TSD board hears alternative school proposal

TONASKET – The Tonasket School Board heard a presentation by parent Jennifer Steinshouer at its Monday, April 9, board meeting, to create a type of alternative education program for grades K-8 in the district.
Steinshouer represented a group of parents that have or are home schooling their children. What started out in previous weeks as a discussion with board members and superintendent Paul Turner about how to enhance the homeschoolers’ partnership with the district resulted in discovery of the methods being used at the other schools.
The program would be modeled after the expeditionary learning approach used by the Methow Valley Community School, a private school, and adopted by the Kettle Falls School District in a public school setting.
“I do think there are exceptional teachers at Tonasket, and I have the ultimate respect for the teachers …” Steinshouer said. “I know that you’ve worked very hard to put in programs for the success of our students. And Tonasket has been very innovative. We were the first district around here to have a homeschooling outreach program … Our alternative high school has been phenomenal, and they save kids every day…
“I think we can be that innovator, and I think we could start an alternative program like this, and I’d like to model it pretty much directly from the Methow Valley Community School.”
Steinshouer said that the program offers a unified approach emphasizing character building, community service, natural history, outdoor history, and an overarching yearly theme through which students at all levels do their learning. She said that problem-solving and communication skills are also a key part of the curriculum.
“What we want isn’t a basic education,” she said. “We want an exceptional education. We want our kids to excel at the things they excel at, not waiting for everyone else to catch up with them. And we want the things they’re struggling with to be met with immediate attention, even if they’re not at the bottom of the class. And we want the whole child taken into consideration, emotionally.”
The program also features small, multi-grade level programs, so that older students participate in teaching the younger students.
“I have 28 children already that would be interested, only four of which are currently enrolled in the district,” she said, adding that with more time she thought she could produce up to 100 interested students. “I know that money is an issue, but I believe this would bring more money into the district.”
She also said her research showed their was a likelihood of the district being able to receive a substantial amount of grant money to launch the program as a rural district attempting something so innovative.
While the school board indicated it was nowhere close to being able to make any kind of decision on the proposal, they indicated a willingness to further look into the program’s features.
“One thing we need to be sure to look at is whether or not this helps our overall endeavour,” said board chairman Jerry Asmussen.
Board member Ty Olson said he was intrigued by the proposal, but added that it needed to be examined in light of the different cultural demographics that Tonasket has compared to the other schools.
“We have a lot of diversity that Kettle Falls does not have,” Olson said. “It’s something we work very hard to be cognizant of … Kettle Falls is a lot different town… culturally we’re a lot different.”
“I think we need to be very careful and slow about looking at this,” said board member Catherine Stangland. “But I just wanted them to be able to hear their thoughts and passion. I’m not ready to jump on anything yet, but I do think there is a place for considering this idea.”
“If we go somewhere like this,” Turner said, “anyone from low to high should be able to excel in this. It shouldn’t be exclusionary … if we’re going to do a public school thing, it can’t be exclusionary. If we start having some sort of cut off criteria, it would be a hard sell for me.”

Calendar, enrollment set

The school board approved a calendar for the 2012-13 school year, as well as enrollment numbers to be used in determining staffing levels and budgeting.
The approved calendar was one of two options, and the one heavily favored by school staff. The only unusual feature of the calendar was the late date of the two-week Christmas Break, which will run (including weekends bracketing the break) from Dec. 22 – Jan. 6.
Estimating the following year’s enrollment is a key to budgeting for the appropriate amount of staffing. Turner said that the district had been slightly too conservative in its estimates over the past few years, and resulting in some understaffing.
The 2011-12 budget was based on an estimated student count of 1,005, but Turner said that rolling the numbers forward from March (removing this year’s seniors, adding in an estimate of next year’s kindergarten), the district could be running at about 1,066 students.
“That’s a very conservative number (76) of incoming kindergartners, too,” Turner said, noting that the past three kindergarten classes have numbered well over 80.
The board approved a budget based upon a student count of 1,040, giving a cushion of 11 students under a four-year estimate of 1,051.
“Historically, our March roll-over (estimate) has worked well,” said board member Lloyd Caton.
“I think we’re very safe budgeting for 1,040,” Turner said. “It’s over 20 less than what we’re running, but we need to increase it (from the 1,005) and it closer to where we actually are so we can get some more staffing.
“We’ve kind of been bursting at the seams.”

New budget system

Turner updated the board on a new system that will allow administrators to more effectively budget for their own buildings.
“Right now everyone finds out their dollar amount they have for the year, but they aren’t able to sit down and budget what that’s going to do throughout the year.
“In order to do that we need a system that is clear, transparent and easy to understand so all of my administrators and people in the program can look at where they’re at and very easily track what they’re doing.”
The ESD set up a system, Budget X, that interacts with the accounts payable system and provides easy access to the data. Currently, that data needs to be requested through district business manager Debbie Kitterman. Turner said that has caused issues if she happened to be gone as well as creating bottlenecks as she tries to do her job.
“This will allow us to manage the things we need to manage,” Turner said.
The ESD will put the district’s current budget into the system, then provide training for the administrators through July as they work on preparing next year’s budget. The system will cost about $12,000 to implement, all of it in set-up and training.
“My hope here is that when it comes to our budgeting process, it will give us tangible numbers to work with” said Asmussen. “Because right now we budget this year against last year’s budget and the actual numbers from two years ago …we have no accuracy. We just know we set a budget, but we don’t know if we’ve done a good job until it’s way past due.”
Turner said that a number of other districts have switched to the Budget X system, including
Brewster and Lake Roosevelt.
“They all say that it’s a Godsend,” he said.

Morris retires

The board accepted the resignation of fifth grade teacher Chris Morris, who announced his retirement as of the end of the school year.
“I have enjoyed teaching the children here in Tonasket and watching them grow over the years,” he said in his letter of resignation. “I feel it is time for me to move on to other ventures and adventures in my life. After 19 years in education I am still very passionate about young children and hope that education continues to provide challenges and opportunities for them to become contributors to our society and help improve our lives. I hope and pray that my time with the children has made some positive impact in their lives.”
Due to health issues, his last day in the classroom will be April 24.


In other business, the board continued its work on its district-wide review and revision of policies , going through first and second readings of about 35 of the 5000 policy series. Turner said that April 25 will be a state-wide day for earthquake drills. Tonasket will add another twist to its scenario, he said, as they will lock down the school as if the quake had caused the derailment of a train carrying toxic materials through town.
The district is still accepting applications for the open Tonasket Elementary School position, through April 18, with six applicants already having submitted materials. Turner added that the makeup of the committee is still being finalized.
Also, Tonasket Police officer Darren Curtis and K9 Zeus paid a visit, demonstrating Zeus’s drug detection acumen for the board.
The school board next meets on Monday, April 23, at 7:30 p.m.