The pandemic and a subsequent drop in student enrollment means the Menahga School District faces a $1.5 million reduction in state aid.

Superintendent Kevin Wellen told the school board Nov. 16 that the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) recently directed all districts to update student enrollment figures.

With 216 students switching to home schooling this year, Wellen said a $1.5 million reduction in state aid begins immediately. MDE recalculated the district’s revenue from the state and will deduct the overpayments.

“As a result, Menahga will most likely receive no state aid in November, with payments resuming in December,” Wellen wrote in his report.

“Fortunately, we anticipated a worst-case scenario and have kept our investments liquid for the purpose of cash flow,” he continued.

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The district kept $3.3 million in investments liquid, so it will not need to borrow money to repay MDE.

“If the Legislature does not hold us harmless, then that $1.5 million comes out of the fund balance and we’ll never see it again,” Wellen said. He said he’s not optimistic about the Legislature holding school districts harmless. “We might get some adjustments.”

He further pointed out, “Our levy is still based on 1,034 kids for the coming year, which means it’s artificially inflated.” The district has asked MDE to adjust enrollment by splitting the difference, resulting in a $120,000 drop in levy revenue. If the Legislature changes the regulations or parents decide to send their kids back to school next year, Wellen said, the district wants the ability to receive those levy dollars. “It’s easier to have a 7 percent decrease next year than a 15 percent increase for our taxpayers,” he said.

An additional 20 high school students opted for PSEO this year, so Wellen said that bill jumped about $150,000 over the anticipated budget.

In January, after new board members are seated, Wellen said they must look at the current budget and make cuts.

“Ultimately, are you looking at cutting staff, right?” asked board member Durwin Tomperi.

“Well, we’re looking at reductions of some kind,” Wellen replied. “Again, we have fewer kids; we have to spend less money. That’s the reality of it.”

Early release Wednesdays

With the governor’s new additions to his executive order, school districts are required to give teachers with distance learners an additional 30 minutes of prep each day, or a total of 2.5 hours each week.

Wellen reported it was the consensus of the administration team that doing an early release

Wednesdays would meet this requirement, beginning Dec. 2. The teachers’ union leadership agreed.

“There are few, if any, classes that don’t have some kids virtually and in person at the same time,” Wellen said.

The board approved a three-hour release on Wednesdays effective until the executive order expires.

COVID update

A Nov. 9 letter from Tami Martin, a member of the Sourcewell Regional Response Team, said, “Wadena County Public Health data indicates that the country has had an escalating case rate and, according to statewide data, the implication is that this number will continue to rise.” As of Nov. 7, Wadena County’s 14-day case rate was 122.

Wellen noted that the school district is taking the data very seriously while trying to “make the best informed decision” about which learning model to assume.

“I want to reiterate that the safest place for our kids, when you talk to MDH (Minnesota Department of Health), is in school. We don’t have spread in our school,” he said. “What we’re doing is working and it’s why we’re continuing face-to-face instruction as long as we can maintain that standard and have staff.”

Staffing continues to be a challenge due quarantine or isolation, Wellen noted.

The board decided to convert Jan. 4 from a student day to a staff in-service day. Wellen recommended the additional day in order to have a “full 14 days of a reset for sanitization of the building.”

He also noted a number of other districts “are planning the first two weeks of January as K-12 distance learning as insurance against those who had family travel or large family gatherings at any time during the break. This may be too much of a strain on our families, but I would like to have the discussion and review all options to make the best decision.”

MSHSL additional fees

The board previously decided to deny the Minnesota State High School League’s (MSHSL) request for a $7,000 increase in membership fees from the Menahga School District.

At the Nov. 16 meeting, Wellen presented a resolution that would set MSHSL membership fees based on school size and classification. For example, Menahga is a AA school and would pay $4.88 per pupil in grades 9-12 – not the $18.11 proposed by MSHSL.

Calling this a more equitable fee structure, Wellen said, “We shouldn’t be carrying the cost of big school expenses on a small school budget.”

The resolution further states the school board will consider it a breach of contract and a violation of the MSHSL’s governing bylaws if MSHSL discontinues Menahga’s membership.

The board unanimously adopted the resolution.

In other school board business:

  • Received a clean, unmodified audit opinion from Eide Bailly for fiscal year 2020.

  • Approved Family Medical Leave Act requests from Elizabeth Hahn for up to 11 weeks, beginning on or about March 27, and from Isaiah Hahn for 10 to 12 days, beginning on or about March 27.

  • Approved Susan Hillstrom, as a long-term substitute school nurse, up to 52 days, 6.75 hours per day, for the 2020-21 school year.

  • Approved the long-term substitute assignment for Willard (Bill) Hodge, beginning Sept. 8 and ending on Nov. 6.

  • Set a closed meeting for the superintendent’s evaluation for 5:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14.

The school’s truth in taxation meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 21.