School District addresses future schedules, programs, and 6 percent raise

The San Juan School Board discussed start times for secondary schools, the diversity in administration initiative, and approved a six-percent base raise for licensed staff at their May 19 meeting.

The district plans to implement an A/B schedule for secondary schools starting next year, but how that impacts school start times was discussed at the meeting. 

Currently, secondary students attend eight different periods on school days. The newly proposed A/B schedule would have longer instruction times with periods one through four on Day A, and periods five through eight on Day B. 

Each day would also include time for teachers to plan together during a collaboration time. It would also include a “flex time” for personalized instructional support for students.

Superintendent Ron Nielson says that after receiving input and holding several discussions, he believes that staff support is generally high for the implementation of an A/B schedule in secondary schools.

In the River Region secondary schools of Whitehorse, Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain, there is general consensus amongst staff and parents regarding when the school day would start. 

“They’d actually like it as late as nine [a.m.],” said Nielson. “But if they have to compromise, they’d just like it as late as possible, towards nine. They are very clear on that. It’s been very unified, it’s consistent.”

As part of the meeting, several public comments from parents and staff at the River Region schools voiced support for a late start.

However, figuring out when to start the Mountain Region school day at ARL Middle School, San Juan and Monticello high schools will require staff and parents to weigh priorities.

Priorities include lining up elementary and secondary school start times, preferences for flex and collaboration time, the number of possible broadcast periods, bus routes, and even extracurricular start time will be considered.

Neilson presented two possible schedules for the Mountain Region schools. One would have students arrive for flex-time instruction at 8 a.m., with the first period of the day beginning at 8:40 a.m., and teacher collaboration from 2:55 to 3:30 p.m.

A second proposal would have teacher collaboration begin at 7:45 a.m., with the first period of the day starting at 8:25 a.m. and the day ending with flex time from 2:40 to 3:15 p.m.

Neilson says the district plans to send out surveys to staff and parents about the start times for the A/B schedule.

“By understanding priorities, you can start to say, ‘Well this is the highest priority,’” said Nielson. “If we are not going to get something included let’s at least know what the highest priority is and then the second highest and we can work from there.”

Nielson says they hope to have a final decision on the schedule in June.

The board also tabled the diversity in administration initiative for another meeting.

Eleven percent of the 27 district administrative jobs are held by those of Native American descent, while more than 50 percent of the district student population are Native Americans. Nielson explained the plan would look to change that.

“I believe we are a more healthy district, we are a more effective district, if we have a better balance,” said Nielson.

The idea to increase diversity in school district administrative ranks was first discussed in a January meeting. Since that time, Nielson has led a committee to further explore the idea.

The proposal would select two teachers a year from the district to be financially supported for up to three years in a program to obtain an administrator’s license.

The agreement would require successful candidates to work three to five additional years for the district or repay the investment on a prorated scale.

Initiating the plan over a proposed seven years would result in an administrator’s license for ten qualified minority teachers.

Those ten qualified applicants would not be guaranteed an administrative position, but they would be eligible to apply for those jobs in the district.

The initial high-cost estimate for the program would be $9,800 per year for each individual. So, the total cost would be $98,000 to create the pool of ten qualified administrators.

Utah State University has committed to cover one-third of those costs per-candidates and the Utah Navajo Trust has also committed to help cover costs for candidates in the program. However, Utah Navajo Trust funds will only be available to enrolled members of the Navajo Nation who live in Utah.

Further research by the district revealed that many scholarships and grants exist to help cover the education costs for Native American’s seeking higher education. Nielson suggested that applicants should seek those funds first, with the program filling in tuition gaps.

Nielson also outlined the criteria the district would use to choose the two candidates each year.

Two requirements would be that an applicant be a person of color with a minimum of five years of teaching experience.

From there, applicants would be weighed on a point system with preference given to applicants who are members of Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute or Paiute tribes, those who fluently speak Navajo, Ute or Paiute, and those who have lived a majority of their life in San Juan County.

Additional preference will be given to those who come with high recommendations from principals and school supervisors.

“We want a candidate that we believe will be a successful, effective principal,” said Nielson. “If we put the wrong person in that building it doesn’t matter regardless native, non-native anything if they’re not effective.”

Board member Nelson Yellowman expressed support of the general idea but stressed the importance of making sure that Utah Navajo Trust Funds are used appropriately, meaning that those funds only go to Utah Navajo candidates selected.

Whitehorse High School Principal Kim Schaffer, who has worked at Whitehorse high for 22 years, expressed her support of the diversity in administration proposal.

“As one of the non-natives who has been able to become an accepted member of the Native community, I want the board to know I am 100 percent in support of the diversity in leadership initiative,” said Schaffer. “I think it is vital for Native scholars to see Native teachers and administrators as leaders in schools serving Native scholars.”

Board member Merri Shumway moved to table the item to another meeting in order to address some concerns. 

Shumway voiced concern about using taxes collected for K-12 education to provide scholarships to adult employees, adding concerns of the difficulty of re-collecting money from those who leave the district prematurely. 

Additionally, Shumway asked for more clarification on who would be eligible for the program. The proposal document uses the phrase “persons of color”. Shumway asked for further clarification of what that means and how to determine eligibility.

Finally, Shumway also pointed out that thousands of dollars in scholarships are available from other sources and asked that language in the proposal require applicants to seek out those funds before using those provided by the district.

At the meeting, the board also approved the 2021-2022 negotiated contract for licensed employees. The contract includes a six-percent salary schedule base increase.

The district also had a preliminary discussion about the upcoming 2021-2022 fiscal budget. The board will adopt the budget at their next meeting in June.

The district also recognized Albert R. Lyman Middle School Principal Ryan Palmer and Vice Principal Stefnee Turk for their work with a San Juan Sweet Job award. 

Palmer and Turk were nominated by peers and employees, recognizing their efforts at the middle school in Blanding. 

Work highlighted by the administrative team included efforts to recognize staff during teacher appreciation week, implementation of a behavior reward system for students, and additional hours of work for the school.

The board also heard from several members of the public, including the previously mentioned parents of students at Whitehorse and Monument Valley high schools, who expressed support for a later start time for students.

Additionally, several parents of students in Monticello, Blanding and La Sal expressed their continued disapproval of mask mandates in schools. Commenters thanked the district for giving parents the choice to medically exempt their students from wearing masks at the previous board meeting.

A recent order issued by Utah Governor Spencer Cox dropped mask requirements across the state for the last week of school. The order did not impact the Navajo Nation health order, which still requires masks in schools on the reservation.

Additional comments included thank you’s from district staff for the six-percent cost of living raise.

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