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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota


Ely School Board revises budget amid pandemic

Strives to make improvements to distance learning

Keith Vandervort
Posted 5/28/20

ELY – As the 2019-2020 school year wraps up for IDS 696, school board members studied a revised budget Tuesday night and, as reported by the district’s superintendent, school finances …

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Ely School Board revises budget amid pandemic

Strives to make improvements to distance learning


ELY – As the 2019-2020 school year wraps up for IDS 696, school board members studied a revised budget Tuesday night and, as reported by the district’s superintendent, school finances took a minimal hit as the school responded to the coronavirus pandemic.
Due to parameters dictated by the Minnesota Department of Education, students were sent home in mid-March and the administration implemented a distance learning procedure for the rest of the year. School officials are looking forward to how education will look in the fall and are approaching the new school year with caution and an open mind.
Superintendent Erik Erie said the federal government’s response to COVID-19 resulted in an $87,544 windfall for the district. Along with enrollment ending up slightly higher than budgeted (561 to 570 students), the revised budget for the 2019-2020 school year shows an increase in revenue of $152,436.
Expenditures also increased, to $168,000, but not because of COVID-19. Erie said employee expenses from new hires and contract revisions accounted for a $32,000 expense increase, along with gymnasium ceiling repairs of $63,000 and legal settlements of $70,000.
The actual cost of responding to COVID-19 for the last portion of the school year for technology and meals for students and staff was about $15,000.
“We also had a savings of about $12,000 because we are not paying for substitute teachers, spring activities, and other transportation-related costs,” Erie said. “We are looking at a net increase of $3,000 to our expenditures because of the coronavirus response.”
A net decrease of $15,664 to the general fund was reported. Along with the $500,000 transfer from the general fund to the school district’s facility renovation project, the unassigned general fund balance decreased from 27.3 percent of the annual budget to 21.3 percent.
“This is still within the scope of our policy to maintain a 20-percent unassigned fund balance to total annual budget ratio,” he said.
“If we didn’t get that $87,000 (from the CARES Act) we would be looking at a larger deficit,” said board chair Ray Marsnik. “It really helped. And we should continue to maintain our 20-percent policy of unassigned fund balance expenditures.”

Distance learning
With distance learning in place at the end of this school year and a very real possibility that this could be the required teaching method continuing into the fall, school officials are striving to improve access to technology for all ISD 696 students through the “one-to-one initiative” of providing an assigned learning device for each student.
“The pandemic is not yet over and we are looking at how we address things going into the future,” Erie said. “We are looking at using funds from the (federal) CARES Act to help supplement our initiative. That would be an appropriate expense.”
The district has many devices, and teachers were using them in the classroom before the distance-learning protocol.
“We want each student to have a device that they would be able to take them home just like a textbook. Right now, that is not the case. We know right now that some students are in their homes with high-speed Internet and a computer device to use and they are sitting next to someone that does not have that (access), yet we have the same expectation for all of them. That is something that was borne out during our distance learning. We want all of our students to be on a level playing field.”
Erie said as many as 130 different devices were distributed to Ely students this spring as distance learning was initiated.
“We don’t know what our schools will look like in the fall. We need to be prepared so that students are on that level playing field when we resume school in whatever form that may be,” he said. “We are hoping it will be (back) to the traditional form, but we need to be prepared in case it isn’t,” he said.
Erie said he was impressed with the level that teachers and staffed have embraced the distance-learning model, and funding is available through the federal CARES Act to help improve that technology.
“Another bill, in the state legislature, would have provided additional funds related to broadband going to our schools, but we are hoping that is realized through a special session,” he said.
He also noted that the federal Department of Education has recognized that many schools are struggling with technology needs and are allowing fund balance transfers typically assigned to other needs to be used for technology improvements.
“We have some significant balances in such areas as basic skills, and that money can be transferred to be used. This is a real window of opportunity that wasn’t there a year ago and may not be there a year from now,” Erie said.
He said he plans to present a more detailed technology improvement plan to the board at their June 8 meeting.
“We have decisions to be made on types of devices, grade level considerations, total number of devices, and wireless upgrades,” he said. “We are also looking at what (educational) platforms we would use.”
Other business
In other business, the board:
• Heard from administrators on the master school schedule and learned that plans for a seven-period school day and early dismissal are on hold due to the unknowns surrounding COVID-19 and distance learning considerations.
• Hired Nathan LaFond for the full-time Memorial School science teaching position.
• Hired current Ely elementary teacher Kaley Hotaling to the part-time high school teaching position.
• Adjusted the contract for middle school teacher Brenda Check-Olson from a full-time to a part-time position.


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