By Pat Maurer
During the Farwell Board of Education meeting Monday evening, the board members voted 5-0 to put a one-half mill question on next August’s ballot to develop a “sinking fund” or savings account which would mean the district would have the funds it will need for future projects and maintenance.
“This is what we promised the voters when we asked them to approve the bond issue,” Board member Shari Buccilli said. “We need to keep that promise.”
The decision to “begin the creation of a Sinking Fund was based on the feedback of community stakeholder during the previous bond campaign,” Superintendent Steven Scoville said.
He continued, “Based on [the district’s] taxable value exceeding projections and the [lower than anticipated] interest rates at the time of sale of bonds, the 2019 bond is paying off ahead of schedule. As the millage rate decreases from the three mills, it is the BOE intent to ask the voters to keep the [total] millage rate close to a total of 3 mills for the purpose of creating the Sinking Fund. The bond’s millage rate will continue to stairstep down from 3 mills until 2039.”
Scoville said, “The BOE intends to ask voters to create a .5 mill Sinking Fund during the August 2022 Primary. It is the BOE intent to run this for two years and then re-evaluate the millage rate. Their ultimate goal is to [eventually] have 3 mills levied for a maximum of 10 years for the Sinking Fund.”’
This would keep the tax millage for the school at the same level without raising taxes.
“Fiscal responsibility now, can save taxpayers from paying large amounts of interest to fund future capital projects and improvements like replacing roofs, boilers, and parking lots,” he added.
He explained, “The BOE realizes that this plan will require significant education of our voters and the benefits of fiscal responsibility. They will now begin the process to inform the voters.”
In another sensitive matter, the board, after many discussions and changes, have held the first reading of Policy number 5106 – the transgender student policy. For months the board has “struggled with a draft policy” developed by Thrun Law Firm.
In an email Wednesday, Superintendent Steven Scoville explained, “The BOE supported creating a policy to support students and preventing bullying and harassment, but removed several areas of the draft policy that they felt restricted the rights of parents. The FAS BOE values the input and involvement of parents as partners in their child’s education and this policy reflects that practice. FAS BOE desires to create a safe learning environment for all students. Their hard work on the crafting of this policy reflects their beliefs.”
Specifically, the right of a student to expect that they be identified by a different name led to a lengthy discussion by board members. “How do we force a teacher to use a preferred name?” Trustee John Gross asked.
Scoville replied, “We don’t dictate beliefs, but ask to ‘show respect’ to individuals and address them as they prefer to be called.”
Board president Joe Maxey said, “Sometimes I feel that they [Thrun Law Firm] is ‘just shoving this on us’. When do we say enough?”
Scoville said, “Thrun doesn’t want us ‘at risk’ [for legal action]. The state has gone further than what this board (and other school boards) are comfortable with.”
Board member Nathan Yarhouse said, “I just hope we can get closer to a resolution.”
Gross queried, “What happens if a student identifies as a different gender but doesn’t want his/her parents to know?”
Scoville said, “Excluding the parents is wrong unless it is a safety issue.”
Buccilli said, “A case by case issue.”
Finally, BOE approved the first reading of this policy and will perform the second reading in February.
Scofield reminded the board that the district will be going for a renewal of the Non-Homestead Tax on the November 8th ballot. “This will be a renewal of 17.8 mills currently levied and a reinstatement of the 0.2 mills that have been degraded due to the Headlee rollback language. All three schools in Clare County will again place this request on the November 8th ballot. The tax only applies to properties that are not the tax payer’s primary residence.”
Next the board discussion turned to the district’s Dynamic Plan and long-range goals.
Currently the district fund balance, one of the boards goals, at the end of the 2021 budget stands at 26.48 percent, up from a few years back when it was down to just 5 percent and twice what it was just one year ago.
After working on better fund management over the past several years, the board has now surpassed the goal they set of maintaining the fund balance at 25 percent or above.
The superintendent explained, “The BOE reviewed a budget amendment to the 2021-2022 budget. Through fiscally responsible practices, the district’s fund balance has increased from an ending balance for the 2020-2021 school year of 12.9%, to the current fund balance of 26.48%. This increase was a combination of increase in per pupil funding and COVID funds from the federal government.
Scoville said, “A 25 percent fund balance removes the districts’ need to borrow money to make payroll in the fall. This is a common practice among schools as a result of the method that the State of Michigan uses to fund schools. Schools’ budget year begins on July 1st, but their first State Aid Payment is not received until October 20. A 25% fund balance basically allows the district to borrow from themselves to cover this cash flow gap, saving the district approximately $45,000 annually in interest costs.”
Also at the meeting, COVID, policies, practices, and protocols were reviewed. Scoville updated the board on the Supreme Court decision regarding the vaccine mandate and reaffirmed the position that the board would only mandate a vaccine if required to do so.
The board reviewed current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Central Michigan District Health Department (CDC/CMDHD) guidance regarding quarantine rules.
Administrative Assistant Kate VanBuskirk gave a presentation on the newest guidance including the decrease in quarantine time and mask recommendations. She said, “the new Flow charts allow students to come back sooner.” She added, “It has been a work in progress trying to get everyone up to date on requirements.”
Scoville said at the recent Superintendents meeting the other districts all wanted to continue in-person classes and discussed using snow days to take days off if necessary. He noted that Coleman did just a have a five-day closure – over a weekend, but allowed an athletic competition. He said,” I don’t want us to do that,” and asked the board, “What are your thoughts.?”
Board discussion confirmed that Farwell will avoid switching to remote learning and instead proceed with short closures if a significant outbreak were to take place in the schools to keep the focus on in-person learning.
Scofield said, “If a school closure is needed, the BOE will evaluate the reasons and the numbers to determine if athletic competition would be allowed [during the school closure].
Board members didn’t like the optics of being closed due to a virus outbreak and continuing to play (athletic) games, but did come up with examples where it might make sense if the closure was due to a bus driver shortage or an elementary school outbreak without any ties to the high school students and athletic teams.
A sad note at the meeting came when Elementary Principal announced her resignation next June at the end of the school year.
Her resignation was accepted, but with regret, and gratitude. She is loved and respected by the whole district, Scoville said. “It will leave very big shoes to fill.”
He added, “Mrs. Gross submitted her paperwork to allow the district to begin the search process to fill her position. Just another example of how Cathy always puts the needs of the district above her own. We are thrilled for Cathy and her well-deserved retirement. Now we start the very big task of trying to find someone to take over where Cathy is leaving off.”
Part of a tearful written statement by Board member Shari Buccilli read, “To list all of your accomplishments … would take more than time allows. You proactively champion for Farwell Schools, your staff and our students every single day.” She continued, “What I believe your co-workers will miss the most is your leadership and your positive attitude. In all of the years you have worked for the school district, your work ethic has been impeccable… You’ve always set the bar high and accept nothing but the best from your staff and it shows. Thank you for being such a positive role model to the students and staff here at Farwell.”
Other business at the meeting included:
*Approval of the retirement of Cathy Gross;
*Approval of a “Grow Your Own Contract” to help Kimberly Bear get her Special Education certification in exchange for her agreement to dedicate the following five years to the Farwell district;
*Approval of the Schools Dynamic Plan;
*A report from Scoville on the status of the Request for Proposal for maintenance at Kerwin Paesens Athletic Field.