School board approves sale of school forest, continues equity conversation

Taylor Scott, Managing Editor

River Valley School District Office

The River Valley School Board moved forward and narrowly approved the sale of 120 acres of school forest property in Arena at their March 11 meeting, along with continuing the equity, diversity and inclusion conversation that was started at last month’s meeting.

Public Comments

The meeting started with public comment from board member Dan McGuire announcing that this meeting would be his last.

“This is my last meeting. It was not an easy decision,” said McGuire. “I’m getting back into officiating [sports] full time. And I got to a point with all these boards on, I was either going to quit a couple of boards or get out of officiating.”

McGuire went on to describe his experience on the board as a good one, saying he learned a lot.

“I have a renewed respect for all of the committee heads, I understand all the work you’d have to do to run your committee,” said McGuire, before leaving the meeting.

The board then heard from district resident Brad Hutnik regarding his opposition to the sale of the school forest property.

“I’ve always admired our community for striving to support the common good. It is understandable and admirable that a rural school district should look at every means at its disposal to ensure a quality education for its students and should not do so at the expense, however, of conservation as a value. As a value, Aldo Leopold defined conservation as teaching students to live on a piece of land without spoiling it,” said Hutnik.

“Unfortunately, selling a school forest with the expressed hope that it’d be platted for development, or cleared for farming teaches them something else. It teaches them that conservation is a convenience, not a way of living with the land… Above all, it teaches
them that values can be sold. The school district may make money, but our students and
our community will be impoverished.”

Hutnik reiterated that land management should be informed by values and suggested ways in which the land could be developed as an educational showcase and natural community management.

Hutnik suggested re-writing the current master plan before considering any sale, “We could also pursue easements looking specifically at education on the property integrated into a sale. An easement similar to a conservation easement could retain the use of the land for educational purposes, managed according to an approved management plan.”

“[Land use] needs to be informed by conservation as a value and requires both creativity and an eye to the future,” said Hutnik. “Exploiting the school forest for short term gain does none of these. I urge you to reconsider accepting bids for the River Valley school forest.”

The board then heard from Mary Lockman, a district resident who lives just south of the school forest on Coon Rock Road. Lockman described the sale as “sort of short term” and expressed concerns that any bid that proposes clear cutting the forest for farming would lead to wind erosion of the soil, causing dust.

Lockman said that she wouldn’t mind some development, with an emphasis on business, but that if it’s a choice between clear cut farming and housing, she’d choose housing. However, she suggested there might be other business development opportunities to look into for the property.

“When we bought our land, we were told that George Hodgson gave it to the school with the stipulation that it could never be sold,” said Lockman. “I’ve been trying to check that out but all of your records show that there’s no public record.”

“I know a lot of my neighbors don’t want it to happen,” finished Lockman. “But what can we do about it?”

Consideration & Action on Sale of School Forest Property in Arena

The deadline for the school district to receive sealed bids to consider regarding the sale of the school forest property was 4pm March 10. District Business Manager, Brian Krey shared with the board that the district had received two sealed bids.

According to Krey, the bids were opened in the District Office by administration the morning of March 11, preceding the school board meeting.

In a previous meeting that evaluated the sale of the school forest, the school board decided it would take not less than $4000 per acre for the property.

The first bid proposal read was from Traci Holverson, of $480,000 for the property, which is $4,000 an acre, for the purpose of building a housing development.

The second bid proposal read was from Larry Alsum/Alsum Farms, of $498,000 for the property, which is $4,150 an acre, for the purpose of agricultural use.

“Is it too late to put the brakes on this?” Board member Mark Strozinsky expressed his concerns after the bids were read. “I’ve never been in favor of this. I don’t think it’s a good idea. … It’s not going to solve our problems. Fund 49 will get a boost, a one time boost. But we can’t use Fund 49 for many of the things that we need in the near future. It’s not going to solve our student problem or referendum problems.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WI DPI) Fund 49 is used for transactions financed with bonds, promissory notes and other sources of revenue such as gifts, grants, sale of capital equipment, buildings or sites.

“It’s not going to make the people of Arena very happy, I don’t think. But this is not like closing the school that was needed. That was necessary. I do not think that this was needed or necessary,” said Strozinsky. “So that’s my point. I speak for the trees.”

Board member Kiley Cates expressed her opposition to the entire bid process, “I didn’t really see what the purpose of selling the school forest was other than to see what we could get for it.”

“To see the school forest clear-cut… our waterways and the river valley waterway is very precious and it’s vulnerable,” said Cates. “And to see that happen on that scale would just be devastating.”

Cates also expressed her concerns that the sale of the forest was being considered for the wrong reasons.

“I don’t see how this is going to help the referendum …we’re not in a position where this amount of money is going to change us going to referendum, it doesn’t really do anything to change the amount in any substantial way,” said Cates. “And I do wonder that if we weren’t in the situation of going to referendum, and we had this very robust budget, would we be considering this?”

Cates expressed a need for workforce housing in the area but stated that, “I don’t think this is a solution to it.”

School board member Sara Young stated that she hasn’t gotten feedback from district residents on the sale of the school forest, “I don’t have one, I still to this day, don’t have anything in my email box. I haven’t gotten haven’t gotten a phone call.”

She expressed frustration that she hadn’t heard anything from residents until now, “it’s a little frustrating to me that this is the point that we’re finally hearing from people.” Strozinsky then stated that he had heard from eight to nine people wishing the board wouldn’t sell the property.

Board member Deb Nelson shared her opposition to the sale and the feedback she’s heard from residents.

“I have yet to have a single person tell me, from the public, that it’s a good idea to sell this. I have heard the other side of it, of it…it’s a part of a conservation area and it could be used as an educational spot for children. And that was the thing that I heard from people,” said Nelson. “I didn’t support it, when we voted to put it up for proposals either. But I have yet to hear from anyone outside of my fellow board members that brought this to us that we should sell it.”

Board member Frederic Iausly brought up possibility of public access to the property and the investment that would need to be made to cut trails, make walking paths and put up a parking lot to make the property accessible to the public, but that the opposite was happening and that sort of public access management plan should have been made in the past.

Currently, the property garners roughly $29,000 every 15 years from timber sales.

“The value of the land is the conservation of that land,” Cates stated. “I recognize that there is nothing happening on the land, because that’s just what’s happening right now…It has value to the community for access.”

Nelson suggested contacting the DNR Forestry Department to look at the land and provide consulting on conservation, use and management, raising the possibility of grants being available for those goals.

Young suggested postponing the vote for a month to better vet the proposals and discuss conservation of the property.

Krey clarified that the notice to prospective purchasers of real estate didn’t allow for a delay and required closing to occur no later than March 21, 2021.

The board ultimately approved a motion to accept the bid from Traci Halverson, of $480,000 for the property at $4,000 an acre, with the following vote:

John Bettinger: Yes
Cates: No
Iausly: Yes
Kathy Jennings: Yes
Nelson: No
Strozinsky: No
Young: Yes
McGuire: Absent
Jeff Maier: Absent

Equity Conversation and Future Steps

Jennings shared that Young and District Administrator Loren Glasbrenner have been meeting this month to talk about potential next steps following last month’s discussion regarding equity, diversity and inclusion that was initiated after a district parent brought concerns to the board.

Young again thanked district parent Susan Lee for speaking at the last regular meeting regarding issues her children had faced. Young also clarified her statements from the last meeting.

“I believe that I commented that there’s never going to be a good time to start on this. And that was inaccurate for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not that it’s never a good time to work on this, but rather, it’s always a good time to work on issues around equity. Second, equity inclusion work is in fact going on in our schools all the time. And it comes in many different forms,” said Young.

“This work by our staff members and our administrators is valid and valued and we want to make sure that they know that. However, we believe it’s time to put some extra focus around the areas of equity and anti-racism in our district.”

Young then proposed an ‘Equity and Understanding Work Group’, comprised of a group of teachers, administrators, a community representative (who Young suggested would be Sue Quale), a parent (who Young suggested would Susan Lee) with the charges of:

—Developing a statement, which states the district’s commitment to equity and understanding.
—Researching professional development, training and opportunities that may be needed by staff, and recommend a plan to administration for that training.
—Researching and recommending a consistent rapid response protocol to be used when students or families experience inequity in the schools.
—Assessing the current curriculum to see if it represents a sufficiently wide range of perspectives, including that of black, indigenous, and people of color. If it seems that changes are warranted, the work group will research and recommend changes to the administration.
—Communicating the work group’s progress to all stakeholders to include offering public forums for family and community to respond and offer thoughts on further action.

“We hope that this work group will be a welcome resource for the school district. The objective is not to call anyone out,” said Young. “Rather, we want to call people into a conversation by which we can better understand people with different perspectives, and different experiences to make every student and every family feel welcome.”

Jennings praised Young for acknowledging the strives the district has made.

“I’m glad that you pointed out that this is ongoing and continued work. And we’re just going to focus on it more now,” said Jennings. “But it is something that’s been happening. Thanks for pointing that out.”

Glasbrenner shared that the district was currently working with CESA #3 to do a curriculum audit.

“So that as we choose materials, as we look at websites, as we do these things, that we have a critical eye, a good lens on it to make sure that it’s representative of what we want it to be,” said Glasbrenner. “It just puts another layer in there to make sure that what we choose, what we talk about, what we teach is representative of equity in all populations.”

The appointment process and frequency of work group meetings wasn’t immediately clear at the meeting.

“We are moving ahead with the blessing of the River Valley School Board of Education as a work committee,” said Glasbrenner in a follow-up email.

However, the board stopped short of formally charging a ‘Equity and Understanding Work Group’ at the meeting, with no vote taken on any action regarding the work group.

Glasbrenner and Young stated that the next step would be administrators helping identify teachers that were excited to serve on the work group.

Update on School District Operations from Administration

Glasbrenner stated that all district employees and school personnel have been offered a COVID-19 vaccine, sharing that the vaccines have brought hope.

“The total number of school district employees that have been offered a COVID-19 vaccine is 226,” said Krey in a follow-up email. “We are not tracking whether or not employees have obtained one vaccine or completed a series.”

Glasbrenner warned that administrators are on the lookout for side-effects of the second dose when considering the difficulty of getting substitute teachers right now. Elementary Principal Carla Peterson stated that on just March 9, six elementary staff members had to go home after being administered the second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Peterson shared that two subs were able to fill six positions across two buildings and thanked the staff for stepping up.

“From 4k to fourth grade, we welcomed 48 students back into the building between January and this Monday [March 8], 31 of those were kids that had been virtual, three were homeschoolers that we brought in, six were open enrollments that we brought in,” said Peterson. “We’re still not at our same enrollment number of last year, but we’re definitely seeing more kids in the building and more parents comfortable with their kids being in the building.”

Middle School Principal James Radtke shared that the middle school gained in the 20’s of students back in the same timeline, with there being roughly 50 out of approximately 310 students in the middle school virtual still.

All principals touched on returning to a positive climate and feel, as spring approaches and the pandemic lulls.

“I want to thank the school board and our staff,” said High School Principal Darby Blakley. “I mean, we really fought hard this year. We really have allowed our students to be here face-to-face and went through some tough adversity but still found a way to keep coming back in the building and working with our kids and a lot of districts that didn’t do that.

Blakley let the board know that he was working with Krey to plan a face-to-face graduation outside to finish the school year.

District Activities Director Jaimie Hegland updated the board on the transition to spring sports, with spring sports being granted 15 contact days. The high school has also opened up spring strength and conditioning. Start date for spring sports is April 19 (except girl’s soccer, which will start on April 26).

Action on WIAA Spring Sports Considerations regarding procedures and spectators will be taken up next month by the board.

Rural Virtual Academy Charter School Option

The board approved a cooperative agreement with a charter school of the Medford School District to offer virtual instruction to River Valley School District students for next year at a cost of $6,600 per student.

2021-22 Employee Benefits

Glasbrenner shared that there will be a 6% increase in the district Quartz health insurance costs, and that the district would be interested in looking to fi nd other insurance providers next year. The district had budgeted for a 5% increase.

Glasbrenner stated that the 1% difference is roughly $20,000, which the school district will absorb so there are no changes to copays and HSA’s. Dental and eye insurance stayed flat.

The board approved the benefits changes unanimously.

Other items

The board approved, along with corresponding agreements with the teacher unions, a base wage increase of 1.23%, supplemental wage increase of 1.02%, for a total of 2.25% increase across the board for all staff and employees.

The board accepted the resignation of high school spanish teacher Heather Hedges, who started with the district on August 27, 2020.She will finish the school year. Blakely wished her the best luck, applauding her work with students.

The board approved a 2021-22 CESA #5 contract, specifically for audiology work for student needs.

The board approved a $4,00 contract for a WASB Policy Manual “Quick Check” service.

The board approved granting the 2021-24 Snow Plowing and Related Services contract to J & J Total Lawn Care and Snow Removal, who have been doing it since 2010.

The board approved amendments to the 2020-21 Employee Handbook to include paying summer school teachers teaching credit recovery classes Lifetime Wellness and Health $30 an hour.

The board accepted a $50 anonymous gift to the RV Elementary lunch program.

The board also took the following action on Policy Committee recommendations: Discussed and recommended to the board for a second reading policies that accomplished goal setting through a multi-year strategic plan, strengthened staff involvement in board decision making, and clarified student activity fund management and disposition.

Approved various policy changes for a first reading including policies that cover Acceptable Use of Networked Computers, Electronic Mail, and Internet Safety Policy, Energy Management, Fundraising Activities (clarifying crowdfunding rules to ensure fundraised monies go to district account).

The board ended the open session of the meeting by adjourning to closed session, pursuant to Wisconsin Statutes 19.85(1)(a) and 19.85(1)(f) for Expulsion Hearing and Deliberation and Action.

The school board is meeting next for a special meeting Wednesday March 17th at 6pm at the Middle School library and streaming live online on the River Valley School District YouTube channel for ‘consideration and action on extension of closing date on purchase of school property.’

A video recording of the March 11 school board meeting is available at: Board meetings are streamed live and can be viewed on the ‘River Valley School District’ YouTube channel.

Fall Semester High School students failing more than doubles year-over-year

In response to a request for information, District Administrator Loren Glasbrenner provided the following information.

—The number of students enrolled at RVHS (End of fall semester 19-20): 423
—The number of students failing at least one course at RVHS (End of fall semester 19-20): 35
—The number of students enrolled at RVHS (End of fall semester 20-21): 406
—The number of students failing at least one course at RVHS (End of fall semester 20-21): 71
—‘19-20 percentage: 8%
—‘20-21 percentage: 17%

Valley Sentinel: Do you believe these numbers are indicative of learning loss?
Loren Glasbrenner: We believe our teachers and our students are doing the best that they can during this pandemic. It is impossible, right now, to affirm if there has been true academic learning loss during this unprecedented time.

Every school district that I have communicated with has seen an increase in failures.

We will continue to monitor our students as they move through our educational programming to see if gaps or loss are present.

VS: While every student’s situation is different, what do you believe are the leading factors contributing to learning loss?
LG: As stated above, true learning loss will need to be determined by continued monitoring. However, this type of virtual learning and teaching is new to both students and staff. We will continue to provide our students with the best education possible.

VS: What are some specific ways the district is working to combat this? Is the solution as simple as getting students back in the classroom?
LG: We continue to monitor and analyze what needs are present for students and staff. We have provided technology support for our students and worked to make online learning as accessible as possible. Our administration continues to emphasize that our focus is on students. It is an incredibly complex and difficult time.