HOT SPRINGS – The need by the Hot Springs School District to reduce expenses, based on a recent independent audit, prompted a group of elementary teachers to attend the school board’s April 10 meeting, to present their concerns over one of the cost-saving measures the district is considering.

During the Public Participation portion of the meeting, Rebecca Massa, one of three current third grade teachers in the elementary school, spoke on behalf of the rest of the group and urged board members to consider all factors – other than just financial reasons – before deciding on a proposed plan to reduce the number of third grade teachers to just two classrooms, instead of the current three.

Her alternative was to instead reduce the number of fourth grade classrooms from three down to two.

Included in her materials presented to board members was a bar graph comparing 2nd Grade students to 4th Grade students. Using the data on the graph, Massa demonstrated how the transition from second grade to third grade is a crucial one for students as they are expected to learn a lot of new skills in both language and math. She said reducing the number of teachers – and thus increasing the classroom sizes – at that transition point for students could prove harmful to their development.

She said there are currently 46 students in the 2nd Grade. Taking into account that Bethesda Lutheran School only offers classes up to 2nd grade, additional students from there may also be coming over to the public school in 3rd Grade. With a three-classroom system, the average classroom size would normally equate to around 14 students. With only two sections, each classroom would then be 23 – which is too large for third grade, according to Massa. By contrast however, there are currently 52 students in fourth grade, making those classrooms with 26 each if divided into two sections.

Additional factors she pointed out, when looking at a comparison between 2nd Grade and 4th Grade, were how there was a much higher population of students with Title, Special Education, Behavioral and Learning needs with 2nd Graders which would be magnified for 3rd Grade teachers with larger classroom sizes.

Included with Massa’s presentation to school board members was also the following typed commentary:

“When we are faced with tough decisions about our students and the student population as educators, we never take into consideration just one factor, we always look at the student or the student population as a whole. We look at the whole child. As teachers we are also driven to make decisions based on a variety of data. It has been an understanding at the Hot Springs School District that as educators we make decisions based on what is good for kids. When looking at the other factors it is clear that fourth grade would fair better being combined into two classrooms than second grade.”

In conclusion, Massa again urged the board members to, “really look at the data. There is so much more on the line than just financials.”

Shortly after the elementary school teacher’s presentation, former Hot Springs educator and current Hot Springs Bison Athletics Hall of Fame committee member Brian Thies made a presentation to board members describing his group’s plan to raise funds and install bleacher seating at Woodward Field, with the goal of enhancing spectators’ comfort while enjoying football, track and other events held in the school’s outdoor stadium. Currently, after the wood bleachers were tore out several years ago, there are only wide concrete steps in the grandstand, forcing spectators to either bring in their own seating or sit directly on the concrete.

Thies said the Hall of Fame has already begun soliciting funds from alumni and the business community, but is still a long ways from raising the $50,000 needed to complete the project, by as soon as next fall (See additional story on B3).

While there was not a specific request for a dollar amount of assistance needed, Thies said it would be beneficial to the Hall of Fame while soliciting funds to be able to tell prospective donors that the school does have some “skin in the game” by splitting the cost of the project with the Hall of Fame in some manner.

One potential way the school district could assist with the project would be to earmark funds from the scoreboard sponsorships towards the stadium seating project. When asked about this funding source, Superintendent Kevin Coles said that the school is currently researching that fundraising effort, which had been set up several years ago and likely not been looked at in a few years.

In addition to his presentation on the stadium seating, Thies also reminded school board members that the deadline to nominate athletes for the 2017 Hall of Fame induction class is coming up on May 1.

Another request for financial assistance from the school board came near the end of the meeting, when special education teacher and PTA member Jamie Erskin spoke about plans to upgrade the playground equipment at the elementary school. She said, that with the school’s budgeted plans to resurface the playground this summer, the PTA is also hoping to replace some of the currently outdated equipment with new pieces which are both ADA compliant and designed to enhance the brain’s ability to learn.

Erksin described a variety of options that the PTA is considering, ranging in price from around $7,500 for some smaller pieces, to up to $77,000 for some large pieces. The prices presented include the cost of installation.

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Board member Kory Bossert suggested organizing a community effort to install the new equipment, similar to what was done when the city installed new equipment in some of its parks several years ago, as a way to lower the overall costs. He said he participated in that project with the city, and would offer his help again for the school.

Ultimately, the school board did not comment on either of the two funding requests from the Hall of Fame or the PTA.

Another topic discussed at length during the meeting was an opportunity for the school to participate in ALICE active shooter safety training, which stands for: Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate.

Elementary Principal John Fitzgerald spoke about the training, which he and Middle School Principal Liz Baker experienced earlier this year in Sturgis. Fitzgerald said it was an eye-opening and very beneficial program and strongly encouraged the school board to approve the needed funding to allow Hot Springs teachers to go through the program. Total cost is $8,800 for 100 licenses; however the final cost to the school district would be around $3,000 with the help of outside funding sources, including charging a registration fee and invite others outside to Hot Springs School District to participate.

Fitzgerald described how the training program completely changes how school’s used to be trained on how to handle emergency situations involving an active shooter. He said the scenarios which participants go through are “pretty powerful” and demonstrate how lives can be easily saved by using the methods taught.

The school board approved the project. It is slated to be offered at the school this summer, on Aug. 17.

In other business, the school board:

• Approved the Facilities Use Agreement with the City of Hot Springs, which allows the school to use city facilities, like the Mueller Center, for events, in exchange for the city’s use of school facilities, for such things as Summer Rec.

• Heard an update from Principal Fitzgerald regarding the plans to convert a one block stretch of Jennings Avenue by the elementary school to a one-way street, to aid in child safety while parents are dropping off and picking up students. He said he has been working with city personnel recently to finalize the plans, and hopes to formally present it to parents at a meeting on April 20. After that, the city plans to repaint and mark the road by Friday, April 28, and then have parents utilize the new year-round route for the first time for school on Monday, May 1. The brief introduction to parents at the end of this school year will allow for any modifications to the route prior to the start of the 2017-18 school year.

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