School board emphasizes need to be in touch with legislators

LUSK – As the Niobrara County School Board worked their way through their agenda the issue of legislative support and funding of education was a recurring theme at Monday nights meeting. The formalized side of that support, through the lawsuit that has been filed by the Wyoming Education Association against the state for their lack of External Cost Adjustment funding (ECA) during legislative sessions, was discussed by the board. Superintendent George Mirich has been asked to provide specifics on the lawsuit and costs related to joining before the board decides about joining other districts in the lawsuit.

Extensive discussion around opportunities for board members to interact with legislators from around the state and the importance of personal connections and conversations with those lawmakers was also held. Both Chair person Ashurst and member Loren Heth encouraged all board members to be in touch with local representatives as well as other legislators and communicating with them the needs of the district through real examples of programs, students and communities. Mirich conceded that at a recent meeting Representative Allen Slagle appeared quite anti-educational funding in his views and that he was unable to discern where Senator Cheri Steinmetz is since she rarely attends the meet and greets hosted by the Wyoming School Board Association.

Given the extensive roster of rookie legislators Mirich reported that it is difficult to gauge the temperature for educational support in the legislature. There are several dozen bills that will be introduced that have the potential to impact Niobrara schools and Mirich will be keeping the board and community updated as much as possible as those bills move through the legislative process.

When it comes to funding, as with every area, the legislature must balance the needs of education with the responsibility to tax payers for accountability. The way education is funded, through a block grant combined with the lack of ECA which would allow for improved coverage of staffing expenses has lead most school districts to “rob Peter to pay Paul” as Ashurst put it meaning that they spend about 86% of their grant on staffing expenses leaving only a marginal 14% for all other costs when the grant is awarded for a much different allocation. Several legislators have expressed a desire to “see where the funding is going” but when districts provide information it doesn’t seem to satisfy the legislators in justifying where the dollars go. Both sides seem to be at an impasse when it comes to how the funding should be allocated and designated including some legislators that feel the funding should be tied to specific line items, i.e. utilities, staffing, supplies, instead of in a block however, as pointed out by both Heth and Ashurst, this would lead to an even more significant funding deficit for staffing costs which in turn would continue to contribute to staffing shortages already felt across every district in the state. The lack of ECA has lead Niobrara to be under funded on teacher salaries alone by a minimum of $9,000. The state currently funds a teacher salary at $39,000 a year and Niobrara starts staff at $48,000 with this only being the beginning of the discrepancy

Erin Hodge attended the meeting as a visitor to address allegations against Athletic Director Ryan Nelson that were made via facebook over the weekend. Hodge commended the faculty, coaches, administration, and the school board members for not joining in the censure and comments that were made by a variety of individuals regarding some specific facebook posts. She read a prepared statement in defense of Nelson and his work record with the district. Board members acknowledged Hodge’s statements and did not further address anything regarding the facebook post. They simply reminded those present that personnel issues must go through a process should an individual want something addressed by administration and the board.

A group of staff members which included Anna Skeen, Heather Heth, Tiffany Assman, Robin Heth, John Thayer and Amy Swisher reported on their experience at the recent PBIS conference in Chicago. They all confirmed that the conference itself was extremely valuable in the districts journey toward a tiered intervention system (NTSS) as well as valuable in giving those who attended, and the district continuing information and ideas regarding the implementation and ongoing use of a three-tier behavior system.

Niobrara has already implement several PBIS resources without being a designated “PBIS School”. PBIS stands for “Positive Behavior and Intervention Supports” and is an international program that, “…is an Implementation framework for maximizing the selection and use of evidence-based prevention and intervention practices along a multi-tiered continuum that supports the academic, social, emotional, and behavioral competence of all students.” The district has been utilizing many of these concepts including the three tiers concept.

While at the conference attendees found valuable information including that may rural schools are dealing with he same obstacles as Lusk. As the district continues to move towards data-driven decision making PBIS would provide many different resources for teachers and administrators from behavior intervention ideas to data tracking sheets.

PBIS aligns very closely with the social-emotional learning programs and steps that have already been taken in the the district. Principal Robin Heth pointed out that PBIS has been utilized in many European schools which are far ahead of most US systems in their behavior and SEL development programs and they have already begun to see the rewards of such a system.

All administrators updated the board on progress made with interim WYTOPP testing with LEMS just finishing up and the high school preparing to start. WYVA is also working on their interim testing. WYVA administrator Joe Heywood presented data via handouts to the board that reflect the first semester of data collection and student and staff performance.

Both Heywood and special education directors expressed satisfaction with the progress that has been made for those students needing specialized services. eleven new special education students were identified at semester and they anticipate several others will also join. Some of these are speech service only students but others have more complex needs. It is a process to evaluate and determine the needs of these students coming in from other districts where they may have been improperly placed in their programs and IEPs and adjustments need to be made for appropriate services to be offered.

The enrollment numbers for Pathway students in WYVA continue to grow. Currently almost all ninth grade students in the bricks school are enrolled in a pathway. This program is one that has been encouraged by the state. Pathways are a program of study that offer sequential, progressive classes that climate in an industry recognized credential (IRC). The classes must be offered in an industry that is in high demand with high wage in Wyoming. The continued expansion of this option in both WYVA and bricks will hopefully bolster not only the number of directly employable graduates but contribute to the community work forces.

New member Joyce Hammer had several questions regarding the financial reports including clarification on specific accounts. Hammer wanted to know what community education funds were, which is Lisa Williams’ exercise classes. Concurrent tuition occurs for simultaneous enrollment in either WYVA and bricks or community colleges and high school classes for dual credit. WYVA utilizes a psychologist for evaluations through BOCES and Vistabeam is used for internet for the WYVA office.

Discussion regarding the use of credit cards verses purchase orders and the difficulties this is presenting for both record keeping and staff was held.

The board approved Erin Hodge as a special education paraprofessional. They also approved Ben Hansen as a middle school boys basketball volunteer and Lexie Blackburn as the middle school boys basketball aide. The board approved the use of appropriately de-identified WYVA data in a Master’s project by a WYVA math teacher who has assisted with data analysis in the past.

The board accepted, with regrets, Norma Langston’s resignation set for the end of the academic year.

Member Joyce Hammer also had several questions she brought up during old business. She was encouraged to submit those questions prior to agenda development so that they could be formalized on the agenda if they were important enough for discussion.

Hammer inquired where job postings are made available and all vacant positions are posted on the school website. She also asked who was in charge of what is posted on Lusk Tiger Pride the district facebook page. Social media pages and the website can be updated by anyone however the update must be approved by one of four individuals in the district. Once the website is updated those live updates also push out to facebook and twitter. All digital information sharing is submitted via Thrillshare and approved by either Robin Heth, Tiffany Assman, Karma Gaukel or George Mirich.

The lockdown process is found online in the crisis management plan there is a short policy that simply states the district will have emergency response plans in place. Written policy books are not maintained by the district since this increases the liability of having outdating policies and procedures. Rather, if a board member or staff member wants a paper copy they are welcome to print the needed item from the website. All of the updated or most recent versions of policies and procedures can be found on the website.

Hammer inquired about specifics regarding a recent lockdown at the high school that was precipitated by an alleged “video incident”. Hammer wanted to know if she could find out how many students were involved and what the consequences were. This is an ongoing situation and per the districts attorney unless a finalized public report were completed details are not available for public information or board members.

Hammer expressed that she would like the district to take a more proactive response to addressing situations that occur within the district to try and avoid rumors and inaccurate information. Several board members expressed that while they did want to have positive communication and keep the community informed it was not appropriate to dignify rumors or gossip on social media with a response.

In regards to the December meeting agenda, the agenda was followed exactly as presented in a revised form for an expedited meeting due to weather. The board elections were not “snuck in” under the guise of anything else. They were item number two “Board Reorganization” per both state statute wording and district policy wording. There was confusion because the item wasn’t specifically called “board elections”. It is important that regardless of the message all board members communicate with each other with clarity so that they are sending the same message.

Hammer also requested that office hours for all three buildings on Fridays be communicated to the public since the availability of secretaries depends on the events of the day and whether those individuals are in trainings. When in doubt community members and parents are always welcome to leave a message and their concerns will be addressed as soon as possible.

If there are future snow days IT issues will be addressed by administration. Currently there are eight students at the Lance Creek school which offers pre-K through sixth grade curriculum.

Meeting adjourned without an executive session.