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Menahga Board to interview superintendent candidates

The search for a new Menahga superintendent has moved into a new phase.  After reviewing applications from six candidates, the Menahga School Board narrowed the field to three at their Monday, Nov. 23 meeting.  Beth Schwarz, current superintendent for Cook County Independent School District in Grand Marais, and Kevin Wellen, middle school principal at Cass Lake-Bena School District, are slated to be interviewed Monday, Nov. 30 at a special school board meeting.  The third contender, Barry Schmidt of Trimont, withdrew his name.  Stoeckman said he met with all the candidates for screening purposes, specifically asking them if they’d read the VEDI report so they would understand the challenges currently facing the district. Board members selected the top three applicants to move on to the interviewing stage.  Each candidate will be allowed a 50-minute interview. A second interview is possible, if the school board deems it’s necessary.

Audit report  Andrew Adams of Eide Bailly reviewed a summary of the district’s annual audit.  Menahga received a “clean” audit opinion, meaning the financial statements are prepared using accepted accounting principles, don’t contain material misstatements and are fairly presented.  Actual general fund revenues exceeded budget expectations for the fiscal year, ending on June 30. The final budget projected $9,279,921 in total revenues, but the district received $9,461,716.  Adams highlighted the fact that Menahga consistently receives 88 percent of its general fund revenues from the state, plus another 3 percent from federal sources.  The statewide average is 77 percent in state funding.  “You can see other districts are getting less in state aid and they’re supplementing that with local revenue. That’s tax levies. So you are essentially not taxing your residents like other districts,” Adams said.  Total expenditures were also lower than anticipated: $8,941,705 compared to the budgeted $9,322,661. The decrease in fuel prices and fact that the district didn’t purchase budgeted equipment were among the reasons, Adams said.  

Capital expenditures vary from year to year, otherwise district expenses are consistent, he said.  The district’s policy is to maintain an unassigned fund balance of three month’s worth (25 percent or $2,235,426) of operating expenditures .  Adams said the district’s reserves are currently 25.4 percent or $2.7 million.  Board chairperson Ernest Huhta Jr. said the policy shouldn’t be changed, adding it would be “financially unwise to think we can rip $1 million out of the balance to pay for building needs.”  Board member Curtis Hasbargen inquired after the economic conditions of other Minnesota school districts.  Adams replied that financial situations vary greatly by school.  Business Manger Liz Olson pointed out that declining student enrollment is one factor for many districts.  Huhta remarked on the fact that 91 percent of Menahga’s revenue comes from a combination of state and federal sources.  

Local levies account for only 5 percent of school funding.  Another 4 percent, earmarked as “other,” is derived from food services and miscellaneous family fees.  “The important part that I want to make sure our community understands is that 5 percent of all dollars in Menahga are coming from our tax base,” said Huhta.  “We need to make sure our community understands how insignificant, truly – when you look at other districts and operating levy referendums – how insignificant the tax impact is on our community.”  Adams agreed he was struck by this fact as well.

Openenrollment  Interim Superintendent Allen Stoeckman reviewed enrollment figures and their tax impact.  Of the district’s 983 students, 745 are residents. Compared to last year, this is an increase of 45 students.  “There’s growth within the district. Quite a bit,” Stoeckman said. “Enrollment within our district is up substantially.”  Open enrollment declined from 264 students in 2014-15 to 238 students this year.  Non-resident students are from Park Rapids (98), Frazee-Vergas (92), Sebeka (42), New York Mills (4) and Nevis (2).  Menahga School has two excess operating levies in place. A board-approved, local levy brings $424 per student in revenue. A state-approved referendum results in another $300 per pupil.  The $724 total revenue costs a resident with a $100,000 home $129 per year in taxes  Using last year’s enrollment figures, $129 in taxes divided by 962 students equals a cost of 13.4 cents per pupil, said Stoeckman.  

Last year there was a net gain of 153 students, since 264 open-enrolled into the district while 111 open-enrolled out of the district.  Based on 13-cent cost per student, those 153 open-enrolled pupils resulted in $20.50 per year in taxes on a $100,000 home.  State and federal aid totaling $8,021 follows each student, so the 153 open-enrolled students brought $1,227,213 in revenues to the Menahga School District.  Stoeckman said accountants double-checked his calculations.

Facility planning  At its Nov. 9 special meeting, the school board heard presentations from two architectural/engineering firms that conducted walk-throughs of the campus.  Troy Miller of LHB Corporation and Chris McGauley of Unesco Inc. described their company’s services and shared preliminary findings.  The district is seeking professional help to address space shortages, improve bus traffic flow and tackle 10-year facility maintenance needs.  Chris Kubesh, from the school finance division of the Minnesota Department of Education, conducted a walk-through study of the school as well.  In an email to Stoeckman, Kubesh reported some of his observations.  He noted there is “sufficient acreage to allow for expansion. However, if the church on the southwest corner of the property is available for purchase, the district should consider its acquisition. Removal of the church structure could improve traffic flow and student safety by allowing for a dedicated driveway for deliveries to the kitchen area.”  

An addition on the south end “would likely maintain a desirable flow and allow for plenty of natural light,” he wrote.  Kubesh determined that physical education/spectator space is “insufficient for a district serving 1,000 students.”  Most districts of Menahga’s size have “a two-station gymnasium for athletics and to accommodate non-athletic, spectator events such as graduations and performing arts,” he said.  While the kindergarten classrooms are acceptable, the high school will need more classrooms, particularly as the student population increases to the 80 to 90 kids per grade, said Kubesh.  The industrial arts classroom is “cramped with little circulation and project space for students,” Kubesh said. In addition, the elementary music classroom is “too small to provide proper acoustics.”  In other business, the school board:  n Learned from Athletic Director Bob White that, thanks to a winning football season, Sebeka will continue its paired/sharing program with Menahga.  

The United North Central Warriors football team and girls cross country team earned their first-ever trips to the state tournament this year.  White has asked the Menahga and Sebeka high school band directors to write a Warriors school song.  

- Accepted a $500 donation from Gateway Lions to cover UNC Warrior football’s travel expenses to the state tournament.  

- Accepted a $368.10 donation from the Menahga Conservation Club for a fifth grade field trip to Old Wadena.  n Accepted numerous community donations for the 19th annual pumpkin party, held at the Menahga school gym. Nearly 450 kids attended the event. - Switched from the Public Employee Insurance Program to Blue Cross Blue Shield for employee health insurance coverage, effective Jan. 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017.  

- Seeks bids for a sauna (minimum of $1,500) and a garden/storage shed (minimum bid of $775) built by the Menahga High School industrial tech class. All bids must be submitted by Friday, Dec. 11 to Principal Mark Frank.  The next board work session is 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14 at the high school media center.  The truth-in-taxation hearing will be part of the board’s regular meeting 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 21.