Archived Story

Board discusses school boundaries with elementary inequities

Published 8:27pm Monday, May 20, 2013

Due to overcrowding at one of the four elementary schools in Albert Lea, school board members got into a lengthy discussion about neighborhood boundaries during a regular meeting Monday evening.

One option the district has been looking at is to have kindergartners and first-graders from Clarks Grove attend another elementary school. Currently, those students are bused to Lakeview Elementary School, which is projected to have 70 kindergartners and 69 first-graders in the fall. That will mean larger class sizes or a fourth classroom, for which there isn’t really space.

“We can probably get by for another year,” Superintendent Mike Funk said. “But this problem is not going to go away.”

Sibley Elementary School has about half the amount of kindergartners and first-graders, but the question of who will move there is still up in the air. The school board held its workshop earlier this month at the Faith Baptist Church in Clarks Grove and asked parents to attend to give their input on the issue.

Other options could be to make all open enrolled students attend Sibley, which could alleviate the amount of students at Lakeview. School board member Julie Johnson said she’d like to look at that option and also said she wants to make Clarks Grove families a priority.

Member Bill Leland said he remembers having a state demographer come to the board years ago who said the district would see flatlined enrollment until 2014, when it would start to rise again.

“We’re at that point,” Leland said.

He also said he didn’t want to cram students into one building just for the fact that students already had relationships at that school.

“It’s going to hamper student achievement, student growth,” Leland said. “I’m not for it.”

Funk said part of the problem the administration is seeing is what he called “the Lakeview mystique.” He has seen that people hold Lakeview in high regard but said he doesn’t see why because all the elementary schools do well.

“I think the Lakeview mystique is winning out here,” Funk said. “If I’m a student and have a class size of 24, and almost identical demographics, or I can go to a school two miles away and have a class size of 20 — it’s the mystique of Lakeview.”

School board members echoed that with new policies to standardize curriculum across all four schools that all have been performing well.

“Our schools are awesome; we’ve got great teachers in every school,” Chairwoman Linda Laurie said.

After more discussion school board member Mark Ciota asked when a decision needs to be made. It was decided that Funk and district administrators would keep looking at solutions and bring a recommendation to the board in June for what to do about the issue.


Employee health insurance

The CEO of Alliance Benefit Group, Brad Arends, who consults for the school district, made a presentation to the board about an issue with its employee health insurance benefits.

The problem stems from what Arends called a bad year in 2012, in which there were 47 “catastrophic claims,” or claims that cost more than $25,000. Several of the claims were reportedly close to $500,000. Arends said the most common causes of these claims are heart attacks, strokes, cancer or premature births. A typical year would have about half the amount of large claims that were filed, and because of those claims, employee premiums are expected to jump 20 percent for 2013.

“It’s a huge increase,” Arends told the board. “It’s not uncommon unfortunately.”

For groups the size of the school district Arends said he would expect an increase of 6 to 8 percent per year. He showed the board that in previous years the district had fared well, and if you include that data then employees had just an average increase of 3 percent per year since 2010.

But the 20 percent increase this year was a shock to staff, many of whom have family plans. The district’s union voted to allow employees to stay with the group or choose another insurance plan, which is the union’s right under state statute. The vote passed, and some employees are choosing to use another insurer, which will increase the rates of those employees staying with the original insurance provider.

Arends presented rates and plans between the two insurers, which showed that single people and families will still see rate increases that could even be more than the original provider. Ciota, who said he works with both unions and insurance in his job as CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, said he can’t make sense of the decision to leave one insurer for the other.

“I’ve never had a bargaining unit choose a more expensive plan for their participants,” Ciota said. “Initially I thought it was OK because they’re going to have to pay for it, but the district may have to pay more.”

Funk said he thought teachers might be thinking that the new insurer will have less dramatic premium increases in the future. Ciota asked for the number of votes for and against the new plan, and Director of Human Resources Jim Quiram said that 114 said yes, 80 said no and a number of people didn’t vote.

“A huge percentage of them didn’t vote at all; it really infuriates me,” Ciota said. “It’s bad decisions by people who are well educated.”

Ciota said he knows unions have rights, but that the decision didn’t make business sense to him. Because it’s the union’s right under state statute there isn’t much for the school board to do. They asked Arends to let them know how the decision will affect the employees who aren’t going to change insurance plans, because they might see an increase of more than 20 percent now with less members in the group.


In other action the board:

• Terminated five teachers contracts as it waits for final budgets. The contracts could be renewed. It was not clear whether the teachers were full- or part-time.

• Heard from Funk about legislative updates that affect school districts. He expects that there will be no more graduation test. The district is also expected to receive $470,000 annually instead of the $150,000 it was receiving for compensatory pilot aid.

• Heard from Ciota about a workshop he attended relating to adverse events in a child’s life. The summit had people from schools, the health care field, law enforcement and more to talk about how adverse events in a child’s life, like abuse and family problems, can affect their eduction.

• Increased lunch prices, for students and adults, by 10 cents.

• Approved event entry rates and activity fees. Students and staff will again get into athletic events free with their school-issued ID. Funk said he’s had nothing but positive comments from community members about letting students attend events for free.