By Lynn Binnie
Whitewater Banner volunteer staff
At the regular School Board meeting on October 26, a motion by Jim Stewart to return to full face-to-face instruction in the Middle School and High School effective November 2 was supported on a 5-2 vote, with Tom Ganser and Casey Judd opposed. There was no disagreement that a return to in-person would be preferred in terms of optimal education; the concerns that were expressed regarded whether it was safe to do so in the midst of rising COVID-19 infections in the state and area.
District Administrator Caroline Pate-Hefty had suggested that the alternative to the plan that was ultimately adopted would be continuing with the current hybrid model with Board assessment on January 11 as to whether to make a change on January 25. Dr. Pate-Hefty did not offer a recommendation between the two models. Less than ten people spoke during the public comment period, considerably less than in previous meetings where the instruction model was considered. Several high school students spoke in favor of continuing with the hybrid model which started on October 12, generally expressing that they felt that it represented the best balance of safety and education. It was acknowledged by the school principals that with all the students attending in-person, approximately 60-70% of the classes could not be socially distanced, whereas currently the students in almost all classes are separated by at least six feet. A few parents, including one who had open enrolled her students in another district, spoke in favor of the proposal to return to full face-to-face instruction. It was indicated that a number of nearby districts are already in-person, including East Troy, Elkhorn, Jefferson, Lake Geneva, and Palmyra-Eagle. Fort Atkinson and Johnson Creek have been in-person but are temporarily closed due to COVID-19 infections.
Matthew Sylvester-Knudtson, Director of Business Services, reported that 264 students have open enrolled to other districts as of the third Friday count. This compares with 168 students last year, resulting in additional expense to the district of approximately $850,000. It was hoped that with the return to in-person instruction some parents might choose for their students to return to the district.
Dr. Pate-Hefty reported that there has been a significant increase in attendance concerns for Middle and High School students under both the virtual and hybrid models. Even though these concerns have diminished since going to the hybrid approach, the concerns are still more than double those of last year. Thus far 32 homeless students have been identified in the district, compared with 62 at the end of the last school year, raising concern that many such students may have gone unidentified thus far this year. On an unrelated subject, there have been ten referrals to Child Protective Services. It was indicated that approximately 60% of parents have been transporting their children to school, which is appreciated as it allows for better physical distancing on the buses.
The Board unanimously adopted the proposed budget for 2021 as recommended by Sylvester-Knudtson, as well as a tax levy of $11.10 versus the current year’s $11.50, approximately a 3.5% reduction. Matthew suggested that the reduction was feasible based on a $600,000 surplus in the previous year, which would be directed towards reducing the debt service portion of the levy. In response to a question as to whether it would make sense instead to direct the surplus towards paying down debt, Sylvester-Knudtson indicated that the earliest that any of the debt can be called is 2026, and there is already $5,000,000 in reserve for debt payment.