Decision makes room for option-enrollment siblings in those grades
Known history and future question marks centered discussion over future district growth during a Fort Calhoun Community School’s (FCCS) special school board meeting March 25.
The special meeting was called after the board decided to revisit elementary grade enrollment capacities after setting the 2019-20 capacities in February. Supt. Don Johnson said he was concerned that many option-enrollment students — mostly kindergartners — with siblings already attending FCCS were being denied entry into the district. Most grade capacities at the elementary were set in the 40s with students in most grades split between two teachers.
“After our February board meeting, we decided we would have the kindergarten class go from 44 (students) to 42," Johnson said. "At the time, that 42 allowed us to get all of the siblings of option enrollment families into the district. Shortly after that meeting, we found that we had more resident students then we had when we did during the February board meeting. We went from 34 to 39 students.
“That brought us face to face with the next issue … When that went from 34 to 39, we went to the point where we had nine sibling families that had applied to get into Fort Calhoun schools. That’s six kids out … No other year had we denied kindergarten students who were siblings to get into the district. That is what brought this to this point.”
During the widely-attended special meeting, the school board approved a motion to set the grade capacities in kindergarten and second grade at 63 students — with no decision yet made on elementary building expansion — to accommodate a 54 student second grade class and a kindergarten class with 18 option-enrollment applications.
The approved motion followed an original motion — and several amended motions — that failed to pass, which aimed to begin a several year transition to 63 elementary students split into three sections per grade and provide the district a way forward on elementary building expansion as the transition occurred.
Board members Amanda Schrum and Kelli Shaner, acknowledging the difficulty of the choices the district must make, were wary of affirming construction at the time of the special meeting, with Shaner saying she would like to have a more concrete plan for future construction phases after an estimated $1.8 million initial construction phase was discussed for next spring.
Based on information provided at the March 11 and special school board meetings, the decision to expand kindergarten and second grade classes to 63 students should allow entry to all option-enrollment sibling students — nine kindergarten students and one second grade student — and an additional nine kindergarten option-enrollment students for the 2019-20 school year.
FCCS will likely need to hire additional teachers for the expanded classes while adjusting the use of current building space, such as the computer lab, to allow for additional classrooms. FCCS may continue to discuss possible actions for enrollment capacities and elementary construction in the future.
Before any votes took place, about 15 Fort Calhoun parents and community members in attendance spoke to multiple reasons they did or did not approve of the original motion considered by the board.
Some people who spoke said they felt the district was moving forward too quickly on building expansion, and urged the board to consider actual need and have a firm plan with the dollar amount of expansion in place before taking action on building.
Board member Mike Conrad said the district already had a long-range building plan in place, which began several years ago, and that the district’s decisions regarding building plans are discussed at the regular school board meetings.
The Pilot-Tribune could not confirm a specific dollar amount, but board president Jon Genoways said during the special meeting that the district already has a substantial amount of money — possibly around $700,000 of the $1.8 million estimated initial construction costs — that could be used for the first phase of construction. Following the regular school board meeting March 11, Johnson said the anticipated increase in option-enrollment students from expanded grade capacities could allow for funding of the remaining construction costs in future building phases.
Johnson said having option-enrollment funding for construction would prevent an impact on property taxes, which are currently levied at $1.05 for the district’s general and special building funds.
During the special meeting, he said the financial impact on the community is important as the community already voted yes in years past for bond issues, such as at the high school, that will continue to be paid back into the 2030s.
Genoways said that option enrollment has historically helped the district through tough financial times and allowed the district to make previous renovations at the elementary school. The district receives more than $8,000 from the state for each net option-enrollment student. FCCS received nearly $2 million dollars in net option-enrollment aid for the 2018-19 school year.
Fort Calhoun resident Pauline Pechnik said she was concerned the district was placing too much emphasis on students’ dollar value.
“The $8,100 you receive for each option-enrollment child is still state tax money, and that may very well go away,” Pechnik said. “I appreciate growth and the need for revenue more than you know. But the children in the district should have more value than the children that do not live in this district, and right now you’ve commoditized these children to a price tag on their head.”
Johnson said the district is focused on doing what is best for students.
"When I say build schools I don't mean buildings, I mean building schools, building programs, hiring very qualified teachers and doing the job the best we can," Johnson said. "My feeling is that as I near the end of my career, what do I want to leave? We talk about a legacy for a school district … if my legacy is the fact that we redid these buildings, I'm going to tell you that's the worst nightmare I could ever have.
“My legacy is that we build kids, we bring kids up. We do what's right. Sometimes doing what's right is hard, sometimes it puts you in a bad place with folks that you've raised and grown up with,” Johnson added. "But at the end of the day, I'm going to tell you we're going to educate the heck out of every kid that walks through here...my goal is that this community continues to grow and continues to thrive. If we don't take advantage of the dollars that we have now, that might not happen."
Some who spoke to the board also wondered what would happen if the City of Fort Calhoun began expanding and more people moved into the district. FCCS is required to teach students who live in the district if they want to attend, so city expansion, such as a new subdivision, could mean more district students. More district students could create space concerns, Fort Calhoun resident Josh Christensen said.
“Last year’s kindergarten enrollment was 44. This year that class is in the first grade. So, they have 54 kids in that class right now, so 10 people have moved into the district since that class originated,” Christensen said. “But what happens if 10 kids move into the district again? You have no room left in the school … the school has already shown you will max it in kindergarten. I just want to know where does that end? Where does that go to, ‘We have enough now’?”
During a January board meeting, Johnson said the district is in close contact with City of Fort Calhoun officials, so they are aware when new subdivisions will be built and can react accordingly. Since the 2008-09 school year, the district has seen a small rise of in-district students from 446 to 455. In that same time frame, the district has seen option-enrollment grow from 110 to over 210 students.
Some parents and community members voiced support for the original motion.
"I think everybody wants what's best for the district, and from what I've heard, we want a reasonable path to get there," said Steve Dethlefs, who served on the board from 2004 to 2016. "I don't think anybody's complained about the position that the district is in and how we got there. Option enrollment is a very big part of that. I think it's gotta be part of the equation as we move forward and try to grow the district and into the 63 (students).”
Other parents were concerned their option-enrollment child could be denied entry if grade capacities weren’t increased even though they have a Fort Calhoun address.
Genoways said more than 60 percent of option-enrollment students’ parents may have a Fort Calhoun address, but live in a different school district or are children of school staff or city employees who live elsewhere, such as Omaha.
Part of FCCS’ district line ends north of Fort Calhoun where many families, like Sean Dennis’, live.
“I’ve got two kids opt-in right now (in FCCS), and my third child at the kindergarten age this coming year," Dennis said. "There’s a lot of discussion in my house (before the special meeting) thinking that some of the options that we have is to have two kids in this district and send one somewhere else, or do I just pull out altogether. Our oldest heard us talking about some of those options, and he was in tears at the thought of having to go to a different school. I guess the point I would like to make, is that families like ours, we’re already part of the community, and those that aren’t want to be.
“I understand district lines, but I don’t think you should define your town by an arbitrary line. I live in Fort Calhoun, that’s my address, just on the wrong side of the line…Option parents and option families are not just looking to swoop in, gobble up all this good education and leave. We’re here. I think there’s an argument to be made we’re less of a parasitic effect on the district than a benefit,” he said.