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School board hears budget, student performance updates

By Sue Sitter - | Mar 13, 2021

Submitted Art A graph shows student performance on standardized math and reading tests in Rugby elementary students.

Students in Rugby Public Schools have weathered the current COVID crisis surprisingly well, according to testing data reviewed by the Rugby Public School Board at its regular meeting March 9.

The board met at the Rugby High School library, where members reviewed graphs showing MAP test data showing scores in math and reading proficiencies among first through sixth graders in the district.

Data from the pandemic’s beginning in the 2019-2020 school year showed a decline in math scores among third, fifth and sixth graders. When school reopened on a modified schedule for 2020-2021, fourth graders still showed a slight decline in math scores, while first graders scored 18 points below the target 50 percent proficiency level at 32 percent.

Both years showed a decline in reading scores for third graders, although scores for the grade level improved from 41 percent in 2019-2020 to 49 percent in 2020-2021.

Rugby Public Schools Superintendent Mike McNeff showed the proficiency graphs to the board.

“When you look at this data, it appears our students are meeting growth targets. I don’t believe the learning loss is as deep as what’s going on in the nation,” McNeff noted.

“We’ve got to remember we’ve been in session for the most part, four days a week. Now, we’re in session five days a week. Many large states are still virtual,” McNeff added.

“They didn’t do anything last March to finish the year,” McNeff said of schools in more populated states. “They just shut down. They couldn’t react the way we did. We’re nimble; we’re small and we could do that,” McNeff said of North Dakota schools.

“I think we’re getting sucked into that national narrative about learning loss,” McNeff said of the standardized test. “If you look at the graph here, it’s our own data comparing ’19-’20 and ’20-’21, statistically only 50 percent of all students when they take the math achievement test achieve their goal. So, there were those that were a little over that mark, more so in reading than math.”

The board also reviewed a budget report for the 2022 fiscal year. McNeff wrote in the report, “I am very concerned about our financial outlook over the next biennium.”

McNeff said his concern arose when state school funding in House Bill 1388 was amended to a zero percent increase for 2022 and a zero percent increase for the following year.

“Most districts have an automatic increase within their salary schedule like we do,” McNeff said. “So, on an educational increment and negotiated agreement, every year, (teachers) are going to get a raise. Whether it’s $600 for a bachelor’s degree or $1100 for a master’s degree, it automatically increases. That’s something to consider. So, we always need new money to go into the per-pupil payment,” he added, noting raises come from those payments.

“Right now, one of the reasoning with the House Appropriations Committee, is they see all the federal money that is headed our way. There’s a lot of federal money. We’re talking $2.7 million that we’re going to get over the next year or so,” he noted.

“And they see that and think we’re getting federal money, so they think we don’t need to put money in the per-pupil payment. That’s really influencing them. So, that’s a big concern because we have to operate as a school district and those federal dollars are not sustainable,” McNeff added.

McNeff explained the federal funds, given in one-time payments come from the federal CARES Act.

The payments, known as ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary Emergency School Relief funds, have deadlines by which they can be used, and specific guidelines and documenting procedures for how they can be used.

“ESSER1 (must be used) by 2022; ESSER II by 2023; ESSER III by 2024,” McNeff said. Federal legislators have not yet passed the third round of ESSER funding.

McNeff projected a decrease in school revenues of about $222,000 for 2022. He also displayed a chart predicting ending fund balances would fall short of their ideal 12 to 15 percent level of current expenditures by $287,600.81 for 2022 and $251,494.62 for 2023.

Another complication stems from what McNeff’s report described as “an increase in taxable valuation as part of the Wolford School District dissolution.”

Although the district gained Wolford School land, Rugby schools did not gain many students from the district. McNeff reported several of the Wolford families decided to homeschool their children.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic caused 10 students to switch from in-classroom attendance to homeschooling and eight students to transfer to private education.

McNeff noted kindergarten enrollment in the district for the 2021-22 school year would likely exceed the number of students graduating from the district.

“We’re not 100 percent sure on our numbers,” McNeff said. “Right now, if you look at our preschool numbers, I think we have 34 students over there. A few of them are three-year olds, so there are right around 40 students. There are 30 boys. There’s got to be some girls out there in the kindergarten class,” he added with a slight laugh. “Hopefully, the number will be larger than we project.”

McNeff said the projected enrollment of 591 students in the district was “down a little bit.”

“You can look at our ending fund balance as it decreases over the next two years from this school year to FY 22 to FY 23. I believe it’s worse than this, but either way, it’s a big decrease in our ending fund balance.”

Possible solutions to the budget issues discussed included eliminating staff positions by attrition, or not re-hiring for the position after the employee holding it quits.

Another was to use the ESSER funds for building improvements and other one-time expenses.

In other business, the board reviewed school policies pertaining to student suspensions from sports and activities. After discussion, the board voted to table the issue until April.

The board also listened as Ely Elementary School Principal Jason Gullickson shared the results of the Kids Heart Challenge, an event for elementary students to raise funds for the American Heart Association. Gullickson also said he expected local families to attend Gearing Up for Kindergarten sessions at the school.

Rugby High School Principal Jared Blikre updated the board on pre-registration for 7-12 grade students. Blikre said 47 juniors had taken the ACT exam, while sophomore students had taken the pre-ACT test. “It’s a busy testing period for the year,” Blikre noted.

Blikre also reported Rugby High would hold its first lyceum of the year. Students would hear a presentation by Cara Filler, a youth motivational speaker from Oregon. Filler was slated to speak about health and safety topics to the students.

The next school board meeting will be held at Rugby High School on April 13 at 7 a.m.

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