Special to The Gardner News
Gardner-Edgerton School Board members selected Mark Meyers as the administrative acting superintendent stand-in after an hour and thirty five minute executive session at the Jan. 9 school board meeting..
Pam Stranahan, former superintendent, stepped down last month after receiving a separation agreement for approximately $425,000.
Christy Whittier served as the interim superintendent at Monday night’s meeting.
It was the first board meeting for newly elected members Tom Reddin, Greg Chapman and Jeff Miller.
Chapman made a motion at the beginning of the meeting to use a new meeting agenda he presented to the board.
He requested the budget hearing be taken off the consent agenda discussion and moved to a new agenda item.
This was the first of a few changes and set several members into confusion.
Deb Starling, clerk of the board, said she wasn’t sure Chapman was allowed to change the agenda.
“The budget item can be moved to a new agenda item, but in order to be transparent to the public agendas have to be published three days ahead of time,” she said.
Kristen Schultz, board member, said she wanted to know why Chapman took it upon himself to change the agenda.
Starling said she didn’t know if they could start the meeting with a completely new agenda and no prior notification.
Ben Boothe, community relations director, said he didn’t know if they could either.
Schultz said it felt like a game.
Katie Williams, board member, and Schultz said they had reached out to new board members repeatedly with no returned calls.
Schultz said she was trying to follow protocol, and Williams said she felt it was important to be transparent to the public.
Robin Strentz, board member, said it didn’t show them all working together as a board.
“I’m sorry to students and staff of USD 231,” she said.
Schultz said it was clear they were not a united board and would deal with the agenda changes after the fact.
Strentz said she’d like them to go in with open ears.
“I would like this board to work together,” she said. “It makes me sad.”
Williams said they served non-partisan positions as board members, but they needed one person on each side to keep the board neutral and in check.
Reddin said he didn’t know the board had sides.
Lana Sutton was voted in as the new board president.
Tom Reddin, new board member, was voted in as the new board vice president.
Sutton said it made her heart happy to see the doors back open.
It was the first meeting since before Covid members of the public were allowed to sit inside the board room.
Audience members repeatedly disrupted the meeting through out the night with shouts and loud clapping.
Half way through the meeting, Chapman said he appreciated members of the public showing their enthusiasm, but they needed the meeting to return to order and calm.
Miller requested a comment recorded in December’s meeting minutes be corrected and to add that people were standing outside in 30 degree weather.
Schultz said the people outside weren’t part of the official meeting, and they only include business items in meeting minutes.
“We wouldn’t typically include that in minutes,” she said.
Williams said she wanted to know if they were going to correct and update minutes from the executive meeting with Sutton leaking information to State Representative Bill Sutton and the people standing outside of the meeting.
She then played an audio recording.
Schultz said she wanted to know why they would make an update to the executive meeting.
“I am trying to hold a board member accountable,” Williams said. “We made an oath to protect staff.”
Sutton said she didn’t leak information from the executive meeting to the public.
Starling said they don’t usually comment on people outside but would relook at Baumgardner’s comment.
Schultz said arguing about executive session communication proved there would be no open and honest discussion among board members.
“It’s clear we are going to bulldoze right through,” she said.
Sutton said she wanted to get back to the business of the people.
Chapman said he was trying to unite not railroad the board.
Schultz said she wasn’t the one who had tried to drop a bomb on anyone.
Sutton made a motion for the board to take a five minute break to recollect everyone before reconvening.
Board member comments included:
Schultz said she hoped they could work together because the staff, teachers and employees of USD 231 deserved better.
“I really truly hope to get past this hump,” she said. “We need a way to unite and power through, because I know it’s been a tough year, and I don’t want it to be tougher,” she said.
Sutton said she was happy to have doors open and people in the board room again.
“It has been a brutal couple of years, and I just want to move forward,” she said.
Sutton said she had made contact with all voters while campaigning, and there had been three main concerns from the community.
“There was a lot of concern over the loss of academic achievement and scores, concerns of students’ mental health—a drum I’ve beat for quite awhile and mask mandates,” she said.
Sutton said citizens felt like they weren’t being heard, and it needed to be addressed as aboard and district.
“Our responsibility is to the students and their education,” she said. “It’s been hard but I’m available to listen to concerns and treat people with respect.”
Sutton said she hope to do her best to serve the community and school district well.
“We are the people’s board,” she said. “These doors won’t be locked against you again, and we will never lose sight that the students belong to you—the parents.”
Reddin said opening the board room doors had been a priority.
“I look forward to serving,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade the thousands of campaign steps and sore muscles for anything.”
Reddin said the lack of leadership had been expressed to him repeatedly along with wanting ideas heard and expressed.
“We will select a superintendent to lead by example,” he said. “Our goal is to have Gardner-Edgerton the paragon of Johnson County schools.”
Miller said he was honored to represent, and his duty was to promote the best possible education.
“I’ll always strive to be open and transparent,” he said. “We have the opportunity to do great things for a lifetime of success.”
Strentz said being up there listening to everyone’s prepared speech was upsetting.
“We thought we were doing the best for the safety of the children in the district,” she said. “It just makes us look like we have done nothing for seven years—makes us look like we are a piece of crap, and I am not.”
Strentz said it was made clear they can’t work together.
“Because of Covid everything done for the district has gone down the tube,” she said. “It’s not fair to those who have given to the district, and I just want to apologize to the staff and administrators that we are sorry.”
Chapman said he wanted to thank everyone who got him back up there on the board.
“It’s amazing to sit down with all the administrators and watch them come to life,” he said.
Chapman said he wanted them to work together.
“I can see how it has been misconstrued that we can’t work together,” he said. “I do want to just not with hidden agendas, and I want to get the community back on the right foot.”
Chapman said he didn’t think anyone was a piece of crap.
“I think you did things for the right reasons, but we represent all the people,” he said. “Let’s just focus on the business at hand.”
Williams said she felt the agenda change had been a game, and she was trying to hold a board member accountable.
“I thought about going public, but you told me I would be threatened, censured, etc,” she said. “I would have recourse, and my hope was to hold Lana accountable for wrongdoing.”
Chapman said he didn’t know who told Williams about repercussions for sharing last month’s executive meeting.
“I didn’t say anything about you being in danger just that they were serious items,” she said.
Williams said she was told to be careful about sharing an executive session.
Schultz said she felt the board needed to do a self-evaluation as they had never done one in seven years.
“We owe it to everyone to be held accountable to the public,” she said.
Reddin and Sutton said they agreed with Schultz. Schultz said she was sad to see it taken off the original agenda.
— Agenda action and discussion items
Jeremy McFadden, former finance director, returned to the school board to help present an amendment to the 2021-2022 school year budget.
McFadden said the amendment will be published in The Gardner News next week with a hearing notice for February 7.
In Summer 2021 they had proceeded with the normal process of presenting and publishing in the local paper but had to meet the revenue neutral rate deadlines by July 9, he said.
McFadden said they hadn’t secured the funding for the preschool at risk program at that time but had finalized it by August.
“Now we have the $50,000 in funding to help fund the program at Moonlight Elementary,” he said.
McFadden said he would request they publish it this week that they had $60,000 and had exceeded the $50,000 for the program to have extra room for extra unexpected supplies.
McFadden said the second fund was for the special liability expense fund that had added $180,000 with new levies giving a total of $230,000.
The legal maximum was $205,000, he said, but they were trying to focus and take it to an expansion of $250,000 to help carry settlements that are in front of the school district.
McFadden said there was no change to the mill rate and gives the board the ability to spend if they choose.
“You don’t have to do this, but I recommend it,” he said. “It keeps the pressure off the contingency reserve fund.”
Chapman requested a discussion about frustrations with current board attorneys and seeking out options for new legal counsel to represent them as a board and not individually.
Schultz said they have KASB to represent them as a board.
Sutton said it could be worthwhile to get the best representative legal counsel.
Jody Marshall, human resources director, said they would need actual examples of a proposal.
“If not KASB we would need a neutral party to review,” he said. KASB refers to the Kansas Association of School Boards, which is supported through the funding of school boards.
Sutton said it would help to know as a board what they had been paying legal counsel monthly the last couple of years.
Chapman said they would want someone educated and not a random attorney.
Schultz said she agreed they would want someone with experience representing school districts and representing them currently.
Marshall said they would help find the current information to put on the fast track, but would need more time and couldn’t turn around in a week.
Sutton, Reddin and Williams were chosen to be on a committee for the permanent superintendent selection.
Schultz said she recommended help from KASB as they have a whole expert process, and it was important to have an outside party’s help during this volatile time in their culture.
Strentz said couldn’t KASB come to them instead of the board going to them.
Schultz said yes during an open session or special meeting.
“I’ve never looked for a superintendent before,” she said.
Marshall said the interim superintendent was important but not as much as the permanent one.
“We need to talk about the critical criteria you want,” he said. “KASB keeps a short list, and there is no bad coming from them assisting.”
The committee will hold a special meeting January 18 at 6pm to set guidelines and criteria.
Board members discussed and voted to change public comment criteria back to the rules before Covid.
Public comments will now be for a three minute time period with an unlimited amount of speakers.
Starling said they had limited the speakers because during Covid it had gotten to be too much.
Chapman requested they also allow public comments during action agenda item discussions similar to city councils because the public doesn’t always get an opportunity time to prepare.
Schultz said they would be doubling up and wasn’t comfortable opening it up during a vote because it takes away from the business at hand.
“We can lose control of the board,” she said.
Schultz said she would encourage patrons to reach out beforehand.
“I worry we would stray too far from the business side of it,” she said.
Chapman said he would like opportunities for public comments after presentations. Schultz said their agendas could be written to be more specific going forward.
Boothe said it was wise to have agendas reviewed ahead of time and keep a consistent format aligning with KASB and other school districts.
“It’s a more defensible position,” he said.
Chapman said he would like to see a fuller picture of Covid information instead of the same presentation of numbers over and over again.
“On top of that I want to have information specific to the district,” he said. “What are we looking at as a district.”
Sutton said the dashboards are updated and was Chapman wanting more expansion on the numbers.
Schultz said they could have had the fuller Covid presentation if they hadn’t taken it off the original agenda.
Chapman said moving forward he would like to see a fuller picture.
Marshall said they had a presentation prepared of last week’s overall impact on the district.
“It’s been a rough week,” he said. “It’s up to you if you want more detail.”
Williams said what more did Chapman want as they had the educational information from staff.
Chapman said he wanted pre-Covid and current information for comparison.
Reddin said he would like to see test scores information and the teacher’s emotional impacts.
Schultz said it wasn’t an action item, and there hadn’t been testing this school year.
Whittier, interim superintendent, said they would need time to gather the information more quickly.
Chapman said he didn’t think it was fair to vote on feelings and have it be an actionable item after seeing the full picture with a reasonable discussion.
Whittier said was he requesting historical data, attendance, cost and behavioral data information.
Chapman said yes and agreed to let Marshall and Ryan Colston, supervisor of community youth programs, present their original prepared Covid presentation.
Marshall said the data was pretty straight forward, and it wasn’t a secret there was a high rate of Covid in the community.
“The good news is the five day turn around is helping,” he said. “The bad news is 26 positive cases as exclusions were added today.”
Marshall said 59 of the 72 absent staff members had tested positive for Covid but 43 staff members returned January 10.
58 total substitute teachers were needed for January 10 with 31 positions left unfilled.
“It’s not all Covid related,” he said. “But it is putting on pressure.”
Marshall said holidays created surges of cases and the highest rates had been the week after Thanksgiving, and this year’s rates from Halloween through January were comparable to 2020.
“There’s going to be a high spike now,” he said. “The staff will cycle through first and then the students.”
Marshall said updates protocol Provo and test to stays had been lifesaving game changers.
Colston said currently 44 Elementary students, 27 middle school students and 33 high school students had tested positive.
Colston shared the new Johnson County Department of Health guidelines stating the test to stays had been working on having a lot of students return on day 6.
All schools will less than the four percent thresholds, but as of January 7, he said, four schools were close to hitting the four percent absentee limits:
Gardner-Edgerton High School 3.7 percent
Pioneer Ridge Middle School 3.2 percent
Trailridge Middle School 3.7 percent
Wheatridge Middle School 3.6 percent
Schultz said she wanted to know if someone had a five day quarantine did they have to have a negative test to return.
“We have never required a test to come back,” Colston said.
Schultz said did Colston have just the absentee statistics not related to Covid, quarantines and isolations.
Colston said he didn’t.
“I’ll pay close attention through the week and keep a close eye on it,” he said.
Williams said it was putting a big strain on staffs, and her son’s class had had to combine classrooms because a teacher was on bus duty.
“How do you decide to combine classes and what is the risk,” she said.
Whittier said there had been no impact on elementary students because they were still wearing masks.
“I don’t think the high schools are combining,” she said.
Marshall said it wasn’t ideal.
“We need to put kids in with certified teachers as they are better than the best substitute,” he said. “We try not to burden a class multiple days in a row.”
Booth said on Thursday 17 percent had been out, Friday 18 percent and Monday the 10th 21.21 percent at the high school.
“But they’re not all from Covid,” he said.
Schultz said if they had hit the four percent threshold how would people be notified.
Colston said communications would be sent out about a building the same way other districts send out information.
“We haven’t had to yet,” he said.
Sutton, Chapman and Reddin said they wanted to know the time frame they would need to gather more Covid information, review and make changes to hold a special meeting.
Sutton said she thought a week was a reasonable time for staff and administrators.
Schultz said they could put it on the website and through social media since there wouldn’t enough time to publish in the paper before next week.
Chapman said he wanted to see a universal picture with a full picture of the last few years with all factors.
Schultz said Marshall had said Covid was currently peaking, and they should wait til the February 7 meeting after the mid-January peak.
Whittier said educational services could have the information by the end of the week.
Melissa McIntire, student support services coordinator, said she wanted to know if they wanted mental health day or antidotal stories.
Chapman said the full picture to see the impact.
Schultz said she was confused on the procedure as it was all over the place and not really an actionable item.
Williams said they should wait for after the peak.
“The staff is super overwhelmed,” she said.
Marshall said it had been tough on staff, kids and families.
“It’s the worst data we have seen,” he said. “I understand Greg just wants to have a meeting and discuss, and it’s good to be more informed with a wide range of data.”
Chapman said they had never done it as a board but could table it at the meeting.
Williams said the extent of a special meeting is to have a full decision made.
Reddin said they could set a special meeting during the peak and decide to table it.
Schultz said they should have an attorney come in for guidance of the liability of skirting the county mandate.
“We need a legal expert in the room,” she said. “I’m not interested in being part of liability.”
Schultz said it was redundant when they were close to the four percent absentee threshold and that the only reason for the special meeting was to remove masks.
Williams said what was the hurry from now to the next meeting.
Chapman said it was about parent choice.
Schultz said it also impacts parents who do want masks.
“It doesn’t give them choice,” she said. “I’m willing to listen with an open mind in February.”
The board voted to wait until February to discuss changing the elementary school masks requirements. Chapman dissented.