San Juan School board addresses Blanding Heritage Language program, long term financial situation

Heritage Language programs at Blanding Elementary dominated discussion at the April 16 meeting of the San Juan School Board.
The board discussed at length the success (and challenges created by that success) of the Navajo Language (HL) Instructional program at Blanding Elementary School.
Superintendent Ron Nielson reports that student interest in the program is growing, and he may recommend the hiring of a second HL teacher at the school. Neilson said there are up to 50 students in an HL class.
However, Nielson added that the growing number of students attending the HL program can be disruptive to the home school room and can “divide the school on racial lines.”
The discussion culminated with a directive from the board for Nielson to evaluate the HL enrollment and teacher-student ratios and from that data, determine the necessary steps.
In a consent decree in the 1990s, the school district made a commitment to provide 30-minutes of Navajo language instruction in elementary schools in the southern schools.
Students in Blanding are targeted for the HL program if they are English language learners. All students can attend the HL programs in Blanding if they are interested.
Blanding Elementary initially had two HL teachers, but the second position was eliminated during budget cuts 10 years ago.
As the issue has been analyzed, additional questions have been raised, including how students can opt-in or opt-out of the class on a daily basis, how aware parents are of the program and how it works, and how HL impacts other school programs, including physical education, music, and others.
Board member Merri Shumway is concerned about the opt out issue.
“It was never intended to have students, willy-nilly, determine whether to opt in or opt out,” said Shumway. “We need records.”
Superintendent Nielson said, “My intention is to assess, find out the numbers, and go through process of prioritizing needs for a possible one-time allocation of resources. If numbers justify it, I would be supportive of a second HL teacher at Blanding Elementary.”
In other matters, the school board had a discussion about long term financial planning.
The district general fund, which currently has a balance of more than $10 million, was a focus.
Business Administrator Kyle Hosler said the Utah State School Board is setting guidelines for a recommended general fund balance, and the current balance of $10,490,543 may need to decrease.
Hosler outlined several areas where the general fund could be reduced by $2.28 million. The idea is to make one-time expenditures and not create a stream of on-going financial obligations.
The funding decision will be made as the budget process moves ahead. The district will accept a budget in June. The general fund expenditures will be independent of the regular budget process.
Possible expenditures include: 1) replacement tracks (between $1.4 and $1.6 million), 2) implement first year of the school fee waiver program ($350,000), 3) soccer facilities at San Juan High School ($12,700), 4) fund the district Quality Teaching (QTIP) program ($250,000), and 5) funding for bubble classes ($250,000).
Regarding tracks at Monticello, Monument Valley, and Whitehorse high schools, Superintendent Ron Nielson said, “The tracks are in terrible shape, below the standard of any other facilities we use in the district.”
The owner of a track installation company visited the district on April 18 and will provide more exact information about the cost to replace the tracks.
Preliminary cost estimates are $497,000 in Monument Valley, $485,000 at Whitehorse, and $435,000 in Monticello.
Hosler said the new tracks would not be a competition-caliber track, but long term decent tracks for practice.
The competition-caliber track would remain at San Juan High.
Hosler said the district would prefer to time the construction in the summer if possible.
It will cost an estimated $350,000 to implement the first year of changes in the fee waiver system at area schools.
“We were found to not be in total compliance with expectations on fee waiver issues,” said Nielson.
“House Bill 273 requires a much deeper dive into school fees,” said Nielson, who described a “long and arduous process” to determine the actual fees required for school programs.
The actual fees will be determined and then the district will address the fee waiver system, which eliminates the fees for low income students.
With the high poverty in the district, it is anticipated that the additional funding for the fee waiver system could become a significant cost to the district.
“We will use next year as a trial run to see how this really works,” said Nielson.
This is a very big issue when you get to the ground level.”
With soccer moving to varsity status, San Juan High will need facilities for home matches on the grass field north of Lyman Middle School. Small bleachers and a temporary, mobile scoreboard will cost an estimated $12,500.
The Q-TIP program hires up to a dozen high quality lead teachers in challenged schools in the district. While $250,000 was previously set aside for the program, it has not yet been used. The $250,000 is a designated amount that could be used if Q-TIP funding ran short.
The district has struggled at times to find funding for “Bubble Classes,” which are classes with a large number of students. They are caused, at times, by a large class that has more students than normal.
This fund could be used at the Superintendent’s discretion to assist in these situations. Officials said it would only serve as one-time funding and be re-evaluated each year. This emergency allocation would be used only in extremely large classroom situations.
While these possible expenditures are considered one-time in nature, the QTIP and Bubble Class options could become an ongoing expense.
In addition to the General Fund balance, the district currently has $14.2 million in the capital fund and $4.8 million in the building reserve fund.
These funds will be used to pay the $14.4 million needed for current capital projects, including Bluff Elementary School and a gymnasium adjacent to Montezuma Creek Elementary.
The district has completed nearly $50 million in capital projects in the past 15 years, including three new schools.
Board member Merri Shumway said, “We should rebuild our capital fund. We need to plan for the future.”
Aaron Brewer gave a report on progress with the district Technology Department.
Through a Distance Education grant, the district has updated technology from Navajo Mountain to Monticello. The district is also excited about fiber extending through the county.
The district technology budget is $971,000.
Trends reported by Brewer include increasing internet speed in classrooms, expanded training opportunities for teachers, and classroom access to technolgy that is higher than the state average.
Julie Holt reported on progress in the elementary schools. She discussed the focus on literacy goals for students in kindergarten through the third grade.
The key goal this year is for 60 percent of students to show typical growth or better by the end of the year. Holt reports promising growth using the results of mid-year testing.
District-wide, 66 percent of students met the goal at the end of last year. This year, 72 percent of students had met the goal by the mid-year testing.
At Blanding Elementary, the percentage has increased from 75 to 78 percent.
At Bluff Elementary, the percentage has increased from 56 to 78 percent.
At Montezuma Creek Elementary, the percentage has increased from 56 to 58 percent.
At Monticello Elementary, the percentage has increased from 80 to 86 percent.
At Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary, the percentage has increased from 45 to 51 percent.
The first grade efforts are a focus on fluency, while the second and third grade efforts are a focus on accuracy.
The district will set new goals in June for next year.
Holt also discussed the professional development programs, which “provide support and training to help teachers and administrators be successful.”
Kit Mantz gave a report on progress in the secondary schools, with a focus on Career and Technical Education (CTE).
Mantz said the CTE programs have a role in the overall education plan, with growth in language, math, and graduation rates for CTE students.
Funding increased for CTE programs in the past year from $774,000 to $874,000.
Emphasis for the future includes increasing enrollment, hiring a pathways coordinator between the school district and Utah State University, and increasing CTE concurrent enrollment opportunities.
In other matters at the April 16 board meeting, Superintendent Ron Nielson discussed school safety, including a recent luncheon hosted by the district for First Responders throughout the area.
Those attending included law enforcement officials from San Juan County and communities, fire departments, Emergency Medical Services, and the Navajo Nation.
They walked through the district Navigate program and discussed floor plans and access issues.
Nielson said there were questions about access to security cameras during emergencies.
The board heard a report on the April 15 Active Shooter drill at San Juan High School. The drill included officers from multiple agencies, including the Blanding Police Department, Utah Highway Patrol, San Juan County Sheriff, Emergency Medical Services, and the Blanding Fire Department.
Matt Keyes reported that officials learned a lot from the drill, which is the second large-scale school drill in the district this year. A previous drill occurred at Whitehorse High School.
Keyes said the school district works to balance the benefit of the training for the agencies with the impact on students at the schools.
Councilors were on the scene at the drill, and helped debrief students who may have been impacted.
Board member Steve Black reports hearing from a parent that one student was stressed before the drill, but after the fact said it was less stressful than anticipated.
Business Administrator Kyle Hosler reports that Emery Telcom is looking for a site for a service hub for the fiber network that is being installed south of Blanding.
Emery Telecom hopes to secure a small site in Bluff and thought a site at a school would be beneficial, since the primary initial focus of the network will be for educational and health care uses.
Hosler said they considered the current school and the new school site, and the district would prefer a 99-year lease at the new school site, along the northern edge of the property.
Hosler said the district is still looking at options before making a final recommendation to the board.
It was announced that for the first time in memory, there will be no retirees this year from area schools. The only retiree in the entire district is Lynette Johnson, who has had a successful career as an administrator in the district office.
San Juan Sweet Job awards were presented to educators in the three Blanding schools.
Janna Rogers, a history teacher at San Juan High, was recognized for her work with the National Honor Society.
LaDawn Peterson, who teaches at Lyman Middle School, was honored as an advocate for students and for leading the yearbook effort at the school.
Valarie Turk, a pre-school teacher at Blanding Elementary School, was recognized for teaching the youngest students at the school for a quarter century.
LaMarr Walker, a member of the Education Association, addressed the board in public comment. Walker encouraged the board to find more money for teacher salaries.
“Help them out, and they will be more willing to stay,” said Walker.
In action items, the school board approved trust land plans for the coming year and amendments to two existing trust land plans.
The June board meeting was changed to June 25 in Blanding. The meeting will include the annual budget hearing.
The Standing Tall Awards night is Thursday, May 2 in Bluff.
The next school board meeting is May 14 in Bluff.
Graduation dates at area high schools include:
Monticello High School on Wednesday, May 22 at 7 p.m.
San Juan High School on Thursday, May 23 at 5 p.m.
Navajo Mountain High School on Friday, May 24 at 9:30 a.m.
Monument Valley High School on Friday, May 24 at 2 p.m.
Whitehorse High School on Saturday, May 25 at 9 a.m.

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