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BPS board talks elementary restructuring

The Beatrice School District Board of Education held its Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday night, drawing in a large crowd to discuss the potential elementary restructuring.

Paddock Lane Elementary Principal Betty Replogle and Kevin Janssen, the principal of Stoddard and Lincoln elementaries, were on hand to discuss four options for potential changes to the elementary school structure aimed at reducing class sizes.

The district, like many school systems around the state, is faced with a dilemma, Replogle said. Beatrice Public Schools has declining enrollment, declining tax revenue and declining state aid, she said, which has resulted in a $500,000 budget shortfall.

Replogle said the district is also trying to avoid disproportionate class sizes. This requires students to be shuffled around to different schools, she said, a problem schools have to deal with every year.

Working with Superintendent Pat Nauroth and Director of Curriculum Jackie Nielsen, Replogle and Janssen said they have developed four possible solutions.

The first option would allow the schools to stay pretty much the same. Lincoln, Paddock and Stoddard would continue to be kindergarten through fifth grade schools, but this would involve moving students between sections and could lead to siblings being separated. It would also cut sections from second and third grades, causing class sizes to increase.

The second option would be to continue to leave students in their current elementary schools, but decrease the third grade at Lincoln down to one section and move a teacher over to Paddock Lane for a third section of second grade, Janssen said.

Option three would reduce either Lincoln or Stoddard to a 1.5 section school, which would be in the model of the old Cedar Elementary before it became the preschool. Paddock Lane would become a three-section building and Lincoln or Stoddard would have some grades with two sections.

The fourth option would turn Lincoln into a kindergarten through second grade school and Stoddard would become a third through fifth grade school, while Paddock Lane would remain a kindergarten through fifth grade school, Janssen said, due to special education and other programs held at that facility.

“You would not save the district any money by leveling Paddock because of the programs that they have there,” Janssen said. “You would have to have staff in every single building, which would cost us quite a bit of money, so that's not an option.”

Replogle and Janssen weighed the pros and cons of the fourth option, saying that the move could mean a more specific focus on the developmental needs of kids by grade level, though it would mean the loss of programs like reading buddies, which matches younger students with others from higher grade levels. Parental involvement might also decline in schools where siblings are split, they noted.

The leveled buildings would not need to be repurposed, they said, and it could make room for more STEM opportunities and other learning activities.

However, the leveled schools could also mean that siblings are split between different schools, creating the need for multiple pick-up and drop off locations, which could cause problems for families, they said. The multiple drop-off locations could potentially be solved by creating some kind of shuttle between schools.

“We've talked about if it would be possible to have a bus shuttle between the two buildings, Lincoln and Stoddard,” Janssen said. “Specifically, to get siblings from point A to point B, so parents only have to drop off at one place. One of the reasons that we chose Lincoln for K-2 is that would be where our bus hub would be."

There’s no place to park eight or nine buses at Stoddard, Janssen said. In order to find room for the buses, the baseball field at the school would be removed and replaced with gravel.

The options discussed at the meeting on Monday weren’t necessarily ones that the planners liked or disliked, Janssen said, but the district is in a situation in which something must be done.

“It's a matter of what we would do and what is going to be best for the district,” Janssen said. “That is why we're here tonight, to be able to talk about that.”

The board opened the floor to the public at the end of the meeting for questions and comments.

One parent, Brent Essink, said a big change in the elementary structure wouldn’t help the school’s relationship with the community. Earlier in the meeting, John Brazell, BPS' director of business affairs, mentioned that the district had 135 students transfer to other schools in the past five years, and Essink wondered if part of the reason wasn’t the district turning the former Cedar Elementary into a preschool.

Essink also said that the potential idea of adding a shuttle between schools would add to district costs.

Neal Trantham, who has three kids attending Lincoln Elementary, said he encouraged the school board to think hard about the potential value of such a change and to consider the unintended consequences as well. His family loves their neighborhood school, he said.

“There are those of us that live just blocks away from our school,” Trantham said. “The convenience is one thing, but that's not the main thing for us. It's feeling like our kids are part of something.”

School Board President Jon Zimmerman said that, while he didn’t want to see kids moved out of their schools, if the board did nothing, students would continue to be moved as needed.

Zimmerman said a decision has to be made due to budget issues.

“It's not easy to go to the public and say 'We want more money,' because the public don't want to give no more money,” Zimmerman said. “Our levy is the top it can be. We have a certain amount of savings. You've heard before that if we don't get $500,000, we're digging into our savings. As soon as that's gone, we're paying for everything out of our savings. Salaries get paid out of savings. Eventually, that's going to go.”

Trantham then asked how much the plan would save the district.

"It’s not about saving money," Zimmerman said. "It’s about students that are constantly being moved around to different schools. It’s about structuring the classes so the district doesn’t have to move students every year."

Trantham asked the board about a timeline for a decision, to which Nauroth said the first step was to touch base with staff on the subject and the next part is to talk with parents.

Nauroth said he’d like to see the first part of March spent having conversations in schools with parents, trying to make them aware of the options, getting feedback and then coming back to the board with recommendations about where the district should go.

No decisions were made at Monday night’s meeting.

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District considers short-term budget cuts

The last few years haven't been easy financially for Beatrice Public Schools.

That was the message Superintendent Pat Nauroth gave to the Beatrice Board of Education at its Committee of the Whole meeting Monday night, as the board discussed short-term budget recommendations.

Over the previous five years, the district has lost 118 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Including this year so far, the total comes to 135 students who have transferred out of the district, said John Brazell, the district’s director of business affairs.

“We've lost 118 students in the previous five years and we've lost over $1.1 million in state aid during that time,” Brazell said. “Now, our property taxes went up about $2.6 million during that time and our expenditures went up an additional $1.6 million over that same time. So, we actually came out negative about $150,000.”

Students equate to dollars, Brazell said, and the loss of students means the loss of state aid for the district, which has greatly affected what the district is doing.

District expenditures have not increased very much, he said, with an average increase of 1.5 percent per year. On the other side, he said, the district revenue has only increased by 1.4 percent per year, so it’s not keeping track with the district’s expenditures.

The district has also reduced its contingency fund, Brazell said. It used to carry between $150,000 and $200,000 in the fund, but that’s now at zero.

The district used the contingency fund so that it could balance the budget, Brazell said. They also used to carry funds in the general fund for building projects, he said, but that also has been reduced to zero.

The district also used to transfer any excess funds from the general fund to its depreciation fund for things like buses, cars and roof repairs, he said, but that fund is also now at zero.

“Those are our three biggest things that we have done inside our general fund budget over the past three years to make things balance,” Brazell said. “There's no more there. That's all down to zero.”

As the district has had attrition, he said, some of those positions have not been replaced. That hasn’t been a large dollar amount, he said, and they’ve also reduced the amount of money the district allocates to each building.

“We've done these things over the past three years to balance our budget,” he said. “We've come to the point where there's not much more water to squeeze out of the turnip, so to speak.”

Nauroth said they’ve had to take a look at programs like the district’s Compass Learning Community, an alternative high school setting for students who have demonstrated difficulties within a traditional high school setting. The idea of transferring Compass’ off-campus location back to the high school proved unpopular with the board, but there was talk of moving it to a different location, which could save upwards of $27,000 for the district.

“We already plan on holding back on textbook purchases,” Nauroth said. “We're going to do that for one year, that's already pretty well taken care of. You've already approved central office administrative changes, so that's then taken care of.”

Nauroth also said that a reduction in technology spending is being considered. The district may also consider reducing the number of para-professionals, he said. That would include three pre-K paras, two special education paras and one half-time in-school suspension para, he said. Finally, there’s the option of not filling or reducing one certified elementary school position.

Also discussed at Monday’s meeting was the restructuring of the elementary schools. Creating leveled schools, would help, he said, not only in having to shuffle kids around to different schools, but making adjustments of numbers easier.

“Kids don't come in nice packages of 20 in a building,” Nauroth said. “Some are going to maybe be 16, 17. Others are going to be 22, 20, 23 and the reason you do that is that we don't want to move kids, but you get to a point you have to in order to make that happen.”

No decisions were made, as Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting was set aside for discussion, but the board will come back to it at a future meeting.

Heidel to challenge Fischer in primary

A relative newcomer to politics has stepped forward to challenge incumbent Deb Fischer in the Republican Primary for her U.S. Senate seat.

Jack Heidel, of Omaha, is a retired math professor from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

While he admits that he and Fischer likely agree on many topics, there’s two key points they differ on.

“She’s not doing anything about our debt,” Heidel said Monday while visiting Beatrice. “She needs to be challenged. She’s not any worse than anyone else, but she’s not any better. I probably agree with her on a lot of things but the debt is a huge problem.”

Heidel said his plan to reduce debt is to take a sensible approach to budgeting. Tax revenue is increasing, he noted, so if government could hold down spending, the deficit would gradually shrink.

Another point of contention for Heidel is gun control.

“I’ll come out in favor of an assault weapon ban,” Heidel said. “(Fischer) receives money from the NRA and I doubt she’s in favor of banning assault weapons.”

Heidel believes opposing the incumbent on two controversial subjects will prove to be favorable among millennial voters.

“The assault ban and getting costs under control are key,” he said. “I think millennials will respond well to my message.”

The mathematician-turned-politician also has a plan to reduce the cost of health care in America, explaining that he favors moving away from employer-provided plans.

“Employers don’t have enough skin in the game,” he said. “They don’t have enough incentive to hold costs down. Let employees opt to personal insurance. They can save money in many cases. Giving them the option of migrating to personal insurance would save money for the employee and the employer.”

In preparation for the May 15 primary, Heidel plans to traverse much of the state and share his plan for reduced spending.

“We don’t have to cut and slash, but we have to hold costs down,” Heidel said. “The parties need to work together instead of fighting all the time.”

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Beatrice man arrested for kicking in door

Beatrice Police arrested a man who they say kicked in a door after claiming someone was trying to kill him.

Logan Allen Retherford, 18, was arrested early Tuesday morning for disorderly conduct, criminal mischief and criminal trespassing.

On Feb. 27 at 12:30 a.m., Beatrice Police were called to a North 10th Street residence where it was reported that a man was banging on the door and claiming someone was trying to kill him.

En route to the scene, officers were advised that the man had fled on foot. While attempting to locate him, the officers received a report that the man had returned to the residence and had entered the home.

Officers made contact with the caller and found the man, identified as Retherford, inside the home. The side door had a muddy footprint on it and had sustained damage from being kicked open.

Retherford does not live at the residence, police said. He didn’t know anyone living there and did not have permission to be inside the home.

Retherford later admitted to police that he had ingested methamphetamine about three hours prior and admitted to kicking the door in to enter the home.

Police placed Retherford under arrest and charged him with disorderly conduct, criminal mischief and criminal trespassing.

On Tuesday morning, Retherford was released upon his own recognizance and was ordered not to be within one block of the home on North 10th Street and to reside with his parents and obey all rules of their household. He is scheduled to appear in court again on March 20.