Category Archives: Schools

Coronavirus Impacts Schoolcraft Schools

By Travis Smola

The effects of coronavirus are hitting districts across the state. At the Schoolcraft Board of Education’s June meeting, Finance Director Kyle Nixon told trustees how decreased revenue from the state will affect the district’s 2019-2020 general fund.

The meeting was once again held virtually due to the pandemic. Nixon said that with the state short on revenue, a cut in funding of $650-$700 per student is expected and will carry over until next year.

“We were expecting to be in the black by $300,000 and now we are expecting to be in the red in a deficit this year of $344,000,” Nixon said.

This would bring the district down to a $1.6 million fund balance, which is 14.2 percent of its final expected expenditures this year of $11.3 million.

Nixon did note that nothing has been finalized yet since the state has not balanced its budget. But he is not expecting any further cuts.

Nixon said administrators are looking at ways to operate “leaner than normal.” They are expecting to operate next year at a $70,000 deficit. That would put them at $1.53 million fund balance next year or 13.9 percent of expected expenditures.

The board also approved a roofing project for the maintenance building. Superintendent Rusty Stitt said the project just affected the flat roof portion which described as being in “dire need’ of being fixed. Stitt and the finance committee recommended South Bend-based Sherriff-Goslin roofing to do the job for $31,850. Trustee Jill Hunt asked about the possibility of adding a five-year warranty for an extra $535. Stitt and Vice President Jason Walther agreed it was worth the extra money and the measure was approved.

Hunt also gave a quick update on the status of the early stages of the bond project. She said early progress on the seventh and eighth grade classroom addition to the high school is already being done.

“We have completed a conceptual design,” Hunt said. “We had five or six options and we narrowed it to one.”

The facility planning committee has been gathering feedback from the community. Hunt said the top three concerns right now are a separation of seventh and eighth grade from the high schoolers, security and getting students into larger classrooms. She said the next step from June until the end of November will be the engineers and architects completing blueprints. These will be turned over to Triangle Construction in December with hopes of starting construction in March of 2021, dependent on the weather.

Hunt said they are still exploring options for the best location of the new gym for the seventh and eighth grades.

“We’re still being really conservative when we think about it,” Hunt said. “That’s why we’ve pushed that gym addition off until later and we’re focusing on educational spaces first. We already know physical education is covered by the high school gym at a minimum, so we’re going to focus on what is critically important to the school system and then we’ll proceed with caution on the pricing aspects.”

Board President Jennifer Gottschalk closed out the meeting with a reminder that four seats will be open on the board this year. Gottschalk said two six-year seats and one four-year seat will be open. Gottschalk said the deadline to register is July 21.

Vicksburg Schools Work with Funding, Bond Issue

By Jef Rietsma

It was a surprise to no one at a Vicksburg school board meeting that the district is looking at a grim financial picture for the 2020-21 academic year.

Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss provided an update on the district’s financial picture during the board’s June 8 meeting. It includes the possibility that the district may receive $700 less per pupil from the state.

There was a ray of sunshine a week later as the district received a lower-than-estimated interest rate on a bond issue to finance improvements which will save more than $4 million in principal and interest payments over the 20-year bond issue.

Per-pupil funding from the state comes from a six-mill statewide school property tax and earmarked portions of income, sales and use taxes and other revenues. Tax revenues have been reduced by an estimated $1.2 billion for the 2019-2020 school year and $1.1 billion for the 2020-2021 year. Michigan schools have been advised to plan for a cut in per-pupil funding by between $650 and $700. “We all hope that there is a federal package to backfill those revenues. But at this point, that doesn’t exist.”

Goss said he has made the determination that a budget amendment to the 2019-20 school year and a preliminary budget for 2020-2021 will have to reflect a reduced per-pupil amount of
$700. That amounts to a loss of nearly $1.9 million this school year and carryover to 2020-21. Current per-pupil allocation from the state is $8,111.

“So, when we get more guidance and we figure out what the school year looks like, then there will be adjustments to reflect whatever that reality looks like.”

Goss said the district is assuming enrollment will be flat in 2020-21. Another thorn to the budget is an additional $340,000 in contractual obligations – primarily salary increases and a bump in insurance expenses – set for 2020-21.

Goss said he anticipates about $495,000 in savings through attrition.

“We know we’re going to have to look at all the employee groups and find some way to recoup some savings, and we’ve estimated about $140,000 from other employee groups as well,” he said.

Furthermore, there is about $386,000 in capital outlay in the current budget that will all be deferred, Goss said, adding that the district is hoping to realize about $125,000 in savings through supplies and contracted services as well.

Goss said the 2019-20 fiscal year budget, which concludes June 30, had been projected to have a positive balance of about $45,000.

“When we shut down in mid-March, we quickly tried to capture all the savings we could. We basically went into shut-down mode and that saved some money.” In all, not having school for three months saved the district about $75,000, he estimated.

Finally, he said by potentially reducing the number of full-time-equivalent positions, the district stands to save an additional $400,000.

“If we reduce all of those, we could reduce the projected shortfall to about $225,000,” he said.

“But a lot of it is really going to depend on what guidance we receive on how we have to operate in the fall, what happens if there’s additional funding identified by the state, what is the actual pro-ration that we’re looking at … there’s just too many things up in the air right now to actually implement a lot of these cuts.”

Board members approved amendments to the 2019-20 fiscal year budget and adopted an appropriations resolution for its 2020-21 budget.

Goss reported two bids for partial roofing replacement and the middle school and Tobey Elementary. The total cost of about $280,000 came in less than budgeted, Goss noted.

Nine proposals for two roofing-bid packages were received. Arrow Roofing and Supply of Grand Rapids was the low bidder and approved to do the job at Tobey for $105,570. Quality Roofing Inc. of Livingston County was awarded the middle school contract for its bid of nearly $175,000.

In addition, the board acknowledged the retirements of food service employees Cara Brink (21 years of service) and Leslie Tuttle (13 years), secretary Michelle Fulton (19 years), educator Tammy Lovins (28 years), and teachers Ginny Ruimveld (31 years) and Donna Sink (34 years).

At a later meeting, there was some better financial news as bids for bonds to finance capital improvements came in at an interest rate of just under two percent.

The bond issue was expected to raise $17,215,659 for the construction fund. It raised about $174,000 more than that. Total principal and interest costs over 20 years were expected to be $24.8 million. At the low interest rate, the actual total debt service is $20.65 million, more than $4 million less than original estimates.

VHS Teacher, Students Use 3-D Printer for Face Masks

The COVID-19 pandemic created a new lifestyle for all of us, face masks included. Greg Mills, teacher of computerized manufacturing and mechatronics at Vicksburg High School, created a face mask using a 3-D printer.

He made 25 prototype masks using a printer with PLA filament and non-woven materials.

The response from wearers was that after a while, the strapping material holding the mask to the face, whether rubber bands, shoe laces or ribbon, would irritate the back of the ears. Mills designed a back neck strap that could accommodate different types of strapping material. He shared this idea and the design files with the United States Department of Health and Human Services and was asked to produce several straps for healthcare workers in the Kalamazoo area.

His equipment can produce about three straps per hour. He’s distributed more than 150 of the straps in different colors. He’s also produced more than 25 Bulldog plastic face masks.

Graduating seniors in his classes received a mask for their use. Seniors were asked to make the neck strap using design software and to personalize their strap.

Students taking his course next year will also be able to have one of these masks and a neck strap for their use.

“Keeping students and staff healthy and safe is the priority with our schools,” Mills said. He expects to be working with students during the summer with similar projects and to be ready for students and staff in the fall.

Vicksburg Staff Delivers School Breakfast and Lunches

By Sue Moore

Planning to feed 1,250 elementary and secondary Vicksburg students each day is all in a day’s work for the school district’s dietitian. What Sarah Dyer didn’t expect to be doing is feeding students with sack breakfast and lunches delivered via bus or picked up at the high school every Wednesday.

She plans for about 17,000 meals per week. The food is laid out and whipped together by her 14-member staff, all considered essential workers for the school district. Others pitch in to help, including the transportation department, administrators and their staff on pickup days. “It’s a team effort,” Dyer explained.

“My staff has always been there with a smile on their faces each week as they put the community’s families first while doing their job. They are lifting cooler bags that are 50-75 pounds all day long while putting together the 14 meals each week for one student. They are moving 100 gallons of milk, and that’s heavy too. It’s heavier work than they are usually doing,” Dyer said. Her staff is paid their regular salary and works 35 hours in the school and at home. When not bagging all the food, they are thoroughly deep cleaning and sanitizing the kitchen.

The team is joined by another 30 people who are going with her staff members on the bus routes. It takes three on each bus, a staff person, a helper and the driver. Each bus is delivering to about 40 to 50 students. There are lots of meals to load on a bus. They have learned a lot and come a long way since their first delivery in March. The drivers report at 3 p.m., load the buses, then get on the road by 3:45. They are back by 5:15 or a bit later, almost like a regular bus run when school is in session.

The menu changes each week. For the week of Wednesday, May 27, breakfast for seven days included cereal and bagels, Rice Krispies bars, nutri-grain bar, sausage biscuit, breakfast pizza. Lunch included mac and cheese, peanut butter sandwich, ham and cheese sandwich, quesadillas, chicken patty sandwich, grilled cheese sandwiches that are already made. Almost all of the food is frozen. They bag it up frozen and put it back in the cooler and freezer. They bought large cooler bags to help the food to stay very cold while waiting to be distributed. She estimates that lunch is about 500 calories and breakfast around 250 to 300 calories.

The challenge is creating a menu and trying to get the items Dyer requests, only to find out that something is out of stock. The school has a contract with Gordon’s Food Service as part of a consortium. She puts in an order on Thursday, then works through the menu again on Friday until she finds everything that’s in stock. It is hard to get the individually wrapped items so she had to move to bagging items like chicken nuggets, which requires extra labor.

“We have doubled from the initial 500-600 meals served each week. It’s so great to see the kids in the cars with windows down and shouting to their principals. They smile when they see a familiar face. They don’t have a clue who I am and I’m perfectly ok with that, as they are getting the nutrition they need,” Dyer said.

Going the Extra Mile

By Sue Moore

Tobey elementary school principal, Mike Barwegen started the “Stay home, stay safe” food delivery like all the other school volunteers back in March. He would ride the bus just to see the kids from his school and help deliver food packages.

At the Portage Terrace Mobile Home Park, he realized the bus couldn’t go back into the area; there was no room to turn around. The families had to come to the bus stop on Portage Road. Only three families showed up. They were Tobey school kids and he knows them.

It takes a lot of responsibility for kids to show up at the exact time the bus would be stopping, he observed.

To solve the problem, he recruited Sawyer Duncan, his physical education teacher, to go with him to take all the food packages in the school van, drive into the park and deliver door to door. Lots of pre-elementary kids live there and can benefit from the program, the three and four years olds who really need additional nutrition. The delivery takes about three hours on Wednesdays for up to 46 families to receive lunches and breakfasts. Add to that the many gallons of milk, with four gallons delivered to one house for six kids and two big boxes of food.

The families are grateful. Some are dependent on the deliveries right now. They do have internet connections and have Chromebooks, with some having discounted rates on internet connections. If that wasn’t available, they gave out wi-fi hot spots to some families as they delivered food along with copies of work for the kids.

Barwegen like to talk to the families. “Some of the young kids follow the van on their bikes. Kids see it and know it’s them. They are usually asking for chocolate milk as that’s a big hit every time. It’s a treat for them. There are up to over 40 kids on the list now. It’s not just an extra thing, they are very dependent on the food. It’s saving these kids’ lives now,” he said.

“Sawyer who is in his twenties, does all the heavy lifting and I do all the talking,” Barwagen reported.

Schoolcraft Students Get a Pizza Treat

A few of the 100 hot pizzas from Little Caesars to Schoolcraft families served by the schools’ food service staff.

By Sue Moore

Schoolcraft serves about 160 to 170 families per week in its pickup and delivery food program, according to Brenda Lynn, head of food services.

A special treat for the Schoolcraft families the last Wednesday in May was 100 hot pizzas donated by Little Caesars in Schoolcraft. It’s all about the company’s “Pay it Forward” effort, Lynn said. “During the school year we pay for at least 250 pizzas each week as a regular part of our meal program. We also have a fruit and vegetable for lunch every day.”

Lynn tries to place her food order three weeks in advance. Besides Gordon Food Service, she also uses Van Eerden Foodservice as a second source. “It’s nice to deal with two companies. Our food service staff of five takes about three hours each week to organize and bag the meals. Then three people start delivering in cars, up to 32 families along with their school work. Our drive-up hours are 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. on Wednesdays. “We are doing the assembly in bulk and packing it all in one sack, like a bag of groceries,” Lynn said. School social work staff Michelle Schneider, Shelby Getsinger and Stefanie Dunham help with the distribution.

Besides working from home, Lynn comes into the high school three days a week. Everybody on her staff is employed with some of them tutoring young students via zoom and Google classroom.

The current food program is allowed to operate until June 30. Lynn figures she will continue up to that date. Then summer feeding will take over only for school districts in which at least 50 percent of children are eligible for free and reduced lunch programs. Schoolcraft doesn’t qualify; 26 percent of its students are eligible. Lynn plans to give out get maps to families so they will know where continuing Kalamazoo County summer programs are available.

Schoolcraft Locks in Lower Interest Rate for Bond Project

By Travis Smola

Even though COVID-19 has caused major disruptions for almost every facet of life, some good news was reported at the Schoolcraft school board meeting: lower interest rates for the district’s upcoming bond project.

The meeting was once again held online via Zoom due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Nathaniel Watson of PFM Financial Advisors LLC was on hand to announce the district obtained investors through Stifel, Nicolaus & Company Inc. This is the same company that helped refinance the district’s 2009 bonds last February.

“The municipal bond market really worked in our favor the last two or three weeks,” Watson said.

Through the backing of the state and the district’s excellent credit ratings, they were able to obtain lower financing rates. Watson said the true interest cost came in slightly below 3.3%. When the ballot language was put together, the rate was estimated at four percent. Since it is a 30-year bond, Watson said he expects they could reduce them again in 2030 and 2040. However, even if they are not, he said it was a “wonderful” outcome for the community.

After fees and cost of issuance, the project will have $39,746,000 to work with. Watson said that is $856,000 more than they projected going into their treasury meetings. Superintendent Rusty Stitt and many of the board members said they were thrilled with the good news.

Trustee Jill Hunt gave a short update on the progress of the project, which is already working on plans for the seventh and eighth grade gym and classroom additions. They are also starting to consider exactly where the new kindergarten through sixth grade building will stand on the school property. She said early considerations must account for things like where food services vehicles will travel onto the property. Hunt said they would already be looking at early conceptual plans for the seventh and eighth grade classroom additions the following week.

“We expect to narrow that (the conceptual plans) to a couple of options and then take it to a larger committee for some community feedback,” she said. “All in all, things are going pretty well.”

There were also some discussions about how classes would look in the fall. More specifically, Board President Jennifer Gottschalk wanted to know what the determining factor would be about a decision on face-to-face learning vs a hybrid online schedule when classes resume.

Superintendent Rusty Stitt said the decision would hinge mostly upon the Governor’s executive orders. If social distancing is still needed in the fall, major schedule changes are being considered. The three biggest possibilities are a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule, alternating days of instruction or an a.m.-p.m. schedule that may come into play. Stitt said there will be a committee with staff involvement to look at the possibilities in the coming months.

“There are a lot of options that we need to look at related to our programming for next school year,” Stitt said. “We don’t know what we are going to get from Lansing.”

Vicksburg School Board Hears Possible Graduation Plans

By Sue Moore

The Vicksburg school officials continue to ponder when safely to provide a graduation ceremony for seniors.

“We look forward to recognizing our seniors at this time of year,” said Adam Brush, Vicksburg high school principal. “We had 11 students, all girls, above a 4.0 grade point average in this graduating class of 173. Since the Covid-19 crisis that shut down all in-school activities, we have been working hard to find the best way to honor them,” he told the Vicksburg school board at its monthly meeting.

“Setting a date for an actual graduation ceremony is problematic,” said Superintendent Keevin O’Neill. “The first possible date would be July 9 at 7 p.m. If that doesn’t work, our second choice would be July 23 and the third would be August 6, all of them on Thursday.”

O’Neill thanked the community of Vicksburg for the strong support of the millage that was passed in the May 5 election.

Trustee Dave Schriemer questioned if online learning could take place over the summer months to take advantage of the virtual things the schools have been learning in the months of the Covid-19 stay at home, stay safe, edicts. “These extended learning opportunities could now be on the front burner.”

The finance report by Assistant Superintendent Steve Goss, was not quite as glowing. “The news out of the state of Michigan is pretty grim. Their budget shortfall will have a significant impact on our schools. Back in February the Governor’s budget proposal had the biggest increase in the history of the state for funding schools. Now it could go down anywhere from $200 to $1,000 foundation grant for each student. That would be daunting.”

At the same time, curriculum proposals were heard by the board, pending available funds. The English Language Arts (ELA) department proposal was approved to replace the assigned reading of “Huckleberry Finn” to be replaced by “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut at a cost of $1,904. “Over the last five or six years, students and teachers have become uncomfortable with the racism in the book. Mark Twain was anti-racist and ahead of his times by turning the book into satire,” said Dan Ouellette, one of the senior class English teachers. “Cat’s Cradle is contemporary American literature and a little more relevant to the students.”

The freshmen biology students have been using an 18-year-old textbook, according to teacher Tina Porter. The board approved a new version that supports the state’s standards while empowering students to use science and engineering practices to address real-world issues, Porter noted. The cost is $29,974.

Vicksburg Downtown Windows Honor 2020 Graduates

Window art created by Mindy Reno graces the Mill Annex at 106 South Main. Video of 2020 graduates interacting with the art can be forwarded to the Mill’s website.

By Sue Moore

Several locations in downtown Vicksburg and the Mill have been decorated with artwork to congratulate the class of 2020. The effort has been spearheaded by The Mill and Frederick Construction to celebrate graduates of all ages who have seen their year-end ceremonies turned upside down.

Each graduate, be it high school, tech school, college, or kindergarten, has been invited to participate in a digital time capsule by recording a short video of themselves in front of one of the various pieces of art, or banner. The video can then be uploaded to the Mill’s website via a QR code located adjacent to the piece.

As a reward for their effort, participants can receive a $5 gift certificate to Apple Knockers. They’ll also receive an invitation to come back to the Mill five years from now to view the collective work and to honor their successful years in area schools at an unveiling party.

The goal is to do something fun for this year’s grads who haven’t had many opportunities to celebrate, said John Kern, spokesperson for The Mill.

Mindy Reno staged the white gown and hat that can be seen in the Prairie Ronde Art Gallery at 101 E. Prairie Street. She also painted the “Be Strong” window on The Mill annex building at 106 S. Main Street. Another window that Mindy created features the back end of a Jeep and balloons that says, “Out of Here”. Each scene is designed to be interactive so that grads can pose themselves in ways that let them appear to be lifting the barbells or holding the balloon strings, as they wave goodbye to their former school life.

Mindy’s daughter, Ady Reno, painted a Bulldog logo at 120 E. Prairie Street at the Frederick Construction offices.

Tom Hardy created an interactive rock and-roll themed window on the north window of the Mill Music Residency venue, located at 107 S. Main Street. Lori Barnes staged the “Dream Big” window at 101 E. Prairie.

There is also a congratulatory banner installed on the security fence that surrounds the Mill. Graduates who are interested in using the banner as a background can find it on the Mill’s south lawn, located at 300 W. Highway Street.

To top off the theme, Anna Lee Roeder and Eric Vasilauskas painted a mural on the back wall of the Mill Music Residency venue. Theirs is a permanent mural to celebrate the graduates. Anna and Erik came to Vicksburg as Prairie Ronde Artists in 2019. They live in Kalamazoo and have started a business, DreamScene Placemaking, specializing in public art projects and happenings. “It’s all about being passionate about creating shared community experiences in a public place, thus the congratulations sign for the graduates,” they said.

The pieces are expected to stay up until Friday, June 12 when the window closes for submissions to the digital time capsule and Apple Knockers gift cards.

Vicksburg Seniors