Board members discuss campus viability
At 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 21, the Prairie Hills USD No. 113 Board of Education (BOE) met in the Sabetha Middle School commons area for a special meeting.
Board members present were Anissa Bloom, Kathy Lippert, Jim Scoby, Leslie Scoby, Kent Saylor, Phillip Buessing and Stan Keim.
At the beginning of the meeting, public comment was open for members of the public to speak before the board for five minutes each.
Andrea Lagos was the first member of the public to speak. She presented a five-year analysis document to address the items that were brought up during the previous BOE meeting she watched. Some of the key items in the document are that Wetmore is the most “profitable” building in the district in three out of four previous years and that Wetmore is a positive source of income in the district.
Lagos concluded that bankruptcy “is not on the horizon” for the district.
“Looking at the numbers, the district has growing cash balances. The USD 113’s annual cash balance has grown 14 percent since FY18, from $7.1 million in FY18 to $8.1 million in FY22. Annual cash balances are trending upward and the current data sets do not imply that bankruptcy is on the horizon,” Lagos said.
Lagos also looked at the district’s liquidity levels and determined that it’s liquidity levels are healthy. She also determined that Wetmore on its own has accumulated a large cash surplus over the years.
“Wetmore in particular has returned an accumulative total of $265,000 in cash surplus over the past four years,” Lagos said.
“I think that it is very safe to say that Wetmore is positively contributing to the financial position of the district,” Lagos added.
Lagos also confirmed that Wetmore’s enrollment has been declining, however, Wetmore has remained at 13 percent of total district enrollment every year for the past five years, according to Lagos.
Lagos said that 2023 projected enrollment numbers will go up.
“According to the 2020 US census data, there are 21 children under the age of five residing in Wetmore. Wetmore’s headcount has consistently remained at 13 percent of the total district enrollment and there is a strong pipeline of potential students age zero to five residing in Wetmore,” Lagos said.
Lagos began asking the community why Wetmore’s closure is on the table when the data she found “doesn’t suggest that closing Wetmore is necessary or helpful.”
She said the community pointed her to the 2015 analysis that suggested closing Wetmore would save the district around $460,000 a year. She said that analysis assumes that 50 percent of Wetmore students would enroll at Sabetha if Wetmore closed.
Lagos believed that closing Wetmore with insufficient information may end up costing the district more in the long run than it can save them in the short-term. She also said the community feels that the lack of structure and consistency in the analysis being presented by the board may open the board to potential litigation for discriminatory practices and unlawful spreading of misinformation.
Stacy Claycamp relinquished her five minutes to Lagos for her to continue with her presentation.
Lagos gave her professional recommendations to the board based on her analysis.
Corey Bloom spoke to the board and stated some comments made by some of the board members during the Nov. 14 meeting were inaccurate and false. He quoted Lippert saying during the last meeting that she said the district would have a million dollar shortfall, but C. Bloom did not hear anything about a shortfall during the meeting. C. Bloom also emailed Superintendent Todd Evans about a shortfall, and Evans said he “was not aware of any million dollar shortfall and that was not reported by our auditor.” C. Bloom questioned why this comment by Lippert was made.
“If you don’t know the true facts, don’t state them. Statements like that are reckless and cause fear and damage to the public and are totally uncalled for when you don’t have facts to back them up,” C. Bloom said.
C. Bloom also was bothered by a comment made by J. Scoby, in which he stated “that the viability document was just a guideline for the school board to use and the board can do anything they wanted to do.”
C. Bloom pointed out that three board members are “very outspoken on trying to close Wetmore and the community has no idea as to why.”
“It’s clear that it is not a financial reason, because there is nothing to back it. Wetmore ended the year with $102,000 in carry over,” C. Bloom said. “It is like taking your car to a mechanic that is running perfect and asking your mechanic to find a problem with it. The mechanic then comes back and says, ‘The only problem with your car is the owner operator. Please quit wasting my time and yours and come back when there is a problem.’ Our communities would like to know the real reason you want to close Wetmore.”
“There is a timeline and an agenda that a few of you are trying to meet. I would hope that this board will put the brakes on these talks immediately and save yourselves a whole lot of headaches down the road,” C. Bloom said. “As I’ve always said, common sense will go a long ways, but you have to use it. I would say now would be a good time to start using it.”
Andy Henry was the next member of the public to speak to the board. He spoke to the board, confused, why the Wetmore school is being considered to close.
“Throughout my time at Wetmore, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that our school was on the chopping block. In fact, I was told many times that I would be lucky to graduate with my classmates before the school shut down,” Henry said.
Henry said he talked to people from neighboring school districts if they’ve had to face what Wetmore is facing and, after explaining to them that Wetmore ran in the black in the audit, they “are absolutely dumbfounded on why anyone would even consider such as reckless and irresponsible action.”
He said Wetmore has seen positive trends and he referenced the 2022 census that Lagos did. He said there have been new houses and playgrounds being built, and Wetmore built a new football field as well.
Henry said he does not think the board’s closure discussion is about money, but rather an alternative motive.
“Wetmore has proven time and time again that they are a financially responsible facility,” Henry said. “The community has proven to show growth and sustainability, so instead of trying to shut down a school and ruin a community, why don’t we try to help each other and get back to what we think is best for our children?”
Alissa Osterhaus spoke to the board members about her family and how she has ties in Sabetha.
Osterhaus expressed her dislike that the board continues to focus on closing Wetmore.
“The continuous focus on closing the Wetmore school takes away the opportunity to make positive change that not only supports the schools, but also all of the communities,” Osterhaus said. “In reality, a choice for Wetmore students is a choice to support Sabetha’s largest businesses.”
Osterhaus said the businesses in the community are no longer under local control and these businesses are most likely not thinking or making decisions like their original owners.
“There is currently a labor shortage in Sabetha, and these important and powerful companies are searching across the country for skilled mechanics and engineers,” Osterhaus said. “Many of the students who attend small rural schools in northeast Kansas are good candidates from Sabetha’s largest businesses, but the board’s short-sighted and small-minded attitudes toward long-term businesses’ needs are pushing these potential employees further and further away. The board should be spear-heading partnerships between the small and rural schools and Sabetha’s largest businesses, not wasting time on these politically-motivated school closure discussions.”
Osterhaus asked that the board stop their “unnecessary fixation on closing Wetmore, and start focusing on the future.”
Analyssa Noe, who works for a company called Deloitte Consulting, told the board about a case study she did at her firm, which specializes in hard decisions such as business closures. The case study was on a large fortune 500 company that was dealing with an acquisition and didn’t know why they were losing customers faster than they could count. Noe said the CEO of the company came to her firm because they weren’t sure what was going on.
Once they go through their extensive analysis process, the firm synthesized their findings for the CEO and brought them “well-vetted, well-documented, fully-thorough recommendations about how to proceed forward.”
Noe stated, per her professional opinion, that the board’s analysis is inconclusive.
“The analysis that was presented to the public is inconclusive at best, and I mean at best,” Noe said. “The four speakers who came before me have already demonstrated this.”
Noe then shared her analysis on the school district, that 1) the district appears to be in a relatively healthy position and there is no reason to suggest that an emergency alarm needs to be sounded, 2) various gaps and issues with the district’s allocation methods have made it difficult to take the data at face value, 3) there’s a concerning pattern of misinformation and disorder here that is contributing to a growing and, I hope, incorrect belief that certain members of this board are acting in unethical and discriminatory manors, 4) there are opportunities for value creation here not being captured or explored.
“The analysis that has been gathered today is not sufficient to enable a decision of this magnitude, and the board should be very, very cautious about letting it masquerade as any kind of a [unintelligible] or anything that can give this position credibility,” Noe said.
Noe also said “the right answer to this problem may very well involve some hard decisions, but this analysis hasn’t even come close to pushing the boundaries and confirming what those hard things might lead to be.”
Ronnebaum shared some of his thoughts in regard to the future of our schools.
“I believe in this district we can find a way to address our areas of concern in the budget, if we identify them and help each other to overcome shortfalls,” Ronnebaum said. “I see a situation that works for all of us, but I fear we’re on the brink of decisions that don’t work for any of us. If Wetmore drops out of the equation, I fear that we will lose many of their students, which results in a significant loss in state aid budget authority.”
Ronnebaum shared his concerns about losing our Wetmore kids to neighboring school districts. He believes that we’ve gone from “a scenario that works for everyone to a scenario that works for no one.”
Tony Smith had some concerns about the viability study.
He is concerned about the allocation methods being used on the administrative column in the viability report.
“Today, it is being allocated by unweighted FTEs. In some cases, that makes sense, but in most cases, it does not,” Smith said.
Smith also was concerned about and inconsistencies in the administration cost of FY 22 versus the previous six years.
Smith said the district needs to act like a business and work as one body to control costs at all the schools, and the district needs to work as one body to keep all the campuses open and do what is best for the students.
“Board members are the business owners of the district,” Smith said. “Please make sure you are basing all your decisions on materially, accurate information, so that all decisions are being made for the best of our students, and if you don’t have all the information you need now, please get that first before potentially making inaccurate decisions.”
Michael Bachelor spoke to the board members, saying that the board needs to do its due diligence.
He said the board needs to focus on what’s important, that the board members need to do what’s best, vocationally, for the students.
Campus Viability Discussion
After public comments were closed, Superintendent Evans made some comments of his own and went over multiple pieces of information including unweighted FTE (full-time equivalency) and unaudited information in the principal’s building reports. Evans also reviewed the numbers from the Kickhaefer & Buessing audit with the board to refresh themselves with information relating to campus viability.
Evans also showed the board the legal max general fund information for 2023 that can be found on the Kansas State Department of Education’s website. This information includes FTE and weighted figures for all the counties school districts in Kansas.
Before continuing on to the financial scenarios part of the meeting, A. Bloom made a motion that the board table the scenarios presentation to gather all accurate information before going over the scenarios. A. Bloom said she had asked Evans multiple questions before the meeting and found that Evans could not answer all questions confidently, because he had been trying to double check a very large amount of information within only a week’s time to prepare for this meeting. Bloom did not want to continue into the scenarios discussion without all factual information because it could cause misinformation to be spread throughout the district. The motion to delay the scenarios presentation failed 4-3, with A. Bloom, Buessing and Saylor being in favor of delaying.
Evans started the scenarios discussion by diving into the 2023 legal max more thoroughly and explaining what the figures mean and where the figures came from. Lagos spoke up from the crowd to ask Evans a question about the information he was reviewing with the board. Lagos also went up to the podium to say that there is a large informational gap between the public’s knowledge and Evans’ knowledge on the information that Evans is presenting, meaning the public does not fully understand what Evans is talking about.
Lagos requested that the board give the public a chance to ask questions about this new information that Evans is reviewing so the public can understand what is being said. L. Scoby told Lagos that her request could not be done because the public comments part of the meeting has been closed, and she asked that Lagos leave the podium to return to her seat. Lagos did not return to her seat when asked initially and suggested to the board members that the public should have the opportunity to get the information and have another time for public discussion to ask further questions to understand the new information. L. Scoby and Lippert continued to ask that Lagos return to her seat, which she did eventually.
Evans then went over general and supplemental general funds for each campus that he had calculated for the future fiscal years of 2024, 25 and 26.
During the board discussion, Lippert brought up the idea of creating an information-gathering committee to work with Evans and reach out to Jackson Heights to ask if they’d be able to take in Wetmore students, or if they’d accept a land transfer, if Wetmore were to close. Lippert suggested that the committee could include herself, A. Bloom and Keim.
Lippert made a motion to create an information-gathering committee to work with Jackson Heights and see if they can accept Wetmore students if there is a closure at Wetmore. The motion failed, with Keim, Buessing, A. Bloom and J. Scoby being against the motion.
A. Bloom, confused, asked how their discussion went from financial scenarios to asking Jackson Heights if they can take in Wetmore students if the campus closes. She said the board needs to “get through the initial information in front of them first before asking other school districts if they can take in students,” and to “look at every angle first before instilling fear in the Wetmore students’ minds that their school will be gone.”
While some of the other board members were focused more on enrollment numbers at Wetmore and their declining nature over the years, A. Bloom said the district’s viability document “focuses on whether a school’s expenditures are less than the school’s revenue, not enrollment.”
A. Bloom insisted that the board give Wetmore an opportunity, a chance, to gather their own information and come up with a plan that could improve Wetmore’s enrollment numbers, since that was the board’s main concern. She asked that the board to give Wetmore at least until the end of February to come up with a “sophisticated plan” to present to the board.
After a bit more discussion, the board approved the motion to adjourn the meeting without making any decisions at this time. The board members will most likely return to the campus viability topic again during the next board meeting at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 12.
To read the Nov. 14 meeting minutes, go to Page 9 of this week’s Herald.
To watch the full special board meeting and listen to all the discussion on Youtube, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sYC2MB-rpro.