School board tables decision on grade reconfiguration

Jessica Stölen-Jacobson
Montevideo American-News

A lengthy discussion about options for moving the Thunder Hawks care program into a new space was held at the regular monthly meeting of the Montevideo School Board Monday evening. The move would allow for a reconfiguration of the grade structure at Montevideo Schools that has been a topic of discussion among the board and community members at listening sessions for some time.

The current grade configuration is set up for students in 1st through 3rd attending Ramsey Elementary, while grades 4th through 7th attend Montevideo Middle School, and 8th through 12th attend the High School. The reconfiguration that has been expressed as a desire amongst community members would be a 1st through 4th, 5th through 8th, and 9th through 12th structure. 

A couple of months ago, Superintendent McKittrick began discussions with Double D Construction about moving the current Thunder Hawk Care program that runs out of the elementary building into a building owned by Double D Construction that would undergo some work to modify the building for the needs of the community daycare program. While that plan has been in the works, what was required at Monday evening's meeting was for the board to decide whether they would like to go ahead with a letter stating their intent to move ahead with those plans in order to secure cost estimates and contract specifics, or to table the matter. However, a last-minute communication just hours before the meeting between an unnamed community member and the Superintendent offered a new opportunity not considered. The unnamed community member contacted Superintendent McKittrick with the idea of a new structure being built on school property, then leased to the district, with the district maintaining ownership of the land and the builder maintaining ownership of the property. It was also additionally noted that the deal with Double D Construction would require a 10-year lease, which the School Board members noted they had not anticipated such a lengthy lease requirement.

With all of that information being presented at the time it was, school board members were left with little time to make a decision as each of the building's leadership is currently working on enrollment efforts for the next school year. McKittrick noted that taking even two weeks to make any decisions is taking two weeks of work away from those leaders who have a lot to do to prepare for next year at this late point in the year, as their preparations must be made by February. 

Among the discussions were talks about how the program would pay for any of the options, as the COVID-19 pandemic had changed the program from being self-sustaining to running at a deficit. However, it was noted that the program is both needed and has value in the community. There were also questions raised about the preparation of the proposal from the unnamed community member to construct a new building on the school's property, whether there were estimates in place or if estimates could be prepared. There was also concern raised about whether the Double D Construction property modification could be done in time for the next school year to allow for the grade reconfiguration. 

"I'll be honest, I think it's all really rushed," said School Board member Becky Pauling. School board member Kelly Snell added, "I would feel remiss to vote on something not knowing the whole picture. We don't know the whole picture. I thought I came here with my mind made up but I think we need to look at these other options before we decide."

"If our hope is to be able to do the configuration and make a move for the next school year or if our desire is to pump the brakes on everything and just say you know what we feel like things are rushed and we're not comfortable with making that move right now, we have no dollars into anything. We have sweat equity and a lot of planning but that's my job," McKittrick said.

"We've just been told by the community we're not giving you money to build a new building and if we were to go ahead and build a new building anyway, I'm not sure what that perception is versus looking at a different way to solve the problem," said Snell.

School board member Joe Helgeson said, "I just think we honestly shouldn't go through with this. I think we're ramming this way too fast without answers I can give to people right now. Honestly, I think we pause the grade configuration for a year and we could sign this in April or May, or so forth. It just wouldn't happen until next school year and it gives everybody more time to figure it out. There's just too many unknowns for my liking."

By the end of the discussion the school board was evenly split with three wanting to go ahead with the Double D Construction contract as has been worked on over the last months, and three wanting to pause the whole process and plan the grade configuration for an additional school year to allow for more time for all options to be explored. In the end, it was decided that because the board was split, that the pause should happen.

"I think that's our answer," said McKittrick while recommending the board agree to pause due to the division. "One thing that I've been consistent with over time, from a board perspective, is if we aren't united on moving forward with significant change, then the one thing I can guarantee us is 100 percent failure. With that in my head, I would recommend that we just hit the pause button."

Once the decision was made, McKittrick also took the opportunity to thank the board for having the lengthy discussion. "Good discussion. Great discussion. Thank you guys - and that's weird to say, but this is what boards do. You have a hard discussion, and you watch the door for change. It's not a bad thing  - that just shows the servant leadership and that's what you're supposed to do," he said.