Saline Board of Education Names Laatsch Interim Superintendent, Elects Officers

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The following is live reporting from the Jan. 12, 2021 Board of Education meeting.

The meeting began with Trustee Dennis Valenti welcoming the new trustees - Aramide Boatswain, Jenny Miller and Brad Gerbe - to the board.

Organizational Meeting

Valenti opened nominations for president. Valenti nominated Jennifer Steben. Trustees Michael McVey and Susan Estep self-nominated. Steben received five votes. Estep and McVey voted for themselves.

Valenti nominated McVey as vice-president. Estep self-nominated. Valenti, McVey, Steben, Boatswain, Gerbe and Miller voted for McVey.

Valenti nominated Trustee Estep for secretary. There were no other nominations. Estep was elected 7-0.

Valenti called for a motion to adjourn, which was the board provided and approved.

The regular meeting began at 6:41 with President Steben presiding.

Public Comment

David Raft, principal of SHS, welcomed the new board trustees. Raft said he hopes the board sees the need for consistency in the Saline district. He urged the board to not waiver in naming Dr. Steve Laatsch as interim superintendent.

Administration Updates

Superintendent Graden said the district had 156 students in class while most of the district was virtual. he thanked the teachers and staff for their support of those students. Graden said the WISD was scheduled to review the district's seclusion and restraint policies and practices, but due to the pause, the review was delayed. A report should be finished by February. Graden provided a special shout-out to the swim and dive team competing at the state meet in Hudsonville Friday and Saturday.

Student Rep Update

Noah Socha, student body representative, welcomed the new board members and newly elected officers. Socha thanked Graden for his many years of service to the district.  He wished the swim team well. He congratulated the football team on a great season. He noted NHS doubled food collection, bringing in 15,000 pounds of food for Saline Area Social Service.  Students had discussions about the incident at the Capitol in Washington DC. A new math club has formed to participate in competitions and support other students in their learning.  Socha said he was thrilled to be back in the classroom two days a week, and said he hoped people would continue to follow guidelines so students can return full time.

Trustee Comments

Trustee Boatswain said she was humbled to be on the board. She thanked the staff for meeting the needs of students. She thanked families for the grace and patience as the district navigates the pandemic.

Trustee Gerbe said he was excited to join the team. He said he considered himself fortunate to have kids in the classrooms of Saline staff.

Trustee Miller wished everyone a happy new year. She said there was a lot of work to do in 2021 in our community and in the world. She told teachers she is imploring people in the community to follow guidelines to keep classrooms safe. She thanked Graden for his service to the district and thanked the board for their warm reception.

Trustee Estep said she was glad to hear the new trustees are doing MASB training and said she hoped to learn from the new trustees.

Vice-President McVey said he learned about a lot of concern in the education world about the rollout of vaccines to teachers. He said he hoped to hear soon about the revenue situation in Michigan and how that might impact school funding.

Trustee Valenti talked about the pride he has in the community and our teachers. He said it was great to see kids smiling as they waited at the bus stop this morning. "In this time, anything that brings us back to normal makes us feel very good," Valenti said. He noted the parents' smiles were even wider.

President Steben focused on the positivity she heard at the table and said she was hopeful for the school district. She said she was looking forward to working with a collaborative team. She said the district planned to be transparent and efficient in finding a successor to Graden.

Approval of the Agenda

Estep asked for a revision to the agenda to add a discussion item on the superintendent search. The board passed the amended agenda.

Enrollment Report

Superintendent Graden provided an enrollment report. Graden said the district knew the district was losing students to homeschooling. Total enrollment is down, but the smoothing effect added to school funding means the decline hasn't hurt financially yet.

Typically the district sees students move in, Graden said. Usually, students who left moved out of the district or enrolled in another school district.

This year, the district is losing more students to homeschooling. The headcount is down 225 this year. The district reached out to parents. 11 families said they planned to send children back to school. 23 families said they wouldn't return. 32 families said it was not yet determined.

COVID-19 was the number reason, Graden said. But there were a sizable number of parents who left the district who felt the curriculum was becoming too progressive for their families.

He said safety was going to be critical to convincing families to bring students back.

Graden said the district may want to change its schools of choice policies to help deal with enrollment losses. Another idea, he said, is innovative options. Graden said the district may want to continue building on its virtual learning successes.

Trustee Valenti said the district must closely watch the enrollment count but said there may be distortion in the data and cautioned making long-term decisions based on preliminary data.

Graden recommended striking an internal committee to study options around schools of choice.  The district has used schools of choice to buffer against volatility in enrollment. Board policy said no more than 10 percent of the student body should live outside of the district.

Trustee Miller said any discussions around schools of choice should be mindful of diversity, equity and inclusion. Miller said schools of choice can decimate districts that are already struggling. 

Trustee Boatswain said she'd like to see analytics about why students are leaving - especially in the elementary levels, where the losses were pronounced.

President Steben asked if Graden has entertained the idea of conversations with parents about their concerns and reasons for leaving. Graden said the district has talked about a spring assessment.

Trustee Gerbe said if the district loses students at the elementary level, there's a compounding financial problem.

Trustee Estep asked if the board could see more data around the profiles of the students who've left.

Graden Retirement

Graden said it was a wonderful opportunity and an absolute honor to be superintendent of the district. He's moving to the Petoskey area to get into the boat business.

His last day in the office is Jan. 29. 

President Steben said Graden will be missed. Trustee Boatswain said she appreciated the way Graden embraced the challenges thrown his way this year. Trustee Miller thanked Graden for his hard work and effort and wished him well up north. Trustee Gerbe also offered thanks and noted the rare continuity Graden provided the district. Trustee Estep said Graden was leaving the district in a really good position. Vice-President McVey said he appreciated Graden's leadership.

Laatsch Named Interim Superintendent

VP McVey moved to name Dr. Steve Laatsch as the interim superintendent of the district, calling him a soldier and warrior and passionate educator for Saline Area Schools.

Trustee Miller said in these unstable times, the appointment of Laatsch would bring stability. She said she's been overwhelmed by feedback from teachers and families who trust Laatsch.

Trustee Gerbe echoed the comments about continuity and stability, which help teachers focus on their students and classes.

Trustee Valenti said 14 years ago the district hired Graden as an interim before they conducted a thorough search and hired Graden. Vice-President McVey said the board plans to conduct a very public and thorough search for a full-time superintendent.

Trustee Boatswain said she wanted clarification about whether the rest of the administration supported the move. Graden said Assistant Superintendent Curt Ellis and Assistant Superintendent Miranda Owsley agree Laatsch is best suited for the role.

Trustee Estep asked about the lack of a contract for Laatsch. Assistant Superintendent Ellis said Laatsch has a contract. The recommendation will be to continue the existing contract and then execute an addendum which would add additional compensation.

Graden said Laatsch wouldn't be replaced during the period when Laatsch was interim.

"Steve would truly be doing double duty," Graden said.

Trustee Miller noted the district would have a couple of months without saving both salaries. Graden said there would be savings of around $40,000 or $50,000.

The interim position is effective Jan. 13 through June 30.

The motion passe 7-0.

"I'd like to thank the board for your trust in me and our outstanding team to lead this district on an interim basis," Laatsch said. "I want to thank Scot for his outstanding mentorship for these 13 years. He's certainly helped my development without question and I'm very excited to get started."

High School Course Adoption

Laatsch outlined two elective philosophy courses to replace mythology classes within the English department. The classes would be taught by Zachary Ornelas.

A new Saline High School class entitled "Biomedical Innovation," taught by Al Zeiher, would be the final course on the Project Lead The Way Biomedical track.

Laatsch said if these courses don't get off the ground, in terms of enrollment, then they wouldn't run.

Trustee Boatswain said she knows there's been an ask for freshmen curriculum dealing with diversity. Laatsch said the process requires teachers to pitch the classes.

Return to Learn Update

Superintendent Graden reviewed COVID-19 data the district uses to decide how to offer in-person learning. He noted the only metric higher than expected is the positive test rate in Washtenaw County - but Graden expects it is falling based on recent daily case counts.

Graden said the district must be cautious. He said the positivity rate and case numbers must come down more before the district can increase in-person instruction.

Graden said the district is beginning conversations about summer learning, a literacy program that assesses and supports students. The district expects to offer more enrichment classes and camps through Community Education.

Saline Alternative High School has returned to four-day a week instruction in person.

The district wants to support the health department's vaccine roll-out, Graden said.

Hornet Homeroom will continue to be offered until the district gets to five-day-a-week in-person school or until the end of the school year.

Trustee Gerbe asked about the cost of literacy programs. Graden said the district will find a way to make it available to all families that need it.

Gerbe said it's important to him that teachers have no barriers to vaccination. 

Trustee Boatswain said it was important for younger students to have access to any literacy programs the district offers.

Trustee Miller asked who decides what metrics the district uses to make decisions. Graden said the district's COVID-19 committee includes administrative, bargaining committees and the school nurse.

Trustee Miller thanked the support staff for their extra efforts to keep schools clean and safe. Trustee Miller  said she hoped there would be a concerted effort with families of students who have literacy and other needs. 

Trustee Boatswain asked about class sizes when in-person classes resume. Superintendent Graden said some of those discussions about what classes look like are already taking place, but encouraged the board to keep the issue in mind.

Superintendent Search

President Steben said this was the first meeting of the new board and just starting the conversation about finding a permanent successor to Graden.

Trustee Estep suggested the board begin work on proposals and research to get the process started. Estep said there are a lot of superintendent positions opening across the state, so she wants to act soon. Estep said the MASB offered a two-hour course on hiring a superintendent.

Miller agreed, saying the board needs to get the ball rolling. Miller said community input will be important.

Vice-President McVey suggested an ad-hoc committee to determine if a search service or consultant was needed. President Steben said she was going to reach out to the board about committee assignments, which would include the ad-hoc search committee.

Trustee Boatswain said she preferred a special meeting rather than an ad-hoc committee, noting that hiring a superintendent was the district's most important job.

Student Rep Noah Socha said there should be student input in the search or interview process.

Trustee Valenti said the district should defer and listen to professionals to see what options are available as soon as possible.

Public Comment

Darcy Berwick talked about the district losing students because of the district becoming more progressive. She said the district has more work to do in this regard. She said there are people uncomfortable telling schools why they leave the district. Berwick said the district should look at why staff leave. She congratulated Graden on his move and said she enjoyed working with him. She congratulated Laatsch. She said he can be a trailblazer in one aspect of the job: Snowdays.

RaeLynn Davis welcomed the new trustees. She said she withdrew six of her children from the district. She said she wanted to work with the board on the issues. Part of it is COVID-19, she said. But there are other issues, she said.  She said the superintendent search might be a factor in whether families return their children to the district.

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