North Branch Area Public Schools going back to five-day week

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.”

  • Flambeau

    Just so we are all clear on this.
    According to the budget recommendation document presented by the school district we are expecting 73 fewer students to be enrolled in the district next year and we are planning on hiring 20 additional staff.
    When enrollment drops by another 70 students the following year and 4 of those staff people and math league have to be eliminated due to the lost revenue associated with that decline, will that be a characterized by the District as a Budget cut?
    If so, I think it only far to characterize the upcoming years budget as a MASSIVE INCREASE IN SCHOOL DISTRICT SPENDING AND PROGRAMS!!!!! Rather than as a restoration of cut programs and staff.
    You can’t have it both ways.
    If the district were to restrain themselves and not spend all the additional revenue they are receiving next year then they would not have to cut anything when enrollment continues to drop and their revenue along with it the following year.
    If nothing else we have here in this budget reccommendation a ready list of things we can eliminate in the coming years and be no worse off than we are now.

    • Pleased

      Flambeau neglected to mention that the school district was also the shooter on the grassy knoll.

      • Flambeau

        While this is an interesting comment, the relevance to the topic at hand seems somewhat wanting. Perhaps if you had an actual argument or observation to make?

        • Pleased

          Flambeau – my observation, which I thought was quite clear – and clever – is that your “opinion” about what is happening with the school district is more like a conspiracy than reality. And its ludicruous…so there’s that. Than again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you attend all of the school board meetings, and perhaps you were involved in district meetings in which these things you allege were discussed. Somehow I doubt it though. You are basically pulling accusations out of your backside and pretending like they have some basis in fact. I have watched your comments about the school district (and other things) for quite some time. I highly doubt the district could do ANYTHING that you wouldn’t respond to with disdain and alleged conspiracies. While entertaining, all it really serves to do is confuse the low information voters, which I would imagine for you is a perk rather than a bug.

          • Flambeau

            I freely confess that my sources of information are confined to what the district makes available on it’s web site in terms of pod casts, presentations and other materials, what is reported in the local papers and the data available on the department of Education’s web site. I don’t think you will find that I have alleged that any discussions have taken place contrary to your comment.

            I think the phrase “pulling accusations out of your back side” is a bit melodramatic. I have not “accused” anyone of anything.

            I have expressed an opinion on the basis of the data available to me and to the rest of the public. Perhaps you have better information than I do that comes from somewhere other than the sources I have cited or your own back side? – if so please share them with us. Thus far you have given us nothing aside from your own opinion and haven’t even cited any publicly available data to support it.

            I think if you look back over all the stories and columns about the School District over the years you will find quite a number, the vast majority in fact where I have not commented at all. Clearly there is quite a lot that the district does that I do not respond to with “disdain and alleged conspiracies”.

            In fact I pretty much confine my comments to financial matters at the district.

            I think the word “conspiracies” is also a bit of an overstatement as well. What you call conspiracy I would call politics. The district is a political entity whether you like it or not and whether they consider themselves such an entity or not. They are a public governmental entity with the power to tax and as such they are political in their very nature.

            They are not a business nor are they a private organization.

            They have no reason to expect that their actions will not be reviewed and yes, dare I say even questioned by the public.

          • Pleased

            No one is suggesting that a school district should be above criticism, but I fund your speculation and accusations not in good faith. For instance:

            “The four day week was primarily designed to place a burden on District
            families in order to pressure them into passing an operating levy while
            at the same time giving a free perk to District employees who were not
            getting the salary increases that they wanted due to budget constraints.”

            That’s a mighty big limb you are out on there Flam. I read quite a bit too and the four-day week was an idea that was proposed TO the school district by people in the community and others as a cost-saving measure. It was not something that the district just decided to do. To suggest it was done for political reasons as opposed to a genuine desire to make best use of dollars is lame and completely unsupported.

            Unless you can provide some factual evidence of that accusation, I think you should post a retraction. You would expect the paper, of the school district, to do at least that much for printing something so outlandish.

            You seem to ascribe negative or suspicious notions to everything school district and finance related. If you listen to podcasts you know that the school district receives exemplary audits each year by independent sources.

            I would also be interested to hear what “significant” increases to salaries means. To my knowledge, school district staff has been on salary freezes for the better part of the last four years. Should no one at the school district ever get a raise for any reason?

            I think it is terrible disigenuous of you to suggest the school district has capriciously handed out raises when its employees have worked together with the community to hold salaries down for almost half a decade. It is almost as if you are suggesting that, as public employees, they should never be entitled to an increase to their pay. I don’t know you but I can’t imagine you would stay in a job for too long if you didn’t get increases to your pay. But, apparently, that is what the dedicated people who serve the children of this community are supposed to do.

            While you may have a problem subsidizing the education of the kids of your own community, you seem to have no problem expecting school staff to subzidize your child’s education by not being appropriately compensated for their work. By criticizing increases to pay you are essentially criticizing the school district for not doing what you yourself refuse to do – subsidize the education of the community’s children.

            And, speaking of having it both ways! In one comment you suggest that enrollment declines (that have been going on for a lot longer than the four-day week) are “likely” the result of the four-day week, but in another suggest the school district will continue to lose students and need to cut. But how could that be if your original assertion is correct? The school district is going back to a five day schedule next year. By your very own suggestion, those declines should all but stop, should they not? Or, were you just taking a wild guess about enrollment declines?

            I’m all for holding public entities accountable. But unless it can be done from a place of rationality, criticism will lose any affectiveness it might have had. I find your criticisms of the district irrational and largely without merit.

            In the short term that may serve your goal of eroding confidence in the school district. But in the long run it hurts those with legitimate criticisms, who will be thought of as crying wolf by people tired of the hyperventilating demonstrated in your comments.

            Just a thought.

          • Flambeau

            You are correct that what I wrote was a rather definitive statement as to what the four day week was “primarily” designed to do, and you’re right – I should have couched that in more speculative terms. I certainly do not know for a fact that was the thought process behind it.
            However I do know that the stated goal was to save $75K which equates to about one teaching FTE. Out of a budget of roughly $30MM it seems like a rather dramtic change to be made soley to save $75K.
            So you are telling me that it never occurred to the District that cutting the school week down to four days might just pose a rather large and potentially expenseive inconvenience to families where both parents work and the children are too young to stay home alone?
            I am very well aware that the district receives exemplary audits every year. I am also aware that they come in roughly $500K under thier budget nearly every year as well which always earns them high accolades from the auditor. That is why I found it quite strange that they should turn everyone in the District’s life upside down solely to save $75K – roughly 1/10th of their favorable variance to last years budget.
            While I did use the term “significant salary increases” I don’t see that I said anywhere that district employees should not get them – you seem to be putting words in my mouth. I said nothing about the District “Capriciously handing out raises” nor did I even allude to it.
            Half of your last reply is a rather defensive arguement against things that I never even mentioned.
            With regard to enrollment decline – yes I did say that much of the decline over the past four years was likely due to the four day week – although you have to admit that I did qualify it by saying there was no real way to know. The prediction of future enrollment decline was not mine but was based on the the Districts Head of Finance who stated that cuts would likely need to be made to the budget after next year due to anticipated continued decline in erollment. Admittedly I do not know whether she had factored going back to the five day week into her projection or not – you could probably ask her if you really want to know.
            I’m sorry you find my criticisms of the district irrational and largely without merit.
            Unfortunately I have to say I find your criticisms of me to be largely in the same vein.

          • Pleased

            Flambeau – Thank you for clearing up all of the things you don’t really know. It’s quite a list and I appreciate you articulating it for everyone.

            I believe your latest remark about raises is disingenuous. I believe that you put the line about “significant salary increases” in your original comment to cast negative aspersions. I am prepared to be wrong about that, but I see no other reason to include it except to allude to something negative. I am glad to see you on record as not being opposed to the public employees serving our kids receiving raises. I am sure they appreciate your support after the last four to five years subsidizing educational funding with pay freezes.

            Maybe you aren’t concerned about the use of taxpayer dollars, but I am. And I find a million in savings over four years to be a significant effort to reduce that burden. My personal studies of the four-day week did not reveal “a rather large and potentially expensive” burden on families. What I found is that for some there is a small increase in daycare costs, for others a decrease. One of my greatest frustrations is listening to so-called “conservatives” talk about how the savings from the four-day week arent enough to warrant the effort. When exactly do dollars saved start to matter?

            I applaud the district for saving those dollars, especially since I was one of the community members (you probably were too) imploring the district to find creative ways to preserve dollars for the classroom. Was it wholly successful? Different people have different opinions, but I am deeply appreciative they were willing to give something like the four-day week a try. It takes courage to suggest a course of action not of the status quo. My experiences with the schedule have been overwhelmingly positive.

            You do realize that in arguing against a four-day week based on people’s daycare costs, you are suggesting that the district is somehow responsible to subsidize the child care of private individuals…yes? Maybe things are different for others but I didn’t have kids based on the idea that the school’s would make sure I don’t have to pay too much in daycare. They are my kids, I accept responsibility for them. I don’t expect the government to pay for them. I can’t imagine you do either, but here you are making the argument that it is the schools responsibility to keep child care costs in check.

            My instinct is that you are a fellow conservative. Thus I find your arguments that the district did not save ENOUGH money, and is somehow responsible for families daycare burdens to be very confusing. They sound much more like liberal arguments against the schedule.

            Anyway…I appreciate the back and forth. I have said all I came to say. Best of luck to you.

          • Flambeau


            I appreciate you taking your tone down a notch – no offense but you seemed a bit irate in your previous comment.

            I also appreciate you pointing out to me the fact that I was overstepping the bounds of what was “known” and what was conjecture in my statements. Frankly – I would like to hear from you again in the future if you find me making the same error or if you just want to jump in.

            It is not often that I get any kind of response at all to my comments and it does cause one to wonder if anyone actually ever reads them. I was glad to hear that you had been even though your reviews were not entirely flattering.

            The point I was making about “Significant Pay Increases” was not meant to cast negative aspersions on public employees getting pay raises, rather it was meant to suggest that the since the district was giving out pay increases this year they could use that as an offset against taking away what I view as the employee perk of the four day week.

            I am speculating again here but I would think that most district employees really like having Mondays off. I know for myself I would love to work four ten hour days and get every Monday off. I am at work nearly that long every day anyhow.

            So the point really was that the salary increases would serve to mollify employees who were going to lose this perk in the return to the 5 day week.

            I am concerned about saving taxpayer dollars and I will take the district at its word that overall they have saved about $1MM in expense thanks to the four day week. My point above however, was as to whether on a net basis it was a good financial decision for the District. That is to say, if the district lost more per student funding than they saved in reduced expense it may not have been a very good financial decision for the district even if it did save taxpayer dollars overall.

            The fact that the number of students living in the district but enrolling in other districts increased by 195 students or over 60% during the four year tenure of the four day week seems to strongly suggest that on a net basis the district may not have come out ahead and that it is a good decision to end the experiment now.

            On the topic of daycare costs, here is my thought. Sadly, for many I think the schools are exactly that, subsidized daycare. I will go you one better and say I would like to see the whole system privatized. If your kids are your responsibility I would like you to take responsibility for them and provide an education for them yourself. If you are unable to afford that, I would be in favor of state vouchers or tax credits which would allow parents to send their children to the private school (all schools would be private) of their choice. This would likely result in a lot more and a lot smaller schools than we currently have but also a lot more choice in terms of individually tailored education. The big public schools with their virtual compulsory monopoly (excepting open enrollment) are just not capable of that as currently structured.

            There would need to be academic standards and oversight and I would really like to see the federal government get out of the education business. The states have a definite roll to play but the smaller, the better.

            Not likely to happen any time soon and we do not appear to be headed that way but that is what I would like to see.

            Best of luck to you as well and perhaps we will hear from you again…….

  • Jack

    Seems a bit short-sighted to spend all the money right away. As far as I’ve seen, having two children in school, their class size and instructors are doing a fantasic job and most of them like the way it’s been going the past few years. Plus, most families have made the adjustment, now they have to adjust again. “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”! Cause you made a promise? It’s business, not politics! Bad businesses fail when they area short-sighted. So now the $300,000 per year we were saving is no more. This could’ve been used for other resources as well. Very disappointing in your effort to find a majority decision, cause even if it is close I think you would be in the minority!

  • Flambeau

    Could it be that contrary to the District’s assertions, the four day week has driven a significant portion of the enrollment decline in recent years and that the recommendation to return to a five day week is an effort by Dr. Henton to reduce the hemorrhaging without having to admit that they erred when they implemented the four day week in the first place?

    According to the Pupil, Staff and Other District Data FY 2010 report on the MN Dept. of Education website it appears that North Branch had a net deficit of (189) students with regard to open enrollment, meaning that there 189 more students that lived in North Branch that were enrolling in other districts than lived in other districts and were enrolling in North Branch. By 2012-13 that deficit had risen to (384) students. The net loss of (195) students from North Branch to other districts through open enrollment cost the district $2-$3 Million in state “per pupil” funding over the tenure of the four day week.

    While there is no way of knowing how much of this enrollment loss was due directly to the implementation of the four day week, I think it is likely that the majority of the loss was due to this issue. There is also no way of knowing how many people chose not to move into the district to begin with in order to avoid the hassle of the four day week.

    According to the District’s own estimates the four day week never saved them more than about $250K in a school year or no more than about $1MM over its four year life. It is highly likely that the policy cost the District upwards of $2-$3 Million in “per pupil” funding from the state over that same period.

    The four day week was primarily designed to place a burden on District families in order to pressure them into passing an operating levy while at the same time giving a free perk to District employees who were not getting the salary increases that they wanted due to budget constraints.

    Now that the District has passed the Operating Levy themselves and they are giving significant salary increases to District employees it seems likely that they are recommending the return to the five day week under the guise of keeping a promise while the reality is that they are anxious to correct a strategic error they made four years ago when they chose to implement the four day week.