The future of USD 373 schools — in many facets — was a major point of discussion among the Newton Board of Education at its meeting on Monday. Here are a few of the biggest takeaways:
1) Election format chosen for bond issue
After setting a date (Sept. 3, 2019) to vote on the bond issues, the school board was left to decide what shape that election would take — whether it be a traditional election with polling sites or a mail ballot election. Questions for the BOE surrounded what type of election would draw more voters, which Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho answered emphatically on Monday.
"Mail ballots are going to get you the biggest turnout," Piepho said.
Historically in Harvey County, Piepho noted mail ballot elections draw a 50 percent voter turnout, while traditional elections fall somewhere closer to between 20 and 30 percent. There were some questions about timing, too, following the requested 120-day notice of a mail ballot election. While USD 373 won't officially have its bond application approved until July 1, Piepho said 60 days is the absolute minimum he would need to prepare for such an election. July 3 would be the start of the 60-day window, but Piepho also stated it would be preferred to have the ballot language by June 1. Ballots would then be required to go out to registered voters 30 days before the election date.
According to a document prepared by the clerk's office in January, it was noted the cost of a traditional special election would be between $14,225 and $16,400 while a mail ballot election would cost an estimated $18,000.
"The cost to me is pretty negligible in the grand scheme of the bond," said board member Jennifer Budde.
Voting unanimously (7-0), the Newton BOE approved the use of mail ballot for the Sept. 3 special election on the bond issue.
2) Concerns voiced over honors recognition changes
Before a proposed change to the Newton High School honors recognition system was even officially brought before the school board, a number of students, parents and staff (past and present) voiced opinions that it was not in the best interest of students in USD 373.
What was officially proposed later in the meeting was a change to the cum laude honors system that would see weighted grades (while increasing overall GPA standards) and ACT scores removed from the list of requirements. Additionally, dual-credit courses would be allowed to count towards Honors course requirements. This speaks towards a certain level of inclusivity NHS staff is striving for with these changes, as the proposal lined out a belief that weighted grades no longer serve the needs of all students.
"I think part of the movement is trying to make it equal for everybody to recognize all kinds of learners," said NHS German teacher Nanette Bergen.
Career and college-readiness was also something NHS staff noted the proposal is striving for — tying back to the inclusion of dual-credit (like Career and Technical Education) courses — with the idea that the elimination of weighted grades would give students more opportunity to explore such courses.
One of the tenants of the current honors system states that "rigorous courses in high school will prepare you for challenging university-level work," something students argued is being discouraged with the elimination of weighted grades.
"Losing weighted grades is going to have a negative impact on students' ambition," said NHS student Nathan Dominguez.
"Many of the changes that have been proposed seem counterintuitive to preparing students for college," said fellow Railer Eli Blaufuss.
It was clear to the board that more research and further discussion is needed before a decision is made on the changes to the honors recognition system, which is scheduled to be voted on at the school board's June meeting.
3) Received update on Opportunity
Opportunity Academy principal Tyler Swalley also spoke to the board on progress establishing an alternative school program on the Youthville campus for both EmberHope residents and USD 373 students.
Currently in a pilot semester, Swalley said plans for the first full school year are for the academy to feature small class sizes (10 students per teacher) and be a blended learning environment for students of all educational backgrounds.
Based off a program at Haysville and Newton's own Railer Academy, Swalley noted there will be an application process to make sure Opportunity Academy accepts the students who will be best served by the program — like one recent applicant who Swalley knows from his time at NHS who is fearful of being in that environment.
"That's the kid that we want to have in this environment," Swalley said "kids who need the help."