GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE
Kingsland Superintendent John McDonald and board members, from left, Jackie Horsman, Tiffany Mundfrom and Heather Betts listen to information on College in the Schools (CIS) during a board workshop last week.
GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/SPRING VALLEY TRIBUNE Kingsland Superintendent John McDonald and board members, from left, Jackie Horsman, Tiffany Mundfrom and Heather Betts listen to information on College in the Schools (CIS) during a board workshop last week.
Kingsland’s School Board and administration met during a workshop held last Tuesday, March 7, to review the school district’s curriculum and financial standing. The special session was called after the Feb. 22 school board meeting, at which new board members asked to for the information to be outlined for them in a workshop setting.

The questions raised by new Kingsland board member Jackie Horsman were in regard to whether the district can feasibly remove and replace its Project Lead the Way (PLTW) science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum, as well as the College in the Schools (CIS) college credit program the district offers in cooperation with Riverland Community College, with less expensive yet comparable programming. The question came up because the district is facing an estimated annual deficit that could approach $300,000, depending on many factors, in the coming two to three years due to the failure of last November’s operating and facility referendums meant to increase the per-pupil unit amount of money garnered from property taxes and to address deferred maintenance in the district’s facilities.

Kingsland Superintendent John McDonald introduced the particulars of each educational program, beginning with PLTW, which he cited as being a draw for potential students and also hard to replace because of the financial implications of rearranging curriculum. He highlighted that Kingsland offers PLTW as a K-12 program to teach STEM concepts and that the district is certified in a computer science and engineering course, one on the principles of biomedical science, as well as another course.

The program has been featured in various media and has spurred visits from Sen. Al Franken as well as professors from Shanghai, China, noted McDonald, while administrators from other schools in Minnesota have visited to find out how the district started its program. The Kingsland program got started with a $65,000 grant, which funds a lot of the training and resources.

“A lot of the things we do have in place are from that grant in 2011, and for annual supplies to teach PLTW, we spend about $3,000 to $4,000,” said McDonald. “We have a budget that’s greater than $15,000, but we spend less, and we could adjust that. We had three years to spend that $65,000, and we didn’t have to spend it on staff development. Being a pilot for the PLTW Launch program, for kids in K-5, we didn’t have to spend it on teacher training – the program flew our instructors to Indianapolis for training.”

Board member Tiffany Mundfrom asked whether PLTW teachers are required to have a master’s degree, and McDonald replied that they are not, though most Kingsland teachers are working toward their degree as part of their advancement in seniority.

He explained that the district spends $9,530 for the high school supplies, and $7,250 of that is software.

“The really big cost of the program is software,” he explained. “That’s the most expensive part of Project Lead the Way…all the curriculum is digital and loaded onto teachers’ computers, but we don’t have to buy books.”

He answered another question regarding whether PLTW is meant for high school students to earn college credit, stating that they may take a $75 test for college credit if they wish at the end of the class in order to earn three credits toward their college transcripts.

“There is a fee if they’ve got college credits, but if they choose to pay the fee, they can get credit that’s recognized nationwide if the school they choose is on a list of certified schools,” said McDonald. “The families pay the $75, but if they wait, they might have to pay $200 a credit someplace else.”

Board member Ann Oeltjen said, “It’s nice that we’re giving parents a bonus…instead of paying $200 or more a credit for their kids to go to college.”

McDonald then outlined the CIS program, relating that Kingsland offers four semester courses of English, three of social studies, three in math and two in science as a means of helping advanced students corner some college credit before graduating from high school so that they can either claim their associate’s degree or proceed to college with some of their basic requirements satisfied. With CIS, the district retains students who might have otherwise chosen to take advantage of the Post-Secondary Education Options Program (PSEOP), which in 2008-2009 drew 16 students and a total of $116,480 in state aid away from the district. He estimated the value of CIS courses in total for the past year to be $248,886, at a rate of $198 per credit.

“The credits will transfer to any MNSCU school…it’s not questioned. We’re one of the few schools that has Spanish at a college level, ag, music...if Josh Hogberg has students in his class that are CIS students, then he grades them at a higher level than if they were in his class for high school credit,” said McDonald.

Hogberg concurred, stating that if he were teaching a different subject, high school students would be assigned an eight-page paper and CIS students, a 10-page paper.

Horsman asked whether the district has students who are not CIS participants have been in CIS-geared classes, and Oeltjen answered that most often, that’s the case only if scheduling problems prohibit the students from taking the high school classes they want, and they’re still graded at a high school level.

“If a teacher has 98 percent of their kids in CIS, they would modify the grading for high school students,” McDonald elaborated. “Students have to qualify for CIS.”

He acknowledged for Horsman that there is some risk to having college credits registered for work done while in high school if they fail or drop courses, adding that to his knowledge, there has not been a lot of that.

Certain board members again wanted to know whether a master’s degree is required for teaching CIS classes.

McDonald informed them that while it is necessary, the district has an agreement with the teachers obtaining their master’s degree through the district – Kingsland will pay for their graduate work in return for a five-year teaching investment in the school district, and if, for some reason, that teacher relocates, the sum must be repaid to the district.

Horsman suggested that the district attempt to maximize its investment in its teachers instructing CIS classes by selling their instruction to other schools on interactive television (ITV), but at this point, the district simply trades its ITV instruction with other schools in the Southern Minnesota Education Consortium (SMEC) as an equal proposition.

Kingsland Principal Jim Hecimovich joined the meeting by telephone, and his first statement was that the curriculum at the high school has no wiggle room for paring down.

“The high school is about as lean as it’s ever been. There are two sections to every grade flowing through it, and in ninth through 12th grade, there’s a lot of classes designed for…there are fewer classes for ninth, then we start to have more classes for 10th graders,” he said. “It’s pretty tight on options. From a standpoint at the high school, we’d be pretty hard-pressed to reduce anything. We can’t get rid of any ag because we’re an agricultural area. Most of the jobs in Minnesota are not college jobs – they’re trades, so we’ve got to keep those for those kids’ requirements, and it gets more complicated.”

The district’s staff is shared between the high and elementary school in Spring Valley and the intermediate school in Wykoff, so that incurs a lot of drive time. McDonald addressed the matter of reducing PLTW classes, posing that if he were to have to reassign a teacher to different classes, that teacher’s non-PLTW classes would in turn be affected.

Hecimovich agreed as he referred to the band program.

“We have zero time currently for kids in fifth and sixth grade to learn an instrument, and the issue is that we have a broken system that we’d have to go back and fix…now, I’d have two teachers on the road. That’s a five- to 10-minute drive, but then you add that they have to get their stuff, go out to their car, drive, park, get their stuff…it becomes a 20-minute drive,” he explained. “We’re in a world of hurt. I’m not going to lie to you — we don’t have a lot of gravy, if any. Cut me if you have to cut something, but don’t cut programs. It’s similar stories at the elementary. Unfortunately, there’s limited availability at the elementary, and we’ve got a pretty sticky wicket here.”

Board member Deb Larson registered, “Are there online classes kids could take that we don’t offer?”

Hecimovich said, “College economics…we’re not able to offer college credit for speech and some other courses that kids want to round out on the way to an associate’s degree. We have some high-driving kids who want their degree in two years, and others want to take credit in with them when they go to college.”

The principal vented some of his frustration with the district’s various approaches to teaching its students, saying “I’ve been with Kingsland for 16 years and read enough Facebook…but we’ve taught to the (bottom) and to the middle, but not to the kids at the top. We’ve got to teach these kids, talk to these kids. CIS has been the best thing we’ve ever done for our top kids. It means that much to CIS kids and parents…and I’m not going to pull the rug out from under them. I currently believe in what we’re doing, so cut me and keep CIS.”

Conversation then turned to finances and Kingsland’s continuously-declining enrollment, as well as strategies to garner the funds necessary to keep the district afloat for the next years – including how much tolerance taxpayers might have for another operating referendum and whether a facilities referendum could follow, as they are necessarily held in that order to ensure that operating funds are available to support programming and facilities if the determinations made in the facilities referendum are not voted upon favorably.

Another workshop has been scheduled for this Thursday, March 16, at 6:30 p.m. in the Kingsland High School conference room as a means of continuing the financial conversation. The public is welcome to attend. For more information, call 507-346-7276 or log onto www.kingsland.k12.mn.us.