STC, North Tama to share superintendent, two other positions come 2024-2025 school year

NEWS CHRONICLE PHOTO BY ALLISON GRAHAM — South Tama County Superintendent John Cain speaks to the board of education during their regular meeting on Monday. Under a newly announced operational sharing agreement with North Tama, Cain would begin splitting his time between the two districts next school year. Pictured next to Cain is School Board President Elizabeth Dolezal and Board Secretary Katie Mathern.

TAMA – In a move presented as a cost-saving measure for both districts, the South Tama County Board of Education introduced and ultimately approved a new sharing agreement with North Tama for three positions — including superintendent — during its regular meeting on Monday evening.

Under the arrangement, current STC Superintendent John Cain would divide his time at the beginning of the 2024-2025 school year — 60 percent at South Tama and 40 percent at North Tama. Cain is in his second year at STC after being hired to replace Jared Smith in 2022.

Additionally, the agreement proposes sharing the services of South Tama Maintenance Director Steve McAdoo and Assistant Business Manager Katie Hulin, who will focus primarily on assisting North Tama with payroll. The time split for these two positions would be 80 percent South Tama and 20 percent North Tama.

As previously reported in the News Chronicle, Cain has proposed over $1 million in cuts without eliminating the positions of any current staff members as the board prepares to finalize the district’s 2024-2025 budget. The sharing agreement is estimated to yield savings of just under $275,000 per year.

At a special session meeting on March 11, the South Tama school board voted in a split decision to approve advertising for a curriculum director position. Currently, Samantha Peska serves as South Tama’s director of curriculum and student services and would continue in her capacity as the director of student services.

NEWS CHRONICLE PHOTO BY ALLISON GRAHAM — During Monday night’s meeting, Secondary Instructional Coach Seth Koch was one of two South Tama employees to voice concerns to the board of education about staff morale through the last few months amidst discussions of budget cuts for the upcoming school year. Koch presented information to the board about improvements the district has made across several different metrics, including standardized test scores, since the pandemic in 2020.

The rationale given for splitting that position and hiring a standalone curriculum director was due to the anticipated changes being discussed by the Iowa Legislature to the state’s Area Education Agencies (AEAs) with concern that special education services currently provided by the AEA might not be available in the future and that Peska may need to absorb some of those duties in her role.

The decision to advertise for a new administrative position drew criticism from some South Tama staff members, two of whom were present Monday to address the board during the public comment portion near the beginning of the meeting before the sharing agreement was announced.

High School Science Teacher Audrey Roth discussed what she felt have been mixed messages sent to staff around the recent budget cuts.

“I think we need to step back and look at the ways we communicate in general,” Roth said. “I pay taxes in town and in this county, and I’m truly perplexed by the happenings over the last couple of months. First, we were told that there was an anticipated budget shortfall of a million dollars and that cuts would need to be made. We wanted those cuts to be equitable across all departments. However, last week, when we decided to open up that new administrative position, it appears we’re not valuing those people who work for us every day. I will say that I think many of us who are employed here are questioning the wisdom of the board to advertise and hire a curriculum director when we have been asked to eliminate positions in our own building. It’s tough to believe that what we do as staff is appreciated and valued when those kinds of positions are eliminated but yet another administrative position is created. We need to keep people in spots that serve our students every day.”

Secondary Instructional Coach Seth Koch spoke on the topic of staff morale and how it’s related to some recent budget decisions made by the board.

“I think we need to recognize the great things that our staff is doing,” Koch said. “I mean, you have a staff working extremely hard and they’re being asked to do more and more with fewer resources all the time. And I think that was pretty evident last week with some comments that you guys made. I think we need to spend more time looking at some of the successes that we’re having, rather than dwelling on everything else that’s going on in the district. If you really want to see continued growth, you need to look at your staff and want to keep your staff here. I got asked to write three letters of recommendation this week. Those are people I don’t want to see leave.”

After announcing the North Tama sharing agreement at Monday’s meeting, Cain said the only reason he felt comfortable proposing a separate curriculum director position was because of the cost savings being realized from the sharing agreement with North Tama.

South Tama’s school board unanimously approved the sharing agreement with minimal discussion following Cain’s announcement of the arrangement. Up until that point, it had not been made public which district STC would be working with and which positions were being considered for operational sharing.

In February, it was announced that North Tama Superintendent David Hill had been hired to fill the same position at Waverly-Shell Rock. North Tama previously operated with a similar sharing arrangement with Gladbrook-Reinbeck from 2016 to 2020, when Hill served both districts. Since 2020, his position has been entirely with North Tama but in a 3/4 time capacity.

Cain said the agreement had been discussed by North Tama’s school board and that they were generally in favor of it. It will now go before the North Tama board for formal approval at a special session sometime in early April.

North Tama savings

In an email sent Tuesday afternoon to the newspaper, Hill said that if the operational sharing proposal is approved by the North Tama school board, no North Tama employees would lose their jobs as a result.

“The ‘other business official’ position and ‘maintenance director’ position will be new additions for North Tama,” Hill said. “But because of state sharing incentives, our district will actually make money by adding these positions.”

Under the proposal, North Tama would pay for 20 percent of the total salary and benefits for the two positions.

“We’ll have access to their services approximately one day per week on average,” Hill continued. “The operational sharing incentive dollars provided by the state will be greater than the dollar amount that North Tama spends on our portion of the salary and benefits, so we’ll actually be ahead financially by adding the positions.”

The shared business official, Hill said, would take over payroll processing for North Tama.

“This will reduce the workload for North Tama’s [school business official] Sarah Forrester, which is a good thing since she may have some additional duties added to her list of responsibilities with a shared superintendent,” Hill said.

North Tama’s current transportation director, Joel Larsen, is set to retire on June 30, with Mike Morrison hired to replace him. Morrison’s position will not be affected by the proposed operational sharing proposal, Hill said.

“The ‘maintenance director position’ will supplement our current custodial workforce. South Tama’s current maintenance director has vast experience with major facility projects and has a proven track record of identifying opportunities for efficiencies in facility maintenance and operation. This will be a real benefit to North Tama as the district embarks upon the construction of a new high school addition and other facility upgrades,” Hill said.

At presstime, a date had not yet been set for a special session of the North Tama school board to address the sharing proposal, but Hill said the district would ideally like to move on it soon.

“I’ve polled the board members about their availability for the entire week next week. We’d like to get the sharing ‘locked in’ as we truly believe it will be beneficial for North Tama,” he said. “With the sharing incentives added in plus the sharing in the cost of all three positions, it is my best estimate that the financial boost will amount to about $1 million for North Tama over a five-year period.”

High school switch to Chromebooks

Information Technology Coordinator Mary Mixdorf presented a proposal from the STC Technology Committee that would seek to replace the Apple iPads being used by high school students with Dell Chromebook laptops.

The committee ran a pilot study earlier this year with a small group of high school students and after gathering input from students and staff decided the Chromebooks would give students more flexibility and would make for a more future-proof solution compared to the Apple iPads.

Mixdorf reported that the full cost of the update would come from ESSER funds that had been allocated to the school for technology upgrades as part of the federal COVID-19 pandemic relief effort. Additionally, the district would recoup some of their investment in their fleet of iPads, originally purchased in 2018, through a buyback program with Apple.

The board unanimously approved the committee recommendation for the Chromebooks, which will be rolled out to students for the 2024-25 school year.

Attendance and discipline update

High School Assistant Principal Amy Karg presented to the board an update on attendance and student discipline at the high school.

In years past, consequences took a more punitive approach including lunch detention and in school suspensions and it wasn’t working.

The high school has also implemented a new way to track behaviors including documenting minor and major infractions. An example of a minor would be misuse of cell phones in the classroom while a major could include fighting or lack of attendance.

The minor and major infraction data is then compiled in a matrix so staff can observe trends in behavior issues and track how effective certain consequences are in addressing those issues.

Activities update

Participation numbers in high school are remaining consistent according to South Tama High School Activities Director Chelsea Ahrens, who presented a report to the board Monday. A few activities that have seen growth included girls wrestling, esports and football cheerleading.

Ahrens noted the high school has needed to hire additional extracurricular staff to address higher participation numbers in the football cheerleading and FFA programs.

“Our ultimate goal is to have everyone involved in an activity, and it doesn’t have to be a sport,” said Ahrens.

A student engagement committee has met twice this school year. One of their goals is to try and find ways to get every student involved in at least one activity. Some barriers to students joining include completing a sports physical exam. Ahrens is exploring ideas for ways to cover the cost for students.

Calendar updates

Students’ last day of school in 2024 will be May 29 after an additional 11.2 instructional hours were added in a change to the 2023-2024 school calendar approved by the board Monday.

The board also finalized the 2024-2025 school calendar which sets the first day of school on Aug. 23.

Early out days will return to Wednesdays under next year’s calendar. Also, the traditional parent-teacher conference schedule will return with conferences being set for Tuesday and Thursday evenings in the fall and spring.

In other business, the board:

Accepted the resignations of three staff members including Vanessa Rivera, Elementary At-Risk Liaison; Lori Dvorak, High School Special Education and Alison Brezina, Bus Driver.

Approved the following quotes and invoices: a construction invoice to ISG for $15,000, a quote for hand dryers at the new middle school in the amount of $9,565.50, an invoice to Kay Chapman CPA for annual audit services in the amount of $7,250, an invoice from Cornelius Seed for the FFA program to purchase corn seed in the amount of $5,600.65, a construction invoice from Terracon for the middle school project in the amount of $6,188.25, a renewal of the school district’s insurance program through Wellmark in the amount of $149,556, an invoice from TLC Lawn Care in Toledo for $19,450 to mow, spray and fertilize the school’s baseball, softball, football and practice fields, and a quote from BSN Sports for $6,287.86 to purchase new volleyball uniforms. Roughly 2/3 of the cost of the volleyball uniforms will be covered by fundraising dollars the volleyball program has generated over the past year.