by Johannes Brann

Though the weather outside was frightful, the meeting room was O so delightful as the Northeast Vernon County (NEVC) R-1 School District gathered on a snowy Thursday evening, Dec. 22. The board approved several policies and forms related to illness, bereavement, personal leave and resignation and approved the district’s 2023-2025 Continuous School Improvement Plan (CSIP)as required by the state for accreditation. Yet the meeting’s larger focus was on getting a handle on district finances.

On hand were board members David Bruce, Connie Gerster, Scott Pritchett, Mike Newman, Heath Brown, Heather Brown and Deland Prough; Board Secretary Janice Graves, Elementary Principal Kendall Ogburn, High School Principal Josh Smith and Superintendent Chris Holcomb.

In a pre-meeting interview, District Superintendent Christ Holcomb said, “While we certainly have a few critical needs on our to-do list, we just have to get a baseline on district finances. From

August 2021 to August 2022, this districts’ financial reserve has gone from 34 percent down to 13 percent. In that time, we’ve taken on, what for this district are two large lease financing arrangements: one for new metal rooves and the other for new HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) systems at both schools.”

In the first item of new business, the board discussed and approved the hiring of Kids Win Consulting to beyond the regular district audit in order to provide both a financial analysis and options for holding as well as spending funds.

“Yes, we have some ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, federal COVID-19 funds for schools) monies to draw down but we have a limited tax base, must not overburden our tax-payers and have a good deal of debt with that seven and 10 year lease we owe on.”

NEVC R-1 School District Superintendent – Chris Holcomb shoveling snow in front of the high school building in Walker

When asked about the ESSER funds Holcomb responded, “Our district minimum salary went from $29,000 to $38,000 in one year. Yes, the state is providing a grant to cover 70 percent of that cost for new teachers, but for our many teachers who already were earning that amount, we’ve had to cover 100 percent of their now even higher salaries. So I’m pretty sure one use for our remaining ESSER funds will be for our 30% this year and next year, as well as for learning recovery programs for those who fell behind when our schools were closed due to Covid-19.”

He pointed out how, for decades, NEVC has been blessed with not having any debt to service. At present, for its size, the R-1 district has a considerable amount to make in annual debt service payments with one lasting seven and the other 10 years.

Holcomb told the board, “We need to know where every penny is and what we can and can’t do with it, and that’s why I’m asking you to approve hiring an outside agency – Kids Win Consulting, for a fee of $10,000 – to go beyond our annual audit and help us see our full financial picture and options for our future.”

The motion to proceed hiring Kids Win Consulting was approved on a 7-0 vote.

Mr. Holcomb reported he found inconsistencies in the district’s policies related to the number and handling of sick, bereavement and personal days for employees. The board settled upon 10 sick days per year, which can be accumulated up to 70; two personal days with an accumulated maximum of five, three bereavement days with no accumulation and all such days receiving $40 per day at the time of the separation of the employee from the district.

The board also tightened the policy on resignations for those who have signed a contract for the coming school year; this was done to eliminate last minute jumping from the district to another position.

“Last month you approved an incentive plan so that we pay those who give early notice of leaving such as $1,000 for giving notice in December,” said Holcomb. “Now I am asking you to provide a disincentive for those who sign a contract but suddenly take a position in another district in say, July or August.”

On a 7-0 vote, the board approved a plan which requires teachers giving notice from May onwards to pay an amount to the district and secure approval from the school board.

“Can you enforce that?”, asked board member Brown. “I mean, if somebody literally moves away, I don’t how we can enforce this?

“Well, two things,” began Holcomb’s explanation. “One, we have a signed legal contract and we’d ask our attorney to send them a letter saying he or she is in breach of contract. And two, if it’s in Missouri, I would call that district’s superintendent, explain the situation and that district would be obligated not to hire that teacher. So yeah, it’s enforceable.”

At this point, board members literally looked at each other, began to nod and approved a motion to adopt the proposal by a 7-0 vote.   

In his report, Elementary Principal Kendall Ogburn reported enrollment stood at about 99, the new food warmer has been installed, the dishwasher has been repaired and HVAC system is running and working. Title I Family Night was a big success with 50 in attendance, as a means to promote families reading together. He said the Christmas music concert was well attended and enjoyed.

High School Principal Josh Smith reported an enrollment of 109, noted the final week of school was a Student Council sponsored spirit week with many students dressing up for each day’s theme. On Friday, Dec. 16, after a half day of school, teachers enjoyed a get-together which included lunch and a snowman painting session.

At the high school, 17 old heating and cooling window units were removed during Christmas break with each to be sold for $100 each.

Last month the district initiated a policy that certified personnel who submit letters of retirement or resignation by the end of Dec. receive a bonus stipend of $1,000. Early notice allows the district to post open positions and get a jump on other districts, including Dec. graduates.

In executive session, retirement letters were received and approved from Principal Kendall Ogburn and high school science teacher, Jennifer Dryer. Ogburn joined the faculty in 1996, the year the district was formed.