Union’s budget woes draw crowd to monthly school board meeting

Motion to share elementary principal fails

Members of the Union Community School District Board of Education including (beginning third from left) Ben Schemmel, Brandon Paine, President Corey Lorenzen, Lindsay Pipho, Maureen Hanson, Carly McGivern, and Reid Carlson pictured at the start of the Feb. 19 meeting held in the high school’s media center. Also pictured, Superintendent John Howard (far left), business manager Kim Lubbert (second from left), and business assistant Diane Roberts (far right). PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

LA PORTE CITY – More than 40 members of the public turned out on Feb. 19 for Union’s monthly school board meeting in hopes of halting a proposed change to the district’s administrative structure that would reduce the number of principals from four to three.

Due to the anticipated size of the public audience, the meeting was held in Union High School’s media center.

During the previous meeting held back on Jan. 15, a dozen early retirement applications were approved by the board including that of La Porte City Elementary Principal Todd Parker.

In an effort to help reduce next fiscal year’s general fund budget by $245,029, the board considered a motion on Feb. 19 to not rehire Parker’s position but instead switch to a shared elementary principal/assistant principal team across the district’s two elementaries.

As part of the proposed change, Dysart-Geneseo Elementary would no longer have a full time principal on site as the building does now; Principal Derek Weber would instead be relocated to LPC Elementary while a new assistant principal would be hired for Dysart.

Members of the public – many from the Dysart area – seated in Union High School’s media center on Monday, Feb. 19. During the meeting, members of the school board (off frame) discussed FY25 budget reductions including dropping from four principals – one per building – to three. The district needs to reduce next fiscal year’s general fund expenditures by more than $245,000. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

Weber – who is finishing up his second year as principal at DG – would oversee both buildings.

Following a public forum held earlier in the meeting — during which nearly a dozen members of the public provided opinions in direct opposition to the planned structure change — board members discussed the idea extensively ahead of the vote.

Board member Maureen Hanson kicked off the discussion on a lighthearted note before explaining why she was in support of the structure change.

“I’m pretty sure – in fact I’m quite sure – I’m the oldest person on this board. I still have all my own teeth,” Hanson began, eliciting laughter from the audience. “We started in the district in 2000 … I would say in that entire two-and-a-half decades – and probably longer – we have had a lack of continuity, collaboration, cohesion between our two elementary centers. And I think this might be a really excellent opportunity to finally become one elementary program because we are one district, and I think we have a really capable leader who could lead that charge … with a quality assistant.”

She went on to say such a change – while significant and not easy – could stave off more painful cuts down the road.

Union school board member Maureen Hanson, third from right, explains why she supports moving the district from four principals – one per building – to three during the Feb. 19 board meeting held in the high school media center. Later in the meeting, a motion to change the district’s administrative structure failed, 4-3. The district is still in search of more than $245K in general fund savings for the next fiscal year. PHOTO BY RUBY F. MCALLISTER

“I know these are painful decisions, emotional decisions. But I would rather make these decisions incrementally than have to make really big, excruciatingly painful decisions down the road if we don’t stay ahead of the curve financially. … I would like to propose a single elementary structure with a principal and an assistant.”

Board members then proceeded to go back and forth on their reasons both for and against the proposed structure.

Carleen McGivern, who joined the board following the Nov. 2023 election, said not having a principal in each building brought up safety concerns for her, while Ben Schemmel characterized the change as a “fiscally responsible decision” that could prevent the board from having to make “bigger, sweeping decisions down the road.”

Lindsay Pipho said that while she did not disagree with Hanson’s and Schemmel’s reasoning in terms of fiscal savings, she did not think eliminating a principal position was the way to go about plugging the anticipated budget deficit.

Board president Corey Lorenzen then gave a brief explanation of how the board arrived at this point.

“[I’m] going into my ninth year on the board,” Lorenzen said. “Declining enrolment has been a serious problem within the district. We’re 300 kids less than what we were, what, 10 years ago. And in real dollars, all your funding is based off of how many kids you have in the district. … we’re talking well over $2 million that we’ve had to just gradually cut out of the budget.”

During the last decade, Lorenzen continued, this was the first time the board had experienced such a public response at a meeting as a result of budget cuts despite making similar cuts in the past.

“Multiple times we’ve had to cut $100,000 – $200,000 – $300,000 or more out of the budget … I think it’s a nod towards not only Mr. Howard, but Mr. Fleshner and Mr. Mullen before him that this is the first time we’ve had a meeting like this because a lot of the public has not even recognized the fact we have eliminated a lot of positions. We have eliminated a lot of teachers over that time period but we’ve done it in a way where it’s been basically voluntary for the most part.”

Lorenzen said the savings by not rehiring Parker’s position – depending on who was hired to fill the assistant principal position – could potentially be over $100,000.

“Some people from Dysart who have commented this is just opening the door for a bigger decision in Dysart … Whatever people think that bigger decision is, the answer is no! We’re trying to avoid that, we’re trying to avoid that by making these strong fiscal decisions … [while] not having a detrimental impact on the opportunities being offered to the kids.”

Lorenzen conceded the decision the board was weighing that evening was “hard” and being from Dysart himself, he understood the concerns people shared earlier in the meeting.

He then said sharing an administrator in Dysart made the most sense “geographically” as the elementary school and middle school are “300 yards apart,” while also saying it would be easier for a middle school principal to address possible K-8 problems than for a high school principal in La Porte City to address elementary problems.

“It’s a difficult situation. It’s a difficult decision. But we’ve got to weigh all these things so that we don’t have to make bigger decisions down the road that nobody wants to address. And we’re not there, we’re not there. Nor do any of us hope that we’ll ever get there.”

Following Lorenzen’s comments, Hanson said she hoped the budget decisions the board was facing in the next fiscal year would “spread a lot of awareness to our enrollment situation.” She then motioned to initiate a shared elementary principal and assistant principal team for the 2024-25 school year which Schemmel seconded.

The motion received three yes votes from Reid Carlson, Hanson, and Schemmel, while McGivern, Pipho, and Brandon Paine voted against.

Lorenzen was then forced to cast the tiebreaker and voted no; the motion failed 4-3 and received a smattering of applause from the audience.

Further discussion then took place around different cuts that could be made to the general fund, as well as the possibility of “flexing” from certain categorical funds to cover the necessary savings including from talented and gifted, Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC), and professional development.

Regardless of how the board decides to move on the budget deficit, Superintendent John Howard said, they needed to move soon.

“The administration’s goal is to get a decision as soon as possible,” Howard said, “however, it’s not our decision, it’s your decision.”

“The sooner we move, the better,” Lorenzen added before later saying, “With our declining enrollment we have to come up with $250,000 to $300,000 in cost savings.”

The meeting was adjourned without a new motion made.

Following the meeting, Superintendent Howard told the Telegraph that none of the options the board is considering to staunch the budget deficit – including the change in administrative structure – would get the district to the $245,029 savings necessary.

“Most districts are having to adjust [for next fiscal year] unless they have increasing enrollment.”

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, a special meeting was held to consider approval of a quote from Grundmeyer Leadership Service to lead/oversee the principal search process for La Porte City Elementary for the 2024-2025 school year.

The Telegraph will have coverage of that meeting in next week’s edition.

Other business

Elsewhere during the Feb. 19 meeting, the proposed instructional calendar for the 2024-25 school year was approved. The calendar includes a start date of Friday, Aug. 23, 2024; a spring break from March 10 through March 14, 2025; and a tentative last day of school on Wednesday, June 4, 2025.

The sale of a school-owned weight bench for $350 was approved.

A boys tennis sharing agreement with North Tama High School for the spring 2024 season was approved. The superintendent said North Tama had at least two students who plan to play with Union. The sharing agreement will not impact the program’s classification.

Terpstra Hoke and Associates, P.C. was approved to conduct the district’s FY24 audit.

The release of bidding documents for the new DG Elementary playground was approved. Howard said he hoped to have the bids in time for the March meeting and for construction to begin in May.

An agreement with Morningside College for the 2024-25 school year was approved. The agreement covers cooperating teachers, student teachers, and internship hours.

A similar agreement was approved with Hawkeye Community College for the remainder of the 2023-24 school year.

The board approved holding the first FY25 budget hearing on April 1, 2024.