End of ESSER funds means changes at LCS

Monday, January 16, 2023

LE MARS — In 2021, Iowa school districts were provided COVID Relief Funds (ESSER) during the COVID pandemic. According to the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations ACT, these are temporary funds to be spent by June 30, 2024.

At its Jan. 9 meeting, the Le Mars Community School District Board of Education received three recommendations from Superintendent Dr. Steve Webner on the fate of the six temporary positions the district added.

“Le Mars at that time evaluated and took input on the best way to utilize these funds during the pandemic, and the school board ended up approving the following temporary, two-year teaching positions, which will end at the end of the second year, which is this year,” Webner said.

Those positions were: three fulltime elementary intervention teachers; one full-time elementary guidance counselor; one full-time middle school math teacher and one full-time high school science teacher.

“These positions have been great for our students, they have served the temporary COVID pandemic purpose as intended by law, and ESSER regulations, and by providing a temporary pandemic support system for students’ academic, social, and emotional needs. That was the intent for the temporary money,” Webner said.

He continued the district was able to hire “outstanding” people.

“It’s definitely benefited our district not only academically but also when we have openings, they are able to step right in. They have been trained on what our teachers are doing and have done a great job,” he said.

However, as the two year deadline on funding is approaching, there were decisions to be made by the board.

Webner presented recommendations on terminations of those positions funded by ESSER money and well as adding some positions.

The decisions are ones the board needed to make because the end of the two years is up.

“Our general fund is healthy right now, however, to keep all six positions would not be responsible of the district to continue going in light of the fact that we are facing a strong potential for less money from the state coming in,” Webner said.

He made clear the recommendations are not based on poor teacher performance or misconduct, but due to loss of ESSER funding.

The first recommendation was to terminate the following positions and personnel at the end of the 2022-2023 school year:

• Kluckhohn Elementary Interventionist position, as well as termination of teaching contract for Alexis Te Brink.

• Franklin Elementary Interventionist, as well as termination of teaching contract for Alaina Kessenich.

• Clark Elementary Interventionist. (The person in this position had submitted her resignation, which was approved earlier in the meeting.)

• LCHS Science teacher, as well as teaching contract for Ashley Finck.

As the board had approved the two-year positions, they must be formally terminated by the Board of Education.

Board member Lorraine DeJong asked if a plan was in play to continue to help students without the interventionists’ positions.

Webner indicated the interventions will basically fall back on the classroom teachers.

“There may be other ideas out there that the grade level teams may come up with, but I don’t have all the answers for that right now,” Webner said. “I will say that for these people, people that I am recommending termination, we are doing our best that if there is an opening in the district, we’d really like these people to stay. So if there are positions opening up, we are taking a strong look at that person to see if we can get them in the system so they don’t have to go anywhere.”

In his second recommendation, Webner said for the 2023-2024 school year, he recommends to continue the following teaching positions funded through the general fund once COVID ESSER funds cease.

• Middle School Math Teacher position, as well as a continuing contract for the current teacher, Cole Berkenpas.

• Elementary Guidance Counselor, as well as a continuing contract for the current counselor, Abigail Mehlhaff.

“There will be some ESSER funds remaining but not a great deal,” he said.

He also recommends providing these positions Chapter 279 continuing teacher contracts with all rights as set forth within the Le Mars Community School District Master Contract.

In his rationale, Webner indicated these positions will provide students continued support in high need areas at the elementary and middle school.

Additionally the elementary guidance counselor position will also allow the middle school and elementary to continue with two full-time guidance counselors rather than splitting a guidance counselor position.

“So the elementary and middle will continue to have two full-time guidance counselors instead of 1.5,” Webner said.

Webner’s third recommendation involved creating a new teaching position at the high school level, stating, “For 2023-2024, approve a new teaching position at the high school; a combination teaching position of high school agricultural science and science, with an extended FFA contract of 10 days.”

“This position will continue support within high need and high demand areas. We still would have a person helping out with science, which is a high need area, but also we have high need and high demand in our agricultural science program that has exploded,” Webner said. “In working with Dr. Iverson, he recommended this be an area that we transform this position into.” Dr. Mark Iverson is the high school principal.

Webner then turned to the financial impact of the terminations and additions.

“The estimated total cost for these three positions next year will be approximately $241,000. The remaining ESSER COVID Relief funds will pay for all but approximately $5,000 next year (FY24). Starting FY2025, the general fund will support these positions,” he said.

“The way we are able to do that is the Instructional Support Levy (ISL) was implemented for this very purpose: to add staff back as well as expand programming, and that’s what this does. That was a purpose the board really wanted that ISL in place. We’re able to do that and meet the board’s goal with that,” Webner said.

As was reported at the November board meeting in the district’s financial health report, the district is financially healthy.

“Our solvency and unspent authorized budget exceed the thresholds that they recommend, so we are healthy. Based on our projections, we are able to support these three positions and have the ability to withstand potential decreases in state funding, which we are hearing is pretty inevitable down the road, especially if vouchers go through,” Webner said.

Board member thanked Webner and staff members who worked out the plan, as well as thanking the teachers who filled the positions for two years.

With no further discussion, board unanimously approved the recommendations as presented by Webner.

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