Breckenridge School District is being forced to examine the present and future of its schools amid a wave of leadership changes, new legislation and COVID-19 cases.
Breckenridge Public Schools Superintendent Diane Cordes announced she will be retiring in June 2021 due to health concerns during the Breckenridge School Board special meeting held Thursday, Nov. 12.
“It has been a tough decision, and certainly not in my wheelhouse,” Cordes said. “It isn’t how I wanted it to be, but my health is a significant part of that decision.”
Cordes said she wants to focus on getting as much done as possible during the remainder of her time at the district. She said the reason she wanted to let the school board know as soon as possible was so they could begin the hiring process for a new superintendent. She hopes the extra time allows them to find the best candidate possible.
The school board members thanked Cordes for her work.
“Understood, thank you Diane, for what you’ve done, the direction you’ve taken us,” Board Member Steve Arnhalt said.
U.S. Senators Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and John Thune (R-S.D.) announced their bill to maintain funding for schools during the pandemic passed in the senate on Friday, Nov. 13, and is now awaiting the President, who can sign it into law, according to a release.
The bill, The Impact Aid Coronavirus Relief Act, would continue to ensure schools receive federal funding to make up for the loss of tax revenue, the release stated.
“We need to make sure that schools in Minnesota and across the nation receive strong investments during the pandemic so they can continue to operate,” Smith said.
The school board discussed Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order on teacher planning time and Minnesota Department of Education’s new informed decision making guide in their special meeting Thursday.
Cordes said superintendents across the state are frustrated with Walz’s most recent executive order relating to education because school leaders were not consulted before a decision was made.
The executive order states, “school districts and charter schools must provide teachers with 30 minutes of preparation time per day,” time that, Cordes said, the school cannot easily afford. The extra preparation time would amount to 150 minutes per week, and would need to be in addition to their existing planning period and within the teachers’ duty days, Cordes said.
The order, which was signed on Nov. 6, will go into effect at the end of the month because it will likely require schools to rearrange staff or schedules to accommodate the extra time.
“This has caused quite a stir across all public schools in the state of Minnesota,” Cordes said. “There's a lot of chatter and both the governor’s office and MDE has gotten significant feedback on the frustration of superintendents and school leaders that no leadership was consulted on this because there’s a lot of challenges to this that it’s going to put in front of school districts.”
Cordes said the education union met and one of the solutions they came up with so far is getting rid of regularly scheduled early-outs and replacing them with a once-a-week early-out, after which teachers could spend 150 minutes planning plus the day’s existing planning period.
The problem with that, Cordes said, is it puts pressure on families who suddenly have their children coming home three or four hours earlier than usual once a week. If the schools had more funds to hire more staff or if there were more available substitute teachers, they may be able to instate the planning time without sacrificing classroom time, she said.
The union posed the question of what would happen if the school districts paid each teacher for the extra planning time, outside of the teachers’ duty days. Cordes said when the district calculated what this would cose, it was over $107,000.
“One of the responses initially was, ‘Well, you can use your COVID relief dollars to pay for this.’ Those dollars are — that’s the answer for everything — those dollars, we don’t have any left. So that’s just not realistic,” Cordes said.
Cordes said the most pressing issues in Breckenridge schools at present are the number of staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are quarantining.
In the elementary and middle school, 12 staff members are out. At the high school, one teacher and three other adults are out. Another individual is out getting tested, and if their result is positive, four more teachers will be considered close contact with them and will need to quarantine.
“We’re smart enough now to do the contact tracing immediately, so that we know in advance what we’re facing here” Cordes said.
As far as students, 13 children grades Pre-K through sixth are either quarantined or positive for the virus, Cordes said. At the high school, 4.64 percent of the students are either quarantined or have tested positive.
District wide, of the student body, 5.7 percent are out due to COVID-19. This number is lower than many of the surrounding schools, Cordes said.
Cordes and the board agreed the main priority is to keep young students in the classroom. Breckenridge High School Principal Craig Peterson said it is simpler to teach older children via distance learning.
“We’re not as in dire straits as the elementary (school) per se because of our learners in the high school,” Peterson said.
They may need to discuss moving some or all of the high school grade levels to distance learning soon, so that the elementary classrooms have enough available substitutes, Cordes said.
In their previous meeting, the school board voted to raise the substitute teacher wage from $110 to $150 to wrangle more substitutes, however, so many substitutes are booked out, they have yet to see a positive response from the pay increase, elementary school principal Corinna Erickson said.
There is also a growing concern about the holidays and the inevitable COVID-19 spikes. Solutions could range from proactive to reactive, Cordes said, and the community needs to decide which they’d like to see.