Trustee resigns; board has funding concerns

Uinta County School District No. 1 Trustee Dan Wheeler shares his concerns about many members of the Wyoming Legislature intent on cutting education funding, which he said was a primary concern at the Wyoming School Board Association annual conference. (HERALD PHOTO/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — The Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees is accepting applications for a now vacant seat after former board chair Jami Brackin tendered her resignation effective at the end of the monthly meeting held on Dec. 7. Brackin is moving to St. George, Utah. The district will accept applications for the empty seat on the nine-member board until Jan. 3, 2022, and the board will hold an executive session on Jan. 4 to interview candidates and select a new trustee.

A visibly emotional Brackin told fellow trustees and district staff it had been a pleasure to serve with them and described her departure as “bittersweet.” “We’ve done great work together and I’m very proud of what we’ve done,” said Brackin.

With Brackin’s resignation, vice chair Dave Peterson would have been moved to the chair position; however, it happened to be the annual meeting where new officers are elected. Trustee Cassie Torres, who has previously served as chair, was re-elected to that position, with Peterson remaining vice chair. Jenny Welling was elected treasurer and trustee Dan Wheeler clerk, with Wheeler also appointed to the Region V BOCES board.

There were several items on the agenda for discussion at Brackin’s last meeting, including a decision to move forward on a project to renovate the Evanston High School football field and track. While final details are still being worked out, the board approved the project at a cost “not to exceed” $3 million, giving superintendent Ryan Thomas the authority to finalize contracts on the project, as long as total costs fall under $3 million.

Facilities director Jaraun Dennis indicated work to remove the dirt berm between the football field and the LDS Church parking lot near the high school will be donated by Searle Brothers and work will begin on that right away. With the dirt work completed, the project to replace the field with a larger turf field and replace the damaged and worn track can begin in the spring so work can be completed by the start of the 2022-23 school year. A larger turf field will allow the high school soccer teams to play in their home stadium for the first time in the more-than-20 years of the EHS soccer teams’ existence. However, with work taking place this spring, the high school track teams will be unable to host home meets this school year and will have to practice at the Evanston Middle School track.

The project will be paid for utilizing a combination of major maintenance funds, carryover funds that must be spent or returned to the state because the district has reached its maximum savings limit and a loan the district will make to itself from those carryover funds and repay over several years. The district currently has approximately $6.5 million in carryover reserves.

The district also discussed spending the just-under $11 million the district has received in federal COVID relief money. Specifically, the district has received just under $8 million in so-called ARP ESSER III funds — American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief. The district has three years to spend the funds and the law stipulates that 20% of the money must be spent to address learning loss related to COVID. The law also stipulates that districts engage in meaningful dialogue with the public and with community partners to determine the best ways to spend the federal relief dollars.

Thomas said Wyoming schools are in a very different situation than many other schools in the country because Wyoming schools were open for face-to-face instruction during the 2020-21 school year while schools in most other states were not. Therefore, the district has already spent early relief money on technology needs during the early days of the pandemic and on enhanced sanitization supplies and personal protective equipment when schools reopened. It has been recommended that some of the funds be used to create summer school and after-school programs to help fill gaps in student learning; however, the district already has those programs so funding may be used to bolster them.

Based on recommendations from Thomas, the board opted to spend approximately $1.8 million on retention stabilization payments for staff in an effort to prevent staff resignations through providing multiple payments to all staff members over the next 12 months.

Specifically, all district staff received $1,000 on Dec. 15 and will receive another $1,000 in March, $1,200 in late August, $1,000 in November and another $1,000 in December 2022. Due to the so-called Great Resignation and the accompanying labor shortage, spending funds to help stabilize staffing is considered an allowable use of the relief money, though the district will have to submit the plan for approval and utilize carryover reserves to make the initial payments until that approval is received.

Those payments for staff account for approximately 20% of the ESSER III funds and another 20% will need to be allocated to student learning loss, so the district is soliciting public input on how to spend the other 60% in a way that will not create difficulties in the future when the funds are no longer available. Comments can be submitted at https://tinyurl.com/ykb3mkcb or at a public hearing held at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 13, in the district board room.

The district has also received more than $400,000 specifically to address mental health needs. District special education director Matt Williams said those funds will be used to hire a mental telehealth specialist to serve as a resource for all district students with mental health challenges.

Trustees also addressed the ongoing efforts to adopt Rule CKA, the district’s concealed carry policy. Though CKA was on the agenda as an action item up for an approval vote, trustees instead opted to table the policy until the January meeting so additional public comments could be compiled. Thomas referenced the multiple legal challenges that have been filed since the policy was initially passed in 2018 and said he believes it would be prudent to proceed carefully in the hopes of avoiding further litigation. He said he believes those opposed to the rule will never be “okay” with it. “It doesn’t matter what we do,” he said, referencing the lawsuits, and added, “They’re opposed to guns and guns in schools,” before asking, “How many times can the minority challenge this on procedural grounds?”

Thomas also referenced a letter to the editor in the Herald, written by Tim Beppler, one of the plaintiffs who has challenged the rule on multiple occasions. In that letter, Beppler said schools are “sensitive places” where guns should be restricted. Thomas said he agrees that schools are sensitive places and that the district is not changing that, but society is.

Finally, during the closing board roundtable, trustee Dan Wheeler spoke about his experience at the annual Wyoming School Board Association conference. Wheeler said, “The most concerning part of that conference is the danger presented by our own state legislators and how they fund education.”

Wheeler said the Legislature spent a significant amount of money on outside specialists who created a funding model, which the Legislature approved, but now many do not want to fund that model they approved. “They want to ignore it,” said Wheeler, “and that’s going to be a fight.”

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