked the board for, “… the efforts the district is making, (that) the board is making to ensure that our students can find success.” Liu said he also appreciated the board’s transparency in recording board meetings and as a father to a young child, appreciated the fact that he can watch the meetings virtually from home.

School of choice parent and Ada resident Stefanie Boone said that there were still books in LAS libraries with “explicit content and profanity” and accused the district of lying about their existence. She said, “It makes me sad to hear the word truth in a board meeting at Lowell Area Schools…if you won’t be truthful to the parents in this community and try to make this seem like it isn’t happening, I will continue to show you books that are in our libraries…”.

Boone said that one of her sons who attends LAS middle school, “…got in trouble a couple weeks ago because he said ‘f**k’ in a classroom assignment…” She asked why her son would get in trouble for that when he can “…read a book in the schools that had the word ‘f**k’ in it 18 times, but he says it in class and gets busted on a oopsie and he has to serve a detention.”

Boone told the board, “…you can’t have it both ways. So, either you’re going to let the kids walk around and f-bomb whenever they want to because it’s fine in our books or you’re going to work to clean up the crap in our libraries.” Boone made a similar argument in October 2023 when one of her sons was reprimanded for “dropping the f-bomb” in school.

Superintendent’s Report

Superintendent Nate Fowler congratulated the recent LAS grads, saying, “…it was a great celebration…to see the emotion on the kids’ faces, the emotion on the teachers’ faces…a lot to celebrate, with a great school year. So, thank you to all of our families, all of our staff, and most of all, thank you to our students for a great year.”

Fowler said that in addition to some of the academic summer offerings mentioned by VanderMeulen, summer sports camps have begun. He said that the YMCA day camp at Cherry Creek Elementary started up for the summer today, that construction started on the CAD lab at the high school, and the design for the renovation of Cherry Creek  has started today as well.

Fowler said he hoped “…everyone has a great summer and a great time with families. A lot of learning continues all throughout the year, whether you’re in school or not, so (I’m) just excited for that to continue.”

Board Communication

Board Secretary Pat Nugent said he wanted to offer some clarification regarding the public comment on board policies, saying, “The way our policies work, for better or for worse, is they very closely mirror state law. And when language goes into state law, we get all these lists saying ‘change your policy to say this.’ When language then goes out of state law, we get…’we recommend you change your policies to say this,’ and that’s exactly what happened in the case of the policy that was being referred to today.”

Nugent went on to say that, “…as a board, it’s definitely not something we just make up…we’re not sliding things under the table…”. He added that the revision of board policies is a large part of the job of the school board and that the revisions are written about and discussed at length, often in workshop meetings.

At this point in the meeting, Arsulowicz shouted out a response from the audience, saying, “Your minutes do not say abortion. And your work sessions are not recorded, correct?” Board President Brian Krajewski reminded her that it was no longer time for public comments, to which she replied, “Yes or no, are they recorded or not?” Krajewski once again told her it was not time for public comment and to please be seated.

Board member Jennifer Dougherty said that she wanted to thank LAS library staff, “…for establishing clear and consistent procedures. If you have a problem with a book, there’s guidance on how to challenge it.”

Boone shouted out a response from the audience, saying, “How would anyone know that’s in the library? Wake up, people!”

Krajewski thanked his fellow board members for “another successful and long year” and thanked the community for the continued support of the board and of the LAS district.

The board made a motion to go into closed session for negotiations at 8:05 pm. The next board meeting will be held on Monday, June 24, at 6 pm and is a workshop for the board. The public is welcome to attend.

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