Following discussion at a special meeting regarding the path the Newton school board wants to take moving forward, the comprehensive plan for the district — a plan that led to the vote on a school bond issue last fall — was brought up in terms of goal-setting.

While the Newton school board continued that goal-setting discussion on Monday, it was made clear that some decisions would have to be made before the next steps of that comprehensive plan can be taken. Based on feedback from architects Vince Hains and Kevin Greischar, who spoke at that special meeting, the school board needs to narrow its parameters in the process of creating a plan of action.

Some factors Superintendent Deb Hamm brought up for consideration included class size, school boundaries, grade-level configuration and project-based learning, all of which she noted impact learning in some way.

Hamm focused on class size as a starting point, since it is an item the new board members showed an interest in while campaigning — and making the case that those numbers (i.e. having 25 students in a classroom) have a different impact now than they did in the past.

"It does make a difference on student morale and, in some cases, teacher morale," Hamm said, "and how engaged parents are in the process of learning."

To drop class sizes from 25 to 17 students across USD 373 in just the kindergarten through second grade, Hamm pointed out that there would be numerous factors involved — from classroom availability to educational materials to the need for additional teachers.

Projecting the addition of three teachers for one grade level (to allow for a class size of 17 students), Hamm noted it would come with an estimated cost of $150,000.

"What you decide to do moving forward not only impact facilities, but budget," Hamm said.

For three grade levels, that change in class size would necessitate the addition of nine teachers and nine classrooms. While board members questioned how the district could potentially shift boundary lines to make use of buildings currently under capacity, Hamm noted it is more complex then simply moving students around.

Hamm said even if boundaries were changed, she would prefer a provision be included to phase in students who are in third or fourth grades so they can stay in the school in which they started, while safety and transportation costs would also need to be taken into consideration.

Additionally, with Walton Rural Life Center's position as a charter school — with parents electing to send their students to the school in some cases — that is another wrench thrown into the works of setting boundaries, but even so board member Jennifer Budde said the district cannot be wasteful of its resources.

"It's complicated and people aren't gonna be happy, but we have to be financially responsible," Budde said. "We need to make sure we are being as responsible as we can with their dollars, because its their money we're spending."

Simply filling existing classrooms is not the solution in Hamm's eyes. Rather, what makes the issue more complex is the decision that needs to be made about the school in Walton, which garnered a various and wide-ranging amount of feedback during the bond selection process.

Even if one elementary school were eliminated, though, Hamm said that the four remaining schools would not be able to hold the remaining students and have any room for growth.

"At some point in time, the board is going to have to grapple with what are our five elementary schools and what is our grade configuration," Hamm said.

Capacity and class size were issues brought up in regards to the district middle schools as well, with both Santa Fe 5/6 Center and Chisholm Middle School currently at capacity — meaning a discussion has to be had in regards to those buildings as well, potentially without the assistance of a bond.

"The pressing issues, we may have to find creative ways to deal with it without a lot of money," Budde said.

Debate about what factor should hold top priority (i.e. class size, configuration, project-based learning initiatives) devolved into somewhat of a chicken and egg discussion regarding which should come first.

With seemingly no definitive answer (though setting some bullet points for direction was floated), Budde pointed out that the school board really has no choice but to move forward.

"At some point you have to make decisions, you can't keep saying we have to talk about this," Budde said.

Board members are looking to make some definite decisions by their next board meeting, with Allen Jantz requesting the issue of class size and grade equalization officially be included as a topic of discussion — with the intent of having some guidance provided by administration in those areas. Hamm said she would bring whatever info the board would like, with maps of where the district students are being requested and Hamm offering up maps that show the available classroom space in each school.

In other business, the Newton Board of Education:

Received a request from Ron Eggert during the period of public comment, with Eggert beseeching the board to find a way to fund three more school resource officer positions to help improve the safety at district schools.
Heard a report on the work being done, and the goals being set, by the district's anti-bullying task force.
Learned of the selection of Mike McConnell (secondary) and Debra Miller-Dealy (elementary) as this year's Kansas Teacher of Year nominees for USD 373.
Presented certificates of achievement to board members Angela Becker, Jennifer Budde and Toby Tyner for having completed the Kansas Association of School Board's new member training.
Approved the consent agenda including approval of the sale/disposal of surplus equipment, changes to KPERS retirees and more.
Approved the mental health consultant contract with Prairie View for the district's Parents as Teachers program.
Adopted a final action of contract non-renewal for Newton High School drama teacher Michael Parker.
Accepted a donation of a tractor splitting stand set, two wheel cars, cherry picker hoist and a transmission jack (valued at $2,500) from Norm Oeding for the agriculture shop classes at NHS; a 2001 Ford F350 (valued at $9,999) from Kranz Family Inc. for the NHS auto shop program; a $500 grant from the Edcamp Foundation to Santa Fe to be used to purchase flexible seating; $750 from United Way to Cooper Early Education Center for purchasing supplies for direct services to families; $264 from United Way to PAT to purchase resources for making home visits; and various pieces of furniture (valued at $150) from Nancy Sloop for South Breeze Elementary.
Approved full membership in Schools for Fair Funding for 2018-2019.
Approved contract extensions for the 2018-2019 school year for Sheila Wendling (assistant superintendent for instructional services), Reagan Seidl (Harvey County Special Education Cooperative Director) and Brenda Thompson (director of technology services), while also approving Matt Morford (director of business services), Jane Nichols (director of human services), Charles Harrison (director of maintenance and grounds), Sheila Zwahlen (director of transportation) and Elaine Gaeddert (director of food service) to continue in their current positions.
Reached a consensus to allow Jodi Runge to be reappointed to the Newton Recreation Commission board when her current term expires on June 30, 2018.
Approved the hiring of another building computer technician for USD 373.