The Menahga School Board voted to realign the district into a two-building configuration and direct the administrative team to come up with a proposal of how that would look.

Education MN Menahga statement

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Becky Nemeth, on behalf of Education Minnesota (EM) Menahga, read a statement regarding proposed budget cuts. EM is the voice for professional educators in Minnesota’s public school districts, faculty members at Minnesota’s community and technical colleges, retired educators and student teachers.

“Our concern is not just for teachers, but for the whole school,” she read. “The budget discussions have mostly focused on accepting and adjusting to decreased enrollment with little talk about how to change enrollment. We urge the board to put effort into increasing enrollment and make the smallest cuts possible this spring. There are so many variables and unknowns that could impact student enrollment by this August. It is risky to make big cuts and then have to rehire people.”

Regarding the middle school, EM Menahga warned that support for students, staff and behavior management issues and communication with parents would be reduced.

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“For six years, we have built up a positive middle school environment and now you’re proposing to eliminate that right when we are succeeding,” Nemeth read. “Why destroy something good when there are other alternatives?”

EM Menahga suggested promoting the school more aggressively to increase enrollment.

They also pointed out that the state Legislature may still provide aid to school districts to offset some of the financial losses due to the pandemic.

Board decision

Superintendent Kevin Wellen said the district, as of Feb. 16, had received half of the surveys (34 out of 66) from parents homeschooling their children. Parents of 14 students indicated that they will return in the fall, he said. Forty-four students are “conditional,” particularly saying if the mask mandate is lifted, then they will return to school. Thirty-seven students plan to continue homeschooling.

Board chair Andrea Haverinen recalled that, when the board decided to add a middle school principal, enrollment growth projections were “significant.”

Dissolving the middle school would eliminate the principal and secretaries. “We would realign all those things,” Wellen said. “It depends on how we would redistribute those duties.”

Haverinen said the board only knows for certain the current enrollment and the district’s fund balance. “A lot of the other things that are in the budget discussion are guesses,” she said.

Within the region, Wellen noted that only Park Rapids, Pequot Lakes and Pillager have a true middle school.

He said it made sense to maintain a middle school when Menahga’s enrollment was higher.

“Now numbers-wise, if we’re going to do that, you’re making a choice that other districts of our current size and even somewhat larger are choosing not to continue,” he said. “And, for the most part, it’s about the dollars and cents.”

Board member Katie Howard commented that waiting until spring or summer to make a decision would be too late. “I don’t think we’re going to get enough kids back to stay with a three-part school.”

Board member Julia Kicker said the middle school was “a good place to start” with budget cuts. “I think we have some hard decisions, and this is only our first one.”

The motion to realign to two buildings was approved unanimously, 4-0.

In other business, the board did as follows:

  • Tim Hendrickson declined his school board appointment. The board set a 2 p.m. Friday, March 12 as the deadline for candidates to submit a letter of interest for the school board vacancy.

  • Approved an early retirement incentive offer for eligible staff.

  • Directed administration to develop an advertising campaign for open and in-district enrollment.

  • Called a special meeting for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24 for board appointee Helen Lehto to take the oath of office and be seated as a voting member of the school board; approve the principals’ 2019-21 contract and discuss the budget.

  • Recognized kindergarten teacher Ashley Walvatne, fifth grade teacher Molly Peterson and high school teacher Ashley Lynne as Sourcewell’s Teachers of Excellence.

  • Accepted a $500 donation toward Bingo for Books from Menahga Gateway Lions.

  • Accepted a Wadena County CARES grant in the amount of $74,166; a Wadena County Child Abuse Prevention grant in the amount of $239 and a Carl Perkins Ag grant in the amount of $1,199.

  • Approved a FMLA request from Anna Hillukka and a six-week FMLA request from MaryJo Brockpahler, beginning March 1 through April 9, 2021.

  • Accepted the letter of resignation from Zach Kaiser, middle school teacher, effective at the end of the 2020-21 school year, and thanked him for his five years of dedicated service to the district.