School Board approves fee waivers, explores joining social media lawsuit, snow day makeup for Monticello
By David Boyle
Members of the San Juan School Board approved fee waivers and spend plans and discussed joining a lawsuit against social media companies at their latest meeting.
At their March 8 meeting, members of the board approved fee waivers and spend plans for the 2023-2024 school year.
The spend plans outline the maximum out-of-pocket cost that parents would pay for their students to participate in activities, including sports, music, and drama.
In addition to spend plans, the board also approved program sustainability fees that are required for students to participate in activities.
Participation in school programs is made available to low-income students through a fee-waiver program. Families who qualify through an application have the required fees and expenses covered by the district, including covering meals for students while traveling.
The board approved the plans for activities at all middle and high schools in the district. Part of that the plans includes a seven percent increase to match inflation. Those amounts include an increase from $30 to $32 a night for hotels, as well as an increase in the amount spent on meals from $12 to $13 per meal.
The district also added a new activity for a ‘spirit bus’. The spirit bus activity would allow the general student body to ride a bus and attend state championship games for volleyball, basketball, or football.
Speaking to the board, Whitehorse High Principal Kim Schaffer reported that the program allows activities at her school to thrive where programs such as band, would previously just scrape by.
“The fee waiver and spend plan is removing the barriers for kids so there is equity, and beyond equity, empowerment,” said Schaffer.
The district reported waiving $156,007 in fees during the prior academic year, with those fees likely to increase this current year over the last. The district did not have readily available the amount in fees paid by parents.
Board member Merri Shumway expressed concern about the scheduled increase in fees, and was the lone vote against the spend plan approval. She said she believes those increases should be absorbed by district funds. Shumway notes while the increase is small, the increases add up.
“I know of people who have told their kids ‘we don’t qualify for the fee waiver and they can’t work and participate to be able to pay for this so I told my children they can’t participate.’”
Superintendent Ron Nielson said he recognizes the challenges of families facing inflation, as well as programs that need to cover expenses. Nielson listed examples of program costs, including recertifying helmets, or a Monticello team who chose to bus to a state tournament and back rather than pay the $200 per night at a hotel which was past the program budget.
Nielson highlighted one option for families who don’t qualify for fee waivers: the district could emphasize in schools an individual non-required fundraiser.
“They could go (raise funds) and every dime of profit goes to the fees they’ve incurred. They don’t have to do it but if they choose everything comes back to their fees,” said Nielson.
Board member Steven Black explained why he is not opposed to having the fees keep up with inflation. “The value of the dollar has become smaller, so if you increase the revenue for the fees by that amount then you’re just on par economically with the year before. If we don’t increase the fees to keep up with inflation then we’re actually decreasing the fees economically speaking.”
A letter from Whitehorse High school community member Carolene Johnson was read during public comment. Johnson recommended increasing the budget for meals from $12 to $25.
“As you may know, meals are very costly, and taken into consideration that taxes are not included. Eating at a quick service restaurant or fast food restaurant is not considered the healthiest meal for our scholars. We would like to have our scholars eat a healthy meal or a meal that they desire.”
The district approved the spend plans, including the seven percent increase to adjust for inflation, Shumway voted against, saying she’d like to see those increases absorbed by district funds.
At the meeting, members of the board voted to write an engagement letter to move forward with action in a social media lawsuit.
The contingency lawsuit means the district pays no funds out of pocket to join the suit. If the school districts win, they will split 80 percent of the compensation with other districts, likely weighted by district student population. The remaining 20 percent will act as payment for the law firm bringing forth the suit.
The cost for the district is in staff time. Nielson reported that according to data from a previous lawsuit, it is estimated district administrative staff would use two-to-four hours to fill out the required questionnaires.
A similar suit was brought by a group of school districts against the tobacco vaping company Juul. While the San Juan School District did not participate, other districts in Utah will split millions of dollars over years in a pay-out from a settlement with Juul.
Similarly, the Franz Law Group is helping bring a suit against social media companies such as Meta, Youtube, and Tik Tok. Speaking at the board meeting was Heidi Alder, local counsel for any Utah school district that joins.
Alder explained the suit, “There’s some evidence that the algorithms that they use internally for what pops up when users are utilizing their platform are catered to addicting youth.”
Alder pointed out that as a result, schools have used resources to address issues rising from social media addiction and social media bullying and that the companies involved ought to be held accountable.
Nielson said district staff supports entering the settlement “The principals are very bold that they’ve seen substantial consequences, interruptions or negative results from social media in the schools.”
The board voted to write an engagement letter to move forward with the social media lawsuit.
Members of the board also heard reports from the principals at Montezuma Creek Elementary and Whitehorse High schools.
Montezuma Creek Elementary principal Anita Jacobsen reported highlights including increases in scores in math for Kindergarten through third graders, as well as improvements in English Language Arts scores.
Challenges highlighted for the elementary school include making up the gap from years when the Covid pandemic kept students at home. Other current challenges for the school include increased mental health needs and poor student attendance.
Jacobsen reports that the district is addressing student attendance including sending letters of celebration when students have good attendance and reminders to those with poor attendance
Whitehorse High principal Kim Schaffer highlighted their work to address attendance by assigning para-educators to check in with students who have issues with chronic absenteeism. One challenge highlighted was an increased number of major behavioral incidents in the school and mental health needs as well.
Speaking during public comment San Juan County Commissioner Jamie Harvey offered his support of the two principals in Montezuma Creek. Harvey emphasized issues of absenteeism and behavioral issues highlighted during reports.
“As I try to the best of my ability to address some of those needs that principal Schaffer has highlighted. I would also ask for support from this board.”
Harvey asked for help as he planned, along with Navajo Nation Council Delegates Herman Daniels and Curtis Yanito, to meet with the Navajo Nation Public Safety division about how to address the need for school safety officers in schools.
At the meeting members of the board also approved a plan to make up for instructional time missed by Monticello students on February 22 for a snow day. The district approved a plan to make two Friday half-days into full instructional days. Teachers and students will have a full “B” schedule day on Friday, March 31, and April 14 to make up for the missed instructional time due to the snowstorm that impacted the Monticello schools.
While the board did not hold a formal conversation regarding capital plan updates they did receive a public comment from Blanding resident Mason Lyman who asked that the district prioritize a new school for Blanding Elementary.
“I’m here to advocate for the construction of a new elementary school rather than a simple remodel of an existing building that is over 50 years old. As a parent I want my child to have the best education possible. That includes having a safe and modern learning environment.”
Lyman added the impacts that a physical environment can have on academic performance and well-being ought to be considered as well as the overall long-term costs of maintenance on the building in the future rather than a new school.
“I do not disagree that more gym practice space may be needed but I believe finding different or new funding can be found and not strip that from the funding for the younger scholars at BES.”
At the meeting members of the board also voted to approve the new Superintendent Christy Fitzgerald’s 2023-2025 contract as well as provisional contract renewals for other district staff.
Members of the board also received an open and public meetings act training, as well as a board handbook overview as part of their work session.