By a unanimous decision at its March 13 regular meeting, the NBAPS School Board decided to go back to a five-day school week.
The decision was just one of the many assumptions that were approved when the board finalized its 2014-2015 budget at the meeting.
Prior to the regular meeting, the board held a meeting open to the public at which members of the community and school staff had the opportunity to ask the School Board questions about the budget via written submissions.
Before questions were fielded, however, Randi Johnson, NBAPS director of personnel and finance, gave the audience a presentation about next school year’s budget.
At the beginning of the budget process for the 2014-2015 school year, Johnson explained, the district was forecasting about a $2.2 million deficit.
But that forecast changed significantly when the Legislature changed the state school funding formula to allow districts to collect $300 per pupil unit through a non-voter-approved levy. Some districts also became eligible for more money through a location equity index; in North Branch, the amount of the index was $212 per pupil unit.
The NBAPS School Board chose to approve both of those funding options late last year, which wiped out the projected deficit for next year and left the district with a surplus.
As a result of that added money, in addition to going back to the five-day week, the district plans to bring back some programming and expand its curriculum.
Those reinstatements and expansions include:
• Reductions in class sizes, which will be accomplished by adding a total of 13 full-time teaching positions across the district. In addition to the teaching positions, other full-time positions include an assistant principal at the Sunrise River School, two positions in the buildings and grounds department, three bus drivers and one clerical position.
• Returning middle school sports to full seasons and giving coaches full stipends.
• Reinstating middle school girls soccer, wrestling, baseball, softball, speech and math league.
• Reinstating, at the high school, One Act Play, Drama Club, Family and Consumer Science Club and International Club.
• Bringing a music teacher to the high school full time.
• Eliminating tiered busing.
• Expanding Project Lead the Way, the district’s vocational career and technical education program.
• Offering a ProStart Culinary Program.
• Expanding access to technology; the goal of the district is to have a digital device in the hands of all students in grades five through 12 by 2017. The students would be allowed to take those devices home, and students who are on free and reduced lunch programs would not have to pay a fee to be allowed to use the devices.
• Implementing a Web-based learning management system that would allow teachers to manage instruction and more easily communicate with students and staff.
• Offering staff development so instructors can learn how to manage the changes.
• Miscellaneous expansions that include a “Farm to Table” initiative — the district would grow food during the summertime at gardens at Sunrise and the District Center that could then be used in school lunches — and offering $10,000 in scholarships for the district’s early childhood program, which could serve as a way to attract more families to the program.
The only reduction Johnson mentioned was to eliminate after-school busing for Targeted Services, because the service currently isn’t being used at a high rate.
“The buses were running fairly empty,” she said.
Two questions were submitted at the meeting, which were addressed by Superintendent Deb Henton.
One attendee wanted to know if school start and end times would change under the five-day week. Henton said they would, and she told those approximate times to the audience:
• Sunrise River School: 7:55 a.m. to 2:25 p.m.
• North Branch Area Middle School: 8 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.
• North Branch Area High School: 7:55 a.m. to 2:25 p.m.
Another person asked, “Why not maintain the four-day week to prevent future shortfalls and continue to improve funding options?”
For Henton, returning to the five-day week was a promise.
“I have recommended the return to the five-day week, personally, since last July,” she said. “Four years ago, I had public hearings with the community. We had three public hearings at that time, and last year, again, we had three public hearings. Throughout the course of those conversations, we told our public that if the Legislature improved funding, we would go back to a five-day week. I believe I made a promise to the community that I have to uphold.”
With the program reinstatements and expansions, Johnson said the recommendation would be to operate at a deficit after next year.
She also noted enrollment numbers continue to drop, albeit at a reduced level from previous years.
“We do have some long-term concerns that we’re watching with the preschool population — that’s not the number of kids that participate in preschool but the census of kids that we have that aren’t in school yet,” Johnson said. “That population over the past two years has dropped. That’s concerning for us. We don’t know if it’s because we just don’t know they’re out there or if the population has really dropped that much. We’re monitoring that closely. That doesn’t affect us so much next year as in future years. If that’s true, our kindergarten classes will be smaller than they are now.”
At the end of the public meeting, School Board Chairman Kirby Ekstrom thanked everyone involved in the budgeting process.
“We very much appreciate the questions and comments we have received tonight and throughout the budget process from the interested community members,” he said. “Please be assured that this school board will act on what is best for education at North Branch Area Public Schools.”