Pierz officials to begin new school year with community survey

By Lorae Vardas, Correspondent

Attracting more students into the Pierz School District continues to trend upward as doors opened Tuesday. While solid enrollment numbers aren’t available until after a few weeks into the new school year, officials anticipate more growth. Incoming numbers at the elementary level are approaching 100 per class. Last year, Pioneer Elementary counted 45 new students. To date this year at the high school there are 13 in and three out.

“So, the fact that we are adding more is very good news, at least from a funding and reputation perspective. But certainly a challenge from a facilities perspective,” Supt. George Weber told the School Board, Aug. 30.

Staff and students are making adjustments as the School Board contemplates another possible building bond referendum. Board members unanimously put their stamp of approval on a sample survey prepared by School Perceptions LLC, an independent firm with expertise in conducting community surveys.

Survey questions are specifically designed to answer two questions: When should we reconsider readdressing our facility needs, and what projects, if any, should be prioritized and included in any future facilities plan?

District residents will have the option of taking the rather lengthy questionnaire online or in paper form. About 3,000 mailings are planned in September with an estimated 11 percent return rate. Board members voiced concern about the low expectation, but were told it would still be a good indicator of the public’s priorities.

School Perceptions LLC wants the survey completed in early October so the company can compile the data and prepare a report for the Oct. 30 board meeting.

“We will very likely have a modified recommendation after we are able to gather more details from our community on what they want and support,” Weber said.

Weber said results are critical in deciding when to schedule another referendum since there are only five dates available in 2018 for holding school elections, with the earliest being the second Tuesday in February. Early voting would push it up even further.

“The survey questions are designed to sort of ‘chunk’ the various projects by cost and then allow people to see what the price of that particular project would be as part of their determination of support,” Weber said. “There is also a separate section that includes what level of bond amount they would support, including tax impact on that particular dollar amount.”

Ultimately, the Board wants to know why the May 2017 building bond proposal failed and what level of investment voters would support. The one-question $18.45 million multi-faceted project sought funds for new elementary classrooms, a new gym, new auditorium, a new band room and parking lot improvements.

The Board voted to enter into a contract, not to exceed $7,000, with MP&G Marketing Solutions to assist the district in community outreach.

“We are doing great things. We just need to invest more to get those stories out there,” Weber said in making the request. The communications support company has worked with several area schools during referendum campaigns.

The Board pared back the original contract proposal by $10,000 in order to better get to know key facilitators Mary Pat McNeil and Jeff Dehler and the extent of the services they’ll provide.

“For now we will start with a contract to build a stronger outreach messaging process for our schools,” Weber said. “They (McNeil and Dehler) would like also to set up some community input meetings to seek out expectations and perceptions.”

Pierz School Board Briefs

In other business at the Aug. 30 meeting, the Pierz School Board:

  • Accepted donations of $600 each for the baseball, dance and Encouraging Positive Influence and Choices (EPIC) programs at the high school from the Pierz Fire Relief Association; $400 for football and $200 for track from the Pierz Lions; and a $1,000 at risk grant from Morrison County;
  • Hired Rick Sczublewski as assistant varsity football coach; Tesha Gustafson and Lee Maus as bus drivers; and granted family medical leave to teacher Denise Girtz;
  • Ratified a three-year contract for Supt. George Weber at a 1 percent increase in salary and benefits per year, 2017-2020;
  • Posted or made changes to a number of long-term substitute positions/contracts; and increased hours slightly for two elementary employees. Also posted was a paraprofessional position at the high school;
  • Signed a contract with the National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA) for shared services between Pioneer Elementary and Healy High School relating to teacher support services. Schools are asked to sign contracts now instead of using services as needed;
  • Learned that the Pierz School District exceeded state averages in all three of the most recent MCA test subjects of reading, math and science in 2016-2017. “It’s pretty cool,” Weber said in his report to the Board. “We use that data in setting our goals as well as evaluating areas where we may want to consider curricular and instructional strategies;”
  • Was informed by Principal Tom Otte that the new playground with musical section at Pioneer Elementary is complete. Improvements at the adjacent softball fields are also nearing completion with the help of volunteers; and
  • Heard Weber report that details of the in-school Head Start program are being finalized between the district, county and state. Providing transportation and developing efficient routes in rural areas for the 3- and 4-year-olds is proving particularly challenging.

The Pierz School Board’s next meeting is Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 6 p.m. in the District Office Board Room located in the high school.