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Menahga School Board ponders next steps, seeks public input

The Menahga School board certified the special mail ballot election results at Monday's meeting.

Wadena County Auditor/Treasurer Judy Taves and County Elections Coordinator Rosalie Miller made a special appearance.

"We came tonight to answer questions about the election process," Taves said.

"Overall, I thought the election went well," Miller said. "I know that you have not dealt with this type of election before so it was very overwhelming."

Phone calls and complaints are common during an election process at the county level, Miller went on, "but it's something we take in stride and work with. We're always here to help you. I think it did go well. You did have a good turnout and that's what you strive for. You know that people cannot follow instructions, do not the read instructions, and that's beyond our control."

Voters are responsible for ensuring that their voter registration cards have current addresses, Miller said.

There were 30 ballots that were non-deliverable because the voters had moved away since the last November general election.

"So we had very few people that actually had invalid addresses," she said.

Forty-seven ballots were rejected because they were missing the required witness signature, voter signature or both, according to Miller.

Another 47 ballots were received a day or so after the election, making them invalid as well, she told the school board. If the ballot didn't arrive on election day, it didn't count, regardless of when it was postmarked.

"And many of them lived right in the city of Menahga," Miller said, so those voters could have hand-delivered their ballots to the school district office until 8 p.m. on May 9.

"I don't know why people wait. We don't know what they're thinking," she said.

As of May 9, there were 2,210 eligible voters in the school district.

The final tally was 730 "in favor" and 906 "against" the bond referendum — a total of 1,636 votes and a 74 percent voter turnout rate.

There was one "undervote" and one "unofficial" ballot, both of which did not count.

Thirty-nine people registered on election day. One hundred and thirty-five voted in person on May 9. There were 1,503 regular, military and overseas absentee ballots and mail ballots.

There were 89 additional votes when compared to the most recent referendum (1,547 in Nov. 2014).

Voting has steadily increased with each of the five referendums — rising from 1,075 in Sept. 2009 to 1,636 in May 2017.

Debate about next steps

In his report, Superintendent Kevin Wellen wrote, "It seems that everyone is in agreement that we need space. I can see two options as we move forward. One option: We have Mr. Kangas sit down with our architect and draw up his proposed plan with enough detail that we can get a true price estimate of the cost. This would also give a visual of what it would look like and how it would meet our needs.

"A second choice is to break down the current plan into a base question: High school classrooms, kitchen and commons. Then have additional questions: One for the elementary and middle school additions/remodels; one for the gym/stage, and one for the career and tech ed equipment."

"Those are thoughts," Wellen told the board.

Since Katie Howard's appointment to the school board expires in January 2018, a special election will need to be held in November 2017 to fill the remaining year of the term. Howard is filling a seat left vacant by Ernest Huhta Jr.'s resignation.

"Having another bond question at that time is an option if we can have all of the planning in place," Wellen wrote, adding "but that's a relatively short window of time."

The board also must decide what to do with the district's lease levies and the unknown costs of "creating temporary solutions to our growth issues."

Open enrollment

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Rick Gibbs suggested dropping out-of-district busing next school year and reducing class size caps to 66 per grade level. He has repeatedly blamed open-enrolled students for overcrowding at the schools.

In his report, Wellen stated, "I believe we, as a board, need to ask our community to stop making our open-enrolled students feel unwelcome. I have said before, these children kept the Menahga District from having to make dramatic cuts 10 years ago. The way I was raised, you don't then turn your back on them just because you could now get by without them. Once you took those kids 10 years ago, they all became your kids. When I walked in the door, I anticipated educating all of our students and I will not be a part of trying to drive some of them away based on where they come from. If, as a district, we were deficit spending, this would be a different conversation."

Some residents argue that open-enrolled students are costing the district and local taxpayers' significant money, particularly when it comes to busing.

Wellen said he has "repeatedly shown that actual busing costs do not support that argument."

"The reality is, we've been putting money in the bank," he went on. "There is another financial fact: Over the past seven years, the district has increased the fund balance every year. This has been an average of $378,700 per year. Intuitively, how can we have banked an additional $2,650,000 in those seven years if open-enrolled students are causing 'dramatic deficit spending'? Finally, what has never been mentioned are the fixed costs that are being subsidized by our additional revenue from all additional students. Expenses like heat, electricity, school board costs, district office costs and snow removal, to name a few."

Wellen said the district currently has a teacher who has an open-enrolled student in the district.

"He is being heavily recruited by a neighboring district. With the uncertainty of the status of his younger children's chances of getting into the Menahga District, he is giving it serious consideration. It's my fear he is the first of several staff we could lose to this fight, which has become very public and very polarized."

The board has capped open enrollment and is not sending buses any further to pick up students and is eliminating stops when the last child graduates, Wellen pointed out.

"Considering our financial situation, I believe this is the ethical limit to open enrollment controls," he wrote.

Regarding what the district should do next, based on the election results, "I know we have options. We can do something. We can do nothing," said Board Chair Andrea Haverinen.

The board would need to submit a revised building plan to the Minnesota Department of Education and adopt a resolution by Aug. 25 in order to hold a bond referendum on Nov. 7. The board has between now and Aug. 25 to formulate another plan, Wellen said.

"I think we should take time to think about it," said Board member Jon Kangas. "I think with the results of the election and public comments I've heard tonite and on the street, I don't think we should rush into anything."

"What I've heard on the street is 'You've got to have another election," countered Haverinen.

Board member Brad Goehrig made a motion to hold a special meeting in June to discuss the next steps and to consider charging a $200 per year busing fee to open-enrolled families.

"I think that both of those issues need to be addressed. I think there needs to be a compromise made on open enrollment somehow," said Goehrig, adding he does not agree with Gibb's cap of 66.

The motion passed unanimously.

Haverinen will set a meeting date based upon board input.

Kangas inquired whether public input will be allowed at the special meeting.

Haverinen said she wasn't opposed to an open forum, however, she wanted the meeting to be productive, not an 8-hour debate.

Goehrig strongly encouraged that those "for" or "against" the building referendum to contact board members to give their feedback.

Finally, Kangas questioned a $748 bill from the district's attorney. The charges were related to Kangas' request to waive attorney-client privileges so he could access the attorney's investigation into his trespassing case.

Business Manager Liz Olson pointed out that the attorney fee is $245 per hour, so the charges are equivalent to only three hours of work.

In other business, the school board did the following:

• Approved the purchase of math curriculum selected by Menahga elementary, middle school and high school staff. The grand total is $158,850.

• Accepted letters of resignation from elementary teachers Jenna Kost and Allison Slieter.

• Approved the hiring of teachers Keylee Schoon and Joshua Roiko.

• Learned the district had been unsuccessful in finding a speech language pathologist for next year, losing the only applicant to the Sebeka School District primarily for financial reasons.

• Denied business teacher Kali Mitteness' request for a one-year leave of absence for 2017-18. Given the statewide teacher shortage, Wellen recommended denying the request. He said it would be "near impossible" to find an applicant to replace Menahga's only business teacher for one year.

• "We are working with Freshwater to explore other options," he wrote in his report.

• Learned that the National Honor Society, through its Empty Bowl Project, donated $500 to the Menahga Area Food Shelf. NHS students will have completed well over 1,000 volunteer hours to the school and community by the end of the year.

• Congratulated Menahga BPA students Isaac Anderson, Kaeden Berg and Samantha Sabin for participating at the national competition, held in Orlando, Fla. Sabin placed 2nd in "Interview Skills."