Wadena County Commissioners approved sharing a $370,000 chunk of the CARES Act funds with five school districts within Wadena County during the Tuesday, Sept. 22 board meeting.

Superintendents from the five districts shared their case for requesting a portion of the $1.7 million in funds Wadena County received this summer. They each expressed the high costs, and in some cases high losses, they have experienced directly related to COVID-19.

In Wadena-Deer Creek, Superintendent Lee Wetsrum noted that the school district has added costs related to cleaning products, an added custodian for cleaning, an additional food service employee for packaging of all meals, plexiglass dividers for all lunch tables and technology costs to allow for potentially all students to take part in distance learning.

Custodian John Scheiding installs social distancing decals for the hallways (made by Signs & Designs of Wadena).
Dana Cantleberry/WDC Schools
Custodian John Scheiding installs social distancing decals for the hallways (made by Signs & Designs of Wadena). Dana Cantleberry/WDC Schools

“The list goes on and on and on,” Westrum said.

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On top of those added costs, the school is down students from what they anticipated, and budgeted for. W-DC was expecting 30 more students. At this time, students not attending at the five districts are either homeschooling or in an online academy option outside of the school district’s distance learning option. One major reason for not returning to school seemed to stand out for Sebeka Superintendent Dave Fjeldheim.

“We have parents up in our area who just do not believe in masking at all and that’s why they won’t send their children back to school. That mandate, if that were lifted, I think we would probably have most of those kids back. We know the safety precaution that that also provides for us,” Fjeldheim said.

Sebeka was down about 40 students, Staples-Motley 30 and Verndale about 25, significant losses, but that’s not nearly the painful loss Mehaga School District is experiencing right now. They are down 216 students. If that loss is maintained throughout the school year, that’s a loss of $2.3 million in funding.

“That is our reality right now,” Menahga Supt. Kevin Wellen said. Wellen said that shocking number is one that the school district has to look at with patience. If students come back, they can start recovering those losses.

And like the others, Menahga has had to deal with added costs too. Wellen said if they received funding from the county, it would likely go towards paying for an additional nurse the school district brought on that will deal specifically with COVID-19 symptomatic students.

The other superintendents shared similar stories of high costs and great losses.

Westrum said school districts can’t just raise taxes to pay for these costs. He said to keep taxes low, the best thing to do would be to funnel some of their CARES Act funding to the school districts.

Westrum said that schools have received funding but that was quickly spent for immediate needs in technology and safety.

“Yes, we received money, but it’s not enough and there's a lot of unknowns,” Westrum said.

Commissioners were all in favor of disbursement of funds to W-DC, Verndale, Sebeka, Menahga and Staples-Motley schools, except Commissioner Jon Kangas. Kangas previously questioned sending funds to the schools as he said they have received funds already from other sources. After Commissioner Jim Hofer brought that up, Kangas responded that he did not say that schools received adequate funding.

Kangas further questioned the motion saying that to be most equitable he felt funds could be distributed based on greatest need. Seeing Menahga appeared to suffer more, he felt more should go there. Supt. Wellen responded that he believed the equal distribution based on an amount per child residing in Wadena County was the most equitable.

Kangas then questioned if Staples-Motley students should be included since the school is in Todd County. S-M Supt. Shane Tappe responded that he and his children live in Wadena County and he felt he and others living in the county should not be excluded. There are 220 students attending S-M that live in Wadena County, according to the school district.

Stearns said he respects the Region 5 boundaries. Sheldon Monson said they serve the students not the buildings.

Considering the amount of $370,000 that was approved, it worked out to about $174 per student. That’s considering 742 at W-DC, 368 at Verndale, 402 at Sebeka, 392 at Menahga and 220 at Staples-Motley.

The most current distribution of funds from Wadena County CARES Act funds looks like this with funds spread amongst county operations, small businesses and schools.
Chart courtesy Wadena County
The most current distribution of funds from Wadena County CARES Act funds looks like this with funds spread amongst county operations, small businesses and schools. Chart courtesy Wadena County

The county has also paid out in big ways to other areas of the county. The board has approved the following disbursements so far:

$397,500- Total for county costs. This includes costs for an employee directing and admitting people into the courthouse; architect costs for courthouse updates; and costs derived from all departments.

$500,000- This amount has been set aside for the Small Business Grant Program. It has not all been paid out but commissioners approved spending up to that amount.

$424,593- This is the estimated cost of creating a larger courtroom, either as an addition to the existing courthouse or at a different location. It appears the cost may be less than this amount based on recent cost estimates.

$370,000- For five area school districts to cover COVID-19 related expenses.

$1,692,093- The total amount of CARES Act funding for the county.