The Garden City USD 457 Board of Education broached two significant decisions Monday evening: the reconfiguration of the district’s elementary and middle schools to a universal K-5 and 6-8 structure and whether next year’s budget should prioritize full-time principals at Plymell and Jennie Barker elementary schools.

The board asked district staff to move forward on the logistics of the reconfiguration and, after much discussion, declined to pass budget priorities until they could further look into other possibilities at the country elementary schools.


Streamlining the schools


Since November, a committee, headed by Assistant Superintendent Renee Scott, of various elementary, intermediate center and middle school teachers, principals, parents, community members, district administrators and board member Tim Hanigan have researched districts across and beyond the state to determine whether USD 457 should move from its unique primary grade structure to something more streamlined across all schools.

Today, the district has several K-4 elementary schools, two K-6 elementary schools, two intermediate centers for grades five and six and two middle schools for grades seven and eight. The committee researched the current structure, a K-5 and 6-8 structure and a K-6 and 7-8 structure to determine which would be best for student success.

Members considered local student, teacher and parent surveys and many districts’ structures and corresponding graduation rates, curriculum, social-emotional data and discipline data. Based on a rubric of those factors, The K-5 and 6-8 structure was found to be the most effective by a large margin, Scott said.

The USD 457 sometimes four-step configuration was unique among the districts researched, a committee member said. The constant transitions between schools are disruptive for students, especially during the socially and emotionally tumultuous middle school years.

The K-5 and 6-8 structure stood out over the K-6 and 7-8 structure partially because it aligned with most curricula, committee members said. All decisions were made with student success in mind, they said.

Board members Lara Bors said a colleague said the K-5 and 6-8 configuration was also preferable to USD 457 considering the facilities and curriculum already in place.

A change in configuration would not affect the number of staff or administrators in the district, Scott said, though upcoming steps could include a bond issue for costs such as alterations to school buildings. Necessary changes or costs wrapped up in a possible reconfiguration were not part of the committee’s research and no decisions or plans have been made yet regarding those elements, she said.

Superintendent Steve Karlin said that the board will have a chance to make a decision on the reconfiguration at the next board meeting. If they decide to move forward with the K-5 and 6-8 model, a new committee would be formed to look into potential costs and logistics of that kind of change.

“No matter which of these the board chooses, there’s a number of different things we can do. We talked about tonight, we have some space challenges with our early childhood program … So, even with the current configuration, there will be some challenges that are coming to us,” Karlin said.


Pondering principals

Earlier this year, parents came to the board with a concern: their children were not safe or properly attended to at Plymell Elementary School because their principal was part-time.

For many years, Plymell and Jennie Barker Elementary School, the district’s two K-6 elementary schools both several miles outside of city limits, have been headed by principals that spend part of their day on campus and the other part as associate principals at Alta Brown and Abe Hubert elementary schools, respectively.

As noted by the parents and by board members Jennifer Standley and Lara Bors, also parents of students at the country schools, the structure has issues. When the principal is off campus, their duties often fall to other staff, like the head teacher, who either has to be taken out of the classroom to handle parent concerns or student disciplinary issues or places those duties on hold as they teach.

Sometimes that means the schools go without substitutes when teachers have to miss a day. The principal positions themselves are often seen as a professional stepping stone, and people often leave to find full-time principal positions. The turnover is also not good for students, Standley said. There is also a safety issue, she said. Because there is no definitive leader for campuses that are already far from emergency responders and often have no nurse on site.

The discussion is relevant today because of the board’s consideration of budget priorities for the 2019-20 school year. The state’s new school finance structure will grant the school additional funds for the next three years, giving the school the chance to ask staff and community members where budget priorities for that funding should lie, said KJ Knoll, USD 457 financial officer.

The district site council reviewed presentations of up to three requests — ultimately 29 requests total — from all district departments and programs, which was then ranked based on how the request would benefit students and align with board goals, state outcomes and district budget priorities.

After salary adjustments and other predetermined costs were factored into the additional state funding, about $287,000, or 18 percent of the new funding, is available for allocation next year, Knoll said.

Using the site counsel’s ranking of the 29 requests, that covers five requests, she said: $25,100 for robotics programs for all grades, $70,000 for an additional high school counselor, $60,000 for an additional nurse, $70,000 for an after school program for middle schoolers and $61,400 for an additional elementary school counselor.

The prioritization process was difficult, Knoll said, because most of the requests are not wants, but needs. Left on the table were requests for transportation and grounds equipment, professional development for staff, and, notably to the board, $70,020 for an associate principal split between Alta Brown and Abe Hubert that would allow Plymell and Jennie Barker to have full-time principals, which was ranked eighth.

Knoll said some of the requests could be revisited when considering additional funding next year.

Several board members were concerned about approving priorities that would leave two schools without full-time principals. Member Dana Nanninga said she could not support the ranking that night and member Tim Cruz suggested finding a compromise with some of the higher-ranking requests — maybe some of the new top five positions could be part-time to make room for the associate principal position

Member Lara Bors asked if it was possible to make the half-time principals, already paid as full-time principals because of their additional duties, full-time principals and cut the associate position at the other schools, negating extra costs but arriving at the desired result.

The board could also consider cutting funds from other parts of the budget to cover the new associate position, Knoll said. Not approving the budget priorities does come with consequences, though — the district can only begin recruiting people for new positions, like additional counselors or nurses, once they are approved by the board.

Ultimately, Nanninga, Standley and Cruz voted against the priorities, Hanigan also joining them not because he had issues with the priorities but to allow the board to revisit the discussion at their next meeting. Board members Mark Rude, Jean Clifford and Bors voted in favor of it, Bors saying she wanted to trust the system that ranked the requests.

“Is it needed? Yes. It’s definitely needed,” Bors said regarding full-time principals at Plymell and Jennie Barker. “We need to have a consistent discipline and team person at both of those schools. Can we do it this year? It doesn’t look like we can. And I understand that, unfortunately.”


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