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Board president: ‘I would like to close Bell and McKinley now’

Members retreat to explore further actions

Charles Crane/MDN Minot Public Schools Board president Mike Gessner and Superintendent Mark Vollmer listen as member Jim Rostad delivers a statement after introducing a motion to close McKinley and Bell Elementary Schools at the board meeting Thursday.

A grim air filled the Minot Area Workforce Academy on Thursday as the Minot School Board voted 3-2 to close both McKinley and Bell Elementary schools.

Board member Jim Rostad introduced the motion, and delivered a statement before the vote saying, “If there is someone to blame, I’m certainly a part of this situation.”

“As the longest serving board member and past board president, I have voted in favor of passing a deficit budget many times. With the help from both former and current business managers, who are both fiscally conservative, and with help from conservative staff, we have managed to spend less than budgeted for all of those past years,” he said. “The Minot Daily News headline on Wednesday, Feb. 14, said, ‘I just don’t see the savings’, well I do. Not only with what Dr. Vollmer has shared with us, but I’d like to add that the transitions proposed by our administrative staff have been as compassionate as possible.”

Rostad said that integrating students from McKinley and Bell into other schools would save most of the utilities cost of the buildings, that bussing would be provided in both areas so as to not inconvenience students and families, and the teachers and staff would be reassigned to avoid anyone losing their jobs. Rostad stated class sizes at both schools were in most cases half or less than half than other classes at other elementaries in the district.

“My question is, is this fair to their colleagues teaching the same grade levels in buildings throughout the district who are receiving the same pay? Do teachers from McKinley and Bell truly believe they care more or are more concerned about their students than other teachers in the district?” Rostad said, “As an elected school board member, I represent not only the 250 patrons that were present at our public hearings on the possible closing of these schools on Feb. 12 and 13, but I also represent the other 48,000 members of the community that were not there. Is it fair to all of them to subsidize these two elementary schools at a significantly higher cost per student than the other 7,350 are costing all the taxpayers?”

Rostad acknowledged the sincere pleas not to close the schools, and appeals calling for other solutions, saying that no one on the board feels good about the choices they will have to make to address the district’s budget in the coming year, in particular the possible cutting of interventionist positions.

“This board is tasked with making very tough decisions. At the end of the day we are entrusted with providing a quality education to all of the kids in our district and giving our patrons the best bang for their buck. The decisions cannot be made based on our emotions, but rather what is best for the greater good for our entire school district.” Rostad said

Board member Sabrina Herrmann spoke next, saying she was concerned with the “volume of change” coming with the realignment. Herrmann said the board was making their decision based on best estimates provided by the district, but that they won’t know for sure until the rubber hits the road.

“We don’t know for sure what it’s going to cost. I don’t want to be here with the same decision next year. I don’t want to deplete a reserve we have to nothing where we are in a deep financial bind. But if ever there was a time to make that decision to use those funds, in my mind it’s a better investment for taxpayers, for students, for staff to look at what we have to do to see what changes and what happens in this new year that we haven’t experienced in 50 years,” Herrmann said. “We heard a lot of testimony, and everyone is going to make their own choice and decision. But if people leave our district, what we might be recouping, we might be losing anyway. I don’t see a better opportunity to use a reserve than maybe this opportunity.”

Herrmann’s comments elicited applause from the crowd in attendance. President Mike Gessner responded by saying that if action is not taken, it could put the district in a situation where new hires would have to be cut even if reserve funds are utilized.

“In my mind, if we’re going to do it, I want to do it now. I would like to close Bell and McKinley now,” Gessner said, “The district and we, the board, are looking for every efficiency, every dollar possible to bring online.”

Gessner also pushed back against statements made at the public meetings questioning the bond issue to fund the new construction and that the district should have maintained its current alignment, saying, “Absolutely not, in my mind.”

“This is the last 9-10-11-12 setup in the country for a reason. It hasn’t worked, and why should we continue on with it? We need to get beyond that. It’s going to work, and it’s the best thing that we’ve had going on in this district for a long time,” Gessner said.

The board then voted 3-2 in favor of closing the schools, with Bonny Berryman, Rostad and Gessner voting to affirm, while Herrmann and Mitch Kraft voted against. Emotions were high in the wake of the vote’s outcome, and Gessner had to gavel to restore order.

Before the vote on the schools closure, Superintendent Mark Vollmer presented information on the costs of the 2024-2025 Minot Public Schools realignment, which is estimated to be $2.9 million. The costs included the hiring of two full-time elementary teachers, six full-time teachers for middle and high school, and one principal at Central Middle School. Additional costs were identified for funding two building athletic directors (AD), the introduction of a communications director for the district, the hiring of a bus mechanic and associated supplies, along with the purchasing of uniforms for athletics and the hiring of an equipment manager.

Vollmer noted the new ADs, the communication director and the bus mechanic were on the table to be cut as a cost-savings measure. Other identified savings offered by Vollmer included the sale of district owned real estate, cutting interventionist positions previously funded through expired Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund grants, a possible Building Fund Levy and reductions in travel for events in communities like Dickinson and in school subscriptions. Vollmer noted the County would require notification by April 8 to get the levy on the June 11 ballot.

The meeting concluded with discussion over a vote to continue funding or cutting of ESSER- funded grant positions. Rostad moved the board hold off on the vote regarding the continued funding so additional analysis and information could be provided.

“I’d feel a little more comfortable if we researched this a little bit more to see if there’s any options of retaining some or part of it,” Rostad said, “We spent to much time hearing from everyone on the closing of the schools that we really haven’t gotten deep into this to see if there’s any other alternatives, and I’m not sure there is. But I would feel better if there was more in depth discussion and information on it.”

Hermann agreed with Rostad that more information was needed before making a final decision. Vollmer said the board would have to move quickly to schedule the board retreat to address the ESSER grants and other proposed cost-savings measures. The motion passed and the meeting was adjourned after another vote approving the posting of open positions for the upcoming school year. The next scheduled meeting for the board is March 14.

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