Off the table, into the minutes

By Ron Burtz


Two items that were tabled at the March meeting of the Custer School District Board of Education meeting came off the table at this week’s meeting. Agenda items regarding the request for a new math teacher at Custer High School and a request from Lifeways for $20,000 for a substance abuse counselor for the next school year were tabled last month because of time contraints and the need for more information. 

At the March meeting principal Orion Thompson had asked the board to transition Michele Clevenger, a certified teacher, from her part-time math coaching position into a full-time math teacher. However, board members expressed concern about the loss of the math coach who has been helping to boost math scores over the past school year.

This time, Thompson came armed with handouts showing the difference between maintaining the status quo and adding the math teacher. 

Thompson said there will be an estimated 79 seniors next year compared with 59 this year, and he said he needs to be prepared for 10 to 30 new students coming to the district. 

Thompson said by adding another full-time math teacher he could offer an additional algebra I class, bringing the total to four and reducing class sizes to 19 or 20 students. 

He also said he could add a fourth physical science class plus create a new geometry in construction class for students in the residential construction course. He said such a class would be a full-fledged geometry class and would be a practical application for students going into the construction trades. 

He also said adding the math teacher would allow the creation of a calculus class for students preparing for higher education. The school now offers only pre-calculus. 

Board member Jeff Barnes expressed concern about losing Clevenger as the math coach. He said his own junior high-age daughter had been helped greatly by her. Michelle Lehman, in making the motion to create the new math teacher position, added that she believed the math coach position should be retained. 

“We need another math teacher,” said superintendent Mark Naugle. He reminded the board that there is about $300,000 in the general fund this year because of an increase in enrollment. 

The board voted unanimously to approve the new math teacher. A request to keep the jr./sr. high math coach position also passed unanimously.

The request from Lifeways had an equally rocky and contentious ride on its way to passage. 

Taking a cue from last month’s meeting in which questions from the board about the program had gone unanswered, Lifeways executive director Paul Wilkinson Smith came to the meeting with three people who presented testimony in favor of keeping the program. One of those was Danielle Meyer who has served as the school’s substance abuse counselor through Lifeways for the past several years. 

Smith said the Lifeways program has been working in the district for 14 years, but until this year was fully funded by a grant, so there was no cost to the district.

When state funding began to dry up this year the program was cut back. 

Speaking in favor of Lifeways was student Hazel Streeter, president of the school’s Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) organization. 

“Danielle met me as a freshman,” said Streeter, adding that Meyer was “one of the reasons I’ll be graduating this May.” 

Most of the pushback on the request came from board member Jeff Prior, who said he had asked to see the program’s curriculum, but had not had any response from Lifeways.

“I don’t feel comfortable supporting a program that has zero accountability in the school district,” he said. “Who is vetting material that you’re bringing in the  school district?”

Smith apologized, saying she thought the information had been sent. She then handed a paper copy of the curriculum to Prior. 

She also admitted, “We could do a better job of keeping the board involved,” and promised to bring a report each year if the relationship continued. 

Just before the vote on the issue, board member Bob Morgan, who had been one of those with reservations about the program, said his questions with regard to specifics had been answered and indicated he was ready to vote in favor of the funding. 

“If it helped this little lady,” said Morgan, pointing to Streeter, “then $20,000 is well-spent.”

After a sometimes heated exchange, the board—including Prior—voted in favor of the funding. 

Much discussion was also generated by agenda items dealing with district facilities. 

As a result of discussions in previous meetings about the increasing space issues at the jr./sr. high school, board president Jared Carson said he had looked into the possibility of splitting the junior and senior high schools and moving the junior high to the mostly-unused former high school building at the Armory. 

Carson said that plan would involve the hiring of an additional four teachers at approximately $60,000 each, plus other support staff. He estimated the move would cost the district at least another $300,000 a year. 

Therefore, Carson said, “It makes more sense cost-wise to lease the building to another entity. Let’s not spend money to utilize [the Armory building]. Let’s make $100,000 a year on it.”

He suggested appointing a group to work under a deadline to research options for leasing the building and to report back at the next meeting. 

“Hopefully we can have utilization of this building at least in the works by the start of the new school year,” he said. 

Carson asked for volunteers from the board and administrators and in the end appointed himself, Thompson, Naugle and fellow board member Heather Grace to the group which will contact various entities, including all of the state’s post-secondary schools to see if they are interested in leasing the space. 

Perhaps the most heat in the meeting was generated by another agenda item. 

At last month’s meeting, the board approved a request for proposals (RFP) for architectural firms to apply to create a 30 percent completion plan for the new elementary school at Hermosa. 

Board member Travis Hartshorn of Hermosa said he had been told by someone at an architectural firm that the RFP has not been posted on the website where it was supposed to appear to be seen by architects. He said he was concerned this would leave too little time for interested firms to apply for the project. 

Naugle said he would look into the matter and emphasized that all questions related to the RFP should come through him. 

In discussing the Hermosa long-range plan, Hartshorn again expressed concern about the project being potentially stalled because of reports that the soil testing done on the desired site just west of the existing school came back with unfavorable results. 

Hartshorn appeared frustrated with the pace of the Hermosa project and heatedly insinuated repeatedly that the board was giving too little attention to the eastside school in favor of the Custer facilities. 

The next meeting of the board will be May 13 at the Hermosa school.