By Jordan Gerard

Editor, The Caledonia Argus

With two months of summer ahead, it’s unlikely that kids are excited about going back to school already, but with an in-person learning plan ready to go, going back to school just might be a little more exciting.

Houston School Board publicly presented its newly required Safe Return to In-Person Learning Plan at its regular meeting on June 17. 

 Superintendent Krin Abraham said the existing plan could work for the requirements, but the COVID-19 Stakeholders Committeeapproved a new plan that includes a change from the existing one, which updates the plan to “follow the most recent recommendations for handling confirmed cases of COVID 19 provided by MDH (Minnesota Department of Health). As the MDH changes the recommendations, we will adapt to align with the most recent guidance provided by MDH.”

Houston’s plan still requires students, staff and bus drivers to wear masks on school and public transportation to events. Social distancing should be at three feet between students once they return back to school, as allowed by MDH.

The plan was required to be posted by June 21 and members of the public allowed to comment on it before the district can use the ESSER III funds. The document will be posted on the school’s website at www.houston.k12.mn.us.

Conceptual auditorium plans

Houston School Board members caught a glimpse of what a future auditorium addition could look like, after a presentation by Sitelogiq architect Sara Guyette and architectural designer Ben Tillman. 

In a nutshell, the auditorium would seat 250 people, include a lobby, ticket booth, orchestra pit, stage, storage, dressing rooms, makeup stations and back of house access for sets to come from the wood shop. 

It comes with a potential price tag of $9 million to $10.5 million, however those costs are higher than normal, due to the pandemic and a few other reasons. 

One of the reasons being that the auditorium would need to be built to specifications that qualify it as a tornado shelter and have the ability to withstand 250 mph winds and 100 mph projectile impacts. That is required by a building code adopted by the state in March 2020.

The auditorium would need to be mechanically self-sufficient for two hours, be sized to provide shelter to the occupant load and provide restrooms for occupants if used as a tornado shelter.

The larger span structure and estimated 15,000 square footage of the addition also increases the price, not to mention the complex structural foundations that will need to be built. Guyette mentioned that there were concerns about structurally difficult “bad” soils, a high water table and snow-loading on roofs to address. 

Inflation costs for construction historically increase about 4.5 to 5.5% per year. 

The addition would be on the south side of the school, in the rear. A parking lot addition is not expected, as auditorium events would likely occur before or after school hours. If events do occur regularly during school hours, a parking lot expansion for a 250-seat auditorium will require 63 parking spaces, including accessibility spaces. 

However far off in the future the project seems, the plans presented on Thursday night would be enough documentation to move it forward into design, should a funding stream become avaiable. The board did not take action on the plan.

2022 proposed budget

The board approved the fiscal year 2022 proposed budget. Finance Director Gwen Rostad told the board there is a significant surplus showing for the budget, as several state aid amounts are on a two-year cycle and the increased online enrollment for fiscal year 2021 is still affecting those cycles. Eventually, the district will see negative adjustments to the revenue. 

Enrollment for Minnesota Virtual Academy is not yet complete, so that revenue was estimated at a decrease in enrollment so it did not skew numbers. 

State aid was based on a “What If” projection from the Minnesota Department of Education, Summit Learning Center was estimated at 20 students and a math interventionist and communications director/athletic director positions were added. The entire general fund (district wide, elementary and high school, MNVA and Summit Learning Center) has a total of $566,190. 

The proposed budget does have the district living within its means, even with purchasing a new freezer to replace two old freezers at the high school. 

Other news

Abraham briefly addressed two claims about teachers made from the June 3 meeting. High school principal Michael Mangan met with the students and teachers and it was determined that the incidents were miscommunication and misunderstanding. She added students were upfront about their behaviors and misunderstandings.

The board approved three upgraded outdoor cameras to be installed by Custom Alarm for $12,459.50. 

Teachers voted to change their Q comp plan to a different model. The Marzano model will give them a focused approach with the ability to mentor teachers better. The cost for the change will come from Title II and Staff Development funds, not from the district or general fund. 

The board approved renewing its membership to the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL), but a membership cost was not provided to the district yet.

The board approved a modification to the ball field lease with the City of Houston. Due to the high volume of kids participating in summer rec, the city needs to use the ball field by the elementary school. 

Finally, Abraham read a prepared statement to the board, marking her last board meeting. 

After going through five superintendents in four years, Abraham and fellow teachers and administration felt like they had been run over by a bus. But they picked up the bus and said they would take the bus where they would want go. 

“This is the path on which we wanted to take the bus those seven years ago,” she said. “We did it as a team, a team of dedicated teachers, staff, administrators and board members.”

Her and the district’s accomplishments include $6 million worth of improvements without raising taxes. Those include improvements of all sizes, from new bleachers to upgrading technology to support one-to-one computers for students and Smart Boards in every classroom. It includes adding career prep to MNVA and the high school, socio-emotional learning for all grades, two schools honored with awards and much more.

It was all for one purpose: the students and the goal of providing the best education for them. 

Board members applauded Abraham and board chair Tom Stilin wished her well on her next endeavors. 

Next meeting

The next meeting of the Houston School Board will be July 15, at 6 p.m. in the high school library and that will be the only July meeting.

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