New high school principal among hiring decisions

Board hashes out hiring responsibilities and public discussion expectations

LUSK – The Niobrara County school board passed several hiring action items at the April 11 meeting, including who will be the new high school principal.

After a 2.5-hour-long executive session for personnel, the meeting was wrapped up with several hiring decisions. Katharine Kruse, currently a secondary science teacher, was selected as the new high school principal. This comes after the district had been seeking a new principal following current administrator Robin Heth’s decision to retire. The secondary physical education position will be offered to Reese Andrea. Positions for the 21st Century Literacy Grant program will be filled by Jamie Urskins and Sally Crosier. The rehire recommendation list was approved by the board with unknown exceptions.

The board also moved to accept the resignation of WYVA educator Tammy Fossil and current bricks educators Annie Thayer and John Thayer.

During the administrative updates, Special Education Director Hunter Kunerth and Assistant Director Kellie Brilbey informed those present they continue to work on the Medicaid billing process, including contacting and following up with eligible families; however, the actual successful completion of a billing cycle is going to take longer than they anticipated. S

tudents will be attending the regional special olympics competition in Casper at the end of April to try and qualify for the state competition held later in Gillette.

LEMS Principal Tiffany Assman has begun planning for the next school year and taking a look at the master schedule. The new camera has been installed in the gym and should be working. Together with staff, she is reviewing the assessment structure and intervention and core instructional programs; in essence, what are they doing, why are they teaching it, what are they assessing and how are they using that data. The goal is to streamline instruction, screenings and assessments.

A committee has been established to begin reviewing the student handbook. Muffins with Moms will be held tomorrow, Wednesday the 12 at 7:30 a.m. with the April celebration to follow. The final celebration will be held in conjunction with Donuts with Dudes on May 3. WYTOPP testing starts Monday April 17 and runs through the 24. Makeup days will be the 25, 26 and 27 with Fastbridge interspersed through that testing time frame as well.

Robin Heth, NCHS principal, also reported on WYTOPPs testing, the high school started April 11 and will be moving through the ACT next week. Prom is coming up and they are still looking for chaperones.

In WYVA Head of schools Joe Heywood’s report he gave the board some statistics on students that attend NCHS but also enroll in WYVA classes. Some of those WYVA classes are concurrent enrollment for college credit. In the 2022-2023 year 55 total grades were earned by students (not 55 students, this is completed grades in classes, some of which are multiple classes by the same student) with 22 grades of those being in concurrent classes. This is the highest dual-enrollment the district has seen. WYVA is also getting ready for prom, to be held in Casper and WYTOPP testing has commenced all over the state along with ACT testing. The K-12 spelling bee was held and two WYVA students from Thermopolis placed in their respective grades at regionals which includes several states.

Business manager Katie Caffee updated the board that the numbers for her spreadsheet should be finalized by the second meeting of the month.

When Superintendent George Mirich provided the board with his update he focused on four main points. He reviewed the projects that are gaining momentum in the gymnasium which include painting (walls and potentially ceiling), a total refinish of the floors including repainting of boundaries and designs and potentially replacing the bleachers. The timing and funding of these projects will all need to be carefully managed and as he knows more he will keep the board informed. All projects will be fairly expensive and time consuming with the order being very important. There have not yet been any bids for the PA systems in the buildings.

The External Cost Adjustment (ECA) from the state has been published. There was an increase in professional staffing of 4.2%, 5.377% increase in non-professional staff,19.4% in educational materials and 38.996% in utilities. The ECA was a relief however the legislature has stated that these increases may not be kept for the next session. The district will take advantage of it for now and be grateful there were some increases. Board vice-chair Katie Kruse expressed her frustration that while the legislature increased the available of funds for the districts to help with rising utility costs she couldn’t believe they didn’t see that those costs (utilities) are going up for everyone else too and create a corresponding increase for staff salaries. If the districts are seeing 35% increases in their utilities then surely their employees are as well. Mirich acknowledged this conundrum but stated that the 4.2% was more than they thought they would get and the district would be reviewing the best way to distribute that increase. Mirich also reminded the board that any increase in salaries comes with a corresponding increase in benefits cost so only about 70% of the total percentage is actually available for salary or reimbursement changes since benefits run close to 30% of total staffing costs.

The three snow days that must be made up were proposed for May 12, May 19 and May 26 with 1 p.m. dismissals planned for all three days. Mirich stated that input or opinion on this plan would be great.

Under board updates, Kruse, Ashurst and Katie Caffee attended the national school board conference and came away with some really great resources that they plan to share with the board over the next few meetings. As with previous conferences it also reassured them that the problems and situations in education in Niobrara county and Wyoming are also being seen across the nation.

Board member Rachel Manning had several questions and issues she wanted addressed. She wanted discussion regarding the status of the biology class at the high school and the “situation” that is occurring there. She wanted to make sure all board members were aware of the status of the class and find out if there was a plan for moving forward. After extensive discussion including input from the attorney and clarification of what should be discussed in executive session verses public meeting it was agreed that further discussion regarding this particular class would be held in executive session and then it would be determined what could continue in public session. Manning emphasized that while she has no problem discussing items in executive session she wants to make sure that if it is important for the public to know what is going on then some of the conversation is held in public session. Ashurst agreed but also acknowledged that it is important to protect staff, student and board members with appropriate executive session sessions.

Manning also requested clarification on the purpose and process for the role the board plays in hiring. An earlier statement by Superintendent Mirich indicating that the board vote is more for the “financial expenditure” of the position contract than truly for the candidate was confusing for Manning and several other board members since both the WSBA and the district policies indicate that the ultimate responsibility for hiring and firing are charges of the board as a whole. She was seeking clarification on the appropriateness of making hiring decisions without adequate knowledge of candidates or all candidate options particularly as they pertain to administrative positions. After extensive discussion it was agreed that any questions or desire to review all resumes and hiring committee information can be done in advance of a meeting where there will be a recommendation and vote. Additional discussion can always be held in executive session prior to a hire vote. Board member Amber Smith offered that some of the process was intrinsically part of the of Superintendent’s and building principal’s job responsibilities per the job descriptions and district policies and any questions should appropriately be directed to those individuals either in one-on one meetings or during executive session.

Manning also requested that the Superintendent’s communication committee be established and more effort be made to secure volunteers for the staff representative positions. The building principals will again send out those email requests and Manning volunteered to be one of the board members on that committee. The policy for that committee outlines the specific requirements for staff representation.

Ashurst reminded the board that the public comment period on the proposed standards by the state board of education is open. She encouraged board members and the public to participate in this process and make their thoughts know on standards and specifically the number of standards being considered.

Discussion regarding the creation of an ACE program position utilizing ESSR funds was held. Mirich explained the need for a designated staff member to be available when there are students in the ACE classroom verses trying to use the same staff member that oversees the behavior program which is how the ACE classroom functioned this past academic year. The position will be prioritized for the alternative classroom however if there are no students in the ACE classroom that person would be available for substitute work or to provide additional instructional support to regular classrooms. This position was approved by the board.

The WYVA recommendations for rehires and RIF were approved.

The final item of discussion was regarding the bids that were received for the emergency generator project. These bids are strictly for the electrical engineering and planning portion of the project. There was a fairly large difference between the two bids and the concern was that the lower of the two bids was not inclusive enough to meet the needs of the district for this phase of the project. It was agreed to approve the lower of the two bids with the understanding that Mirich would formalize with the company that a specific list of items included in the bid were indeed going to happen within the cost of the bid presented and there would not be additional costs beyond the finalized number. The board gave an expenditure ceiling to the superintendent for those negotiations. Should the company change their bid number or be unable to meet the needs of the district for this phase there will be additional discussion prior to finalization of a contract.