While positive cases of COVID-19 remain high in the area, the decrease over the past few weeks have been an “encouraging” sign to Wadena-Deer Creek Superintendent Lee Westrum. The schools have also seen improvements with a handful of staff and students waiting for test results or in quarantine due to being close contacts. WDC school board members and staff discussed the next steps during the most recent board meeting Monday, Dec. 14.

If cases remain steady, 7-12th grade students could return to hybrid learning on Jan. 19. Students would likely remain in hybrid learning for about three weeks before a possible return to in-person learning. There is a distance learning period for pre-K-12th graders after Christmas from Jan. 4-15.

Westrum also noted the positive news of the COVID-19 vaccine, which is first available to health care workers and people in long-term care facilities. There are limited doses available with additional doses available to the public possibly in spring or summer 2021.

“We’re lobbying hard that school personnel will be in that next wave of essential workers and … that would help us a lot too to get the staff vaccinated as soon as possible,” Westrum said.

The big question is when sports will return, and how having sports and students and staff at the school will impact one another. Hybrid learning in the fall along with sports created a tough situation in the fall, with schedules near the end of the season “miserable,” as Westrum and athletics director and dean of students Norm Gallant said. The winter sports are also all indoors with sports like wrestling including close contact. The indoor factor, which has less air circulation and people in a confined space, impacted fall sports like volleyball with an increased number of COVID-19 cases, according to Gallant.

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“I had to be that COVID coach, you saw me walking the sidelines asking the kids to spread out and mask up, and it’s no fault of their own they’re kids and that’s the way they are. So I think that’s going to continue to be an issue,” Gallant said.

Gallant noted his “conflicted” feelings about beginning practices before Christmas if Walz resumes sports on Dec. 21. The benefits of starting on Dec. 21 include one more contest and coaches being able to meet with students. The drawbacks include possibly exposing students to the coronavirus and only having practice for a few days at a time due to the holidays. The Minnesota State High School League passed three schedules with possible start dates for winter sports.

If the pause on sports is not extended, WDC sport practices will begin on Dec. 28, as the school board unanimously voted.

Clean audit

The Wadena-Deer Creek School District reviewed finances for the 2021 levy and the financial audit for July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.

The district again received a “clean” audit report, which is the highest opinion based on no material misstatements, as Eide Bailly senior manager Luke Evenson said. The two audit findings under financial statements included a lack of segregation of duties and employee personnel forms. The small finance staff at the district, like many other school districts, means staff have more duties rather than being able to separate them. There were also a few missing I-9 employee forms in the district. There were no deficiency findings in the federal awards and Minnesota legal compliance categories.

The district received and spent approximately $1,072,000 in federal awards, largely for grants related to the pandemic. Districts across the state could see future cash flow impacts due to tax payments below the state budget and a possible change in the state funding structure following the pandemic. The state released its November forecast with a $641 million surplus. Another forecast will be released in February.

Westrum said the district would be OK if the state changed the structure. Over the years, the state would have to pay back the funds if a shift is made. State sources are the district’s highest revenue source, as Evenson said.

“With our fund balance where we’re at I don’t want a shift but we’re in a position where we can handle that if that does happen, so I’m not worried about that,” Westrum said.

The district could also be helped by their positive fund balance with a 2% in total revenues and 0.4% positive in expenditures.

“We do have a little bit of cushion there if revenues do fall short or if there are cash flow issues in future years and it gives the district a little bit of cushion maybe if our state funding formula is decreased a little bit and we’re aren’t receiving some of those cash payments as timely as we have in the previous years,” Evenson said.

Wadena-Deer Creek has also increased their total fund balance over the last three-four years with 2020 stable.

The food service fund surpassed the Minnesota Department of Education limits, which are in place to ensure students are not overcharged for meals and that funds from the state and federal government are spent on food programs. The district will submit a plan to spend down in future years, as business manager Brian Jacobson said. The elementary and middle high schools have new equipment purchased in 2018, which was the last year the district surpassed the limit.

The audit was approved unanimously. Once the final audit is complete, if there are any substantial changes the board will review and approve them.

Truth in taxation

Jacobson highlighted differences in the 2021 levy compared to the previous year. The levy includes funds from taxpayers and the state. The Ag2School state aid, which limits agricultural property taxes, increased to 55% with plans to increase to 70% by 2023.

Jacobson said the funds do not include “any significant changes” with the general fund seeing a 1.35% decrease, community service fund 1.12% and debt service fund 1.04%.

The district also had revenues higher than the budget for fiscal year 2020 with average daily membership of students increased between the years, according to Jacobson.

No members of the public attended the hearing.

The 2021 final levy was approved unanimously for $2,097,745.22. The 2020 final levy was $2,123,825.57.

In other action

The board approved:

  • The hires of Robby and Lori Grendahl as National Honor Society co-advisors.

  • The paying of the district’s bills totaling $354,147.57.

  • Donations to the district totaling $1,239.

The board also recognized and thanked eighth grade science teacher Brad Wollum for his development of a drone class for juniors and seniors in fall 2020.