By Gretchen Wehmhoff
Staff and parents foraged for extra chairs at the Aug. 29 school board meeting. An attendance policy proposal, discussion of additional help in the kitchen and budget issues drew more folks in than usual to the school library.
A proposed attendance policy submitted for a first reading suggests mandating a maximum number of days a student can be absent each semester before potentially losing credit or the ability to be promoted to the next grade level. The policy would include excused and unexcused absences. School-related absences would not count against the total.
First grade teacher Kortney Rupprecht discussed accommodating families who leave on extended vacations, specifically from Thanksgiving to February or even spring break.
“In the past, families had asked me to give them all of the work that they would need for these trips. And because, at the time, I was more inexperienced, I said yes. And I would stay at the school for weeks and weeks and weeks, prepping all of these things on weekends and nights and sending it to them,” she said.
Rupprecht acknowledged that it was her own prerogative to prepare the work and that she was only obligated to provide two weeks worth of work for traveling students.
“But in my opinion, a parent was asking me to do this. And I know they’re [student is] not going to be enrolled somewhere else, so I felt that I had to give them enough work so their kid wouldn’t fall behind,” Rupprecht continued.
Rupprecht said she is committed to her students and that long, consecutive absences put students at risk of falling behind. She stated that in the seven cases in the past three years, only one student “actually did most of what I sent to a decent quality.”
Rupprecht has concerns about linking the 20 consecutive absent days back to back, impacting the progress a student makes in core subjects.
“They are in the top reading, they are in the highest of the class. They go on this vacation that I’m sure was amazing, and I’m sure had lots of life experiences. But they come back, and now they’re in the lowest reading level or [behind for] next year. Now their competence is slashed,” she says.
Rupprecht said that many of the students needed to either stay after school or get additional help to get caught up with their grade level after returning.
“Older kids might have an easier time, not the littles,” she said.
High school teacher Jessica Ward asked for clarification on how the absence is determined for older students noting that a student might miss the first period more times than they miss other classes later in the day. She also commented that adding illness and vacation to extracurricular absences makes content learning difficult.
“I’ve had kids miss upwards of a half of their school days in a specific class. And that’s really detrimental to their ability to learn the content … 40 days or 23.5% of their school seat time,” Ward said. “I just want you to consider, if we give up or miss eight weeks of school, then when they’re 19, they go to college, what are we telling them?” she added.
Teacher Courtney Ellingson reminded the board of the Alaska Reads Act passed in 2022.
“This accountability for learning and making targeted growth is now being heavily monitored by our state for the Reads Act. So this law is a strategic plan to ensure that all students are at or above grade level in reading by the end of third grade,” Ellingson said.
Special education teacher Amy MacPherson and Superintendent Josh Coughran have been meeting to determine how Skagway is going to comply with the requirements that need to be reported to the state.
“So one thing that they’re doing is that the teachers have to actually assess the kids every other week. It doesn’t take very long, but we’re required to send this home to parents. So if kids aren’t here for eight weeks, the teachers are going to be missing this component,” MacPherson said.
Several community members brought up the challenges of taking vacations during the summer when so many families’ jobs rely on summer tourism.
Parent and business owner, Beth Smith, noted the difficulty traveling from Skagway.
“We live in an area that it’s so difficult to get out of. In the winter time, it’s at least two days to get out of Skagway and get to the place that you’re going – and that is if everything runs smoothly. That’s also two days back. So I understand it’s difficult, but in this town, I would say 85% of the families are not able to leave in the summertime. We are stuck here. It is our livelihood,” Smith said.
“I think that if anything good came from COVID it was that we can go online. We have, in the school, spent a ton of money on technology and the kids are adapted to going online. And even the assessments should be able to be done online,” she said.
The attendance policy will be discussed at the next policy meeting on Sept. 19 at 6 p.m.
Money and budgets dominated a portion of the meeting: a 22-inch planer purchased with grant money from the Carl Perkins funds, and plans to adjust spending within the food service budget.
The board finance committee reported they discussed looking for additional funding to turn an approved part-time kitchen help position into a full-time helper as requested by the current kitchen manager, Dylan Healy.
In addition to seeking cost cutting strategies, the committee agreed to consider raising the school lunch price from $5 to $6.50.
Public commentary favored raising the lunch rate.
“I think this is the best lunch program that I’ve ever seen anywhere. It’s definitely not the lunch that we grew up with … So we’ll pay five bucks, six bucks, whatever it costs. We’re all about it. We appreciate it,” said parent Sterling Rachal.
The benefit of adding a full-time kitchen staff versus a part-time assistant was supported by local restaurateur, Mike Healy who suggested that a new hire should already have experience.
“It’s very important that when you’re looking at this budget for that position, that you realize that you’re going to need to put forth a competitive wage. So you get a competent person, I should say an experienced person. Because what’s going to happen is, if you do hire someone who’s not experienced, chef [Dylan] here is going to spend the first two months holding hands instead of doing his job.”
Currently the budgeted part-time position is being filled by various substitutes. Creating a full time assistant would add payroll and benefit costs to the position.
Healy also suggested third party eyes might help find ways to cut costs.
“I don’t know if maybe an audit is in order. I audited my business, and had it done during the pandemic. I’m saving probably eight to nine percent because of that audit, because I am able to see all these things from someone else’s eyes that I was not able to see.”
On top of seeking means to add a full-time kitchen assistant, the letter from the Department of Education and Early Development (DEED) posing the possible return of almost $500,000 over the cap funding to the state is impacting the current budget.
In closing arguments, board member Jaime Bricker noted it was this letter that kept items such as the kitchen assistant off of the original agenda for the Aug. 29 meeting.
“We are up against a brand new beast from the State of Alaska, an enormous budget cut. And to me from a board perspective, it would have been irresponsible of us to consider budget amendments without having all the information that we need from the state on this matter,” Bricker said.
Coughran met with state officials from DEED this past week in order to discuss the state’s letter as well as options available to Skagway. Coughran will report on those findings at the next finance committee meeting Sept. 20 at 6 p.m.
During public comment two topics arose that later precipitated board commentary.
ONLINE DOCUMENTATION MISSING , LATE
Parent Melinda Munson expressed concern that it was difficult to find minutes on the school board website as she sought information about the approval process for funding the current school nurse position.
Prior to COVID-19 pandemic, the school did not have a full time nurse. Using COVID grants, a nurse position was filled to help track the needs of the district during COVID.
“I went back to the 2022-2023 minutes, agendas, and all of that, supporting documents for that school year, and I just couldn’t find anything that showed any discussion that the school board might have had for that position,” Munson said.
Munson noted that the minutes for the last several meetings were just posted recently. The board approved minutes that night for April, May, June and July.
“I thought that maybe that was a robust conversation that would have been had at the table. That we would have had a position that’s newly funded by the school board, we would have had parent input if that position is one we wanted to keep. And so, I would have liked to have seen that conversation. I also couldn’t find anything in the finance agenda that shows that conversation took place,” she said.
Munson said she was concerned that the salary was higher than when the nurse was compensated during COVID. She was also apprehensive about having the nurse related to the superintendent – that if she had a complaint, it would be uncomfortable reporting it to the superintendent.
“And it’s nothing against Amy. I really like Amy and my kids do, too,” she said.
Superintendent Coughran is married to school nurse Amy Coughran.
“I feel very safe not having a nurse,” said Munson, a parent of several children with disabilities.
Editors note: Munson is part owner of The Skagway News.
In a letter to Munson the next day and later shared with The Skagway News, Coughran clarified that the nurse position salary was determined by the salary scale within the collective bargaining agreement for certificated staff and that the position was approved during the Jan. 31 school board meeting as part of a list of non-tenured certificated positions.
The bargaining agreement listed on the website ended in 2021. The current agreement is posted HERE on the Skagway News site.
Skagway business owner Shelly O’Boyle reiterated the lack of information posted on the website.
“I’ve been trying to catch up on what’s been happening here with you guys. I went back two years, looking at meeting minutes and community meetings. And I’ll tell you, it’s very hard. I don’t feel like there’s a good paper trail. Committee meetings are not recorded, there’s no minutes [posted for] too long. So it’s very difficult for somebody who wants to actually maybe be on the board or be more involved to follow what you guys are doing,” O’Boyle said.
O’Boyle was also trying to track down a rumor that the lunch program would be going to sandwiches in September.
The present members of the board looked back and forth at each other, saying they hadn’t heard that rumor.
“I don’t make the menu, nobody up here does. That sort of thing is done in food services. So if it’s sandwiches, we don’t know. Our food service budget hasn’t changed,” Coughran said.
Parent Colton Jared saw other uses for the funds designated for the nurse position.
“If we got rid of the nurse position, would that money be able to go towards the kitchen staff? My child uses the nursing station frequently, but there are situations, but we have a clinic two blocks away. And I think if it’s something serious enough that she won’t be able to handle it here, they’re gonna end up at the clinic anyway. And like, I think the school lunch quality is significantly more important than having a nurse on staff when you have a full clinic a few blocks away,” Jared said.
In mid-meeting and closing comments, board members responded to the public testimony.
Bricker reminded the audience that the board members are elected officials and encouraged everyone to contact them when there are questions or issues to be brought up.
“I’m stunned that I haven’t heard from any one of you about these issues,” she said.
Bricker also commented on a theme suggesting nepotism during testimony.
“There was a comment about nepotism. I’ve lived here all my life and if there’s a town where you cannot consider nepotism, this is the one. As long as there’s processes and procedures in place to deal with complaints or concerns in which there is, in board policy 4144, 4244 and 4344. So there is that platform, if you have a complaint there’s a way for that to be handled,” she said.
The next school board meeting is scheduled for Sept. 26 at 7 p.m. Documents and letters submitted for board meetings are posted online prior to the meeting.