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Owatonna teen builds shed at Rachel's Light for American Heritage Girls project
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Seventeen-year-old Jeni Burtis will soon have another pin on her sash, as she is set to complete her highest level of recognition for American Heritage Girls.

The Owatonna resident is just about to put the finishing touches on her final project, a shed for Rachel’s Light, an Owatonna transitional home for women and children facing homelessness. Project completion, which has a deadline of August, will earn Burtis her final award, the Stars and Stripes Award.

American Heritage Girls is a Christian-based scouting-like organization for girls ages five through 18. Burtis has been a part of the organization since she was five years old.

“I like that we get to meet with other girls my age and grow spiritually and learn about God and spend time together,” Burtis said about her favorite part of American Heritage Girls.

The program helps girls to build their leadership skills and confidence while earning badges and level awards. In order to earn the highest award available, the Stars and Stripes Award, Burtis had to implement the project by herself. Although she does give credit to her mentor Marie Olinger.

“She provides guidance for me and helps me come up with ideas and make sure I stay on the right track,” Burtis said.

Burtis recalls meeting with members of Rachel’s Light after selecting the organization as her project site. Following a brainstorming session, the group determined a new shed would be ideal to hold the organization’s donations.

She began working on the project last spring and has been working for about a year now. She wrote a nearly 30-page document which covered the details of her project plan, which was then sent to the national American Heritage Girls for approval prior to the build.

“I had to do a little bit of research, but my dad knows a lot about building stuff so he helped me out,” Burtis said, adding that they had help from volunteers as well.

Before she is able to earn her pin, Burtis must complete a summary report, which she says will likely be another 30-page document.

The shed is almost complete although paint is still needed. In the meantime, Burtis continues to work on the fundraising aspect of the project. She hopes to help raise money for the $4,000 shed. As the lead organizer of the fundraiser, Burtis has raised $1,000 so far.

Those interested in donating may visit the Rachel’s Light website at rachelslight.com and click on the donation tab, she explained. Donors can then note in the message box that they would like to make a donation to the shed project.

COVID-19 aid impacts Medford schools budget
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The Medford school district is being conservative with its 2021-22 budget due to several unknowns still.

The Medford School Board unanimously approved Monday its preliminary 2021-22 budget, which begins July 1.

The Medford school district anticipates $9.4 million in general fund revenue and $10.3 in expenditures. Jarred Anderson, the district’s business manager, says he budgeted for the worst-case scenario, as there are a number of unknown factors which will factor into the budget.

Enrollment is has one of the largest impacts on the budget. Anderson said he was conservative in his enrollment projections. The school district lost students during the 2020-21 school year and he is projecting additional losses in 2021-22 due to distance learning. Anderson also expressed to the board that he had recently sat in on a school business manager and superintendent webinar where he learned that many school districts are in the similar position when it comes to declining enrollment.

In-house negotiations for salary and benefits, which have not started yet, is another factor that will impact the budget.

Additionally, school districts across the state are still waiting on the basic aid formula from the Minnesota Legislature.

When comparing the district’s final 2020-21 budget to the preliminary 2021-22 budget presented on Monday, there is a projected increase of about $134,794 in revenue in the district’s general fund and a projected decrease of about $1.4 million in expenditures in the general fund. Last year’s expenditures were inflated due to the construction projects, Anderson told the People’s Press. He noted that most school districts take building projects up for a vote and then run the projects through the debt service fund. But Medford’s fund balance was in a good spot, thus it was decided to spend the balance down and to not take it to the voters and issue more debt.

The construction projects included the parking lot, the secure entrance and the district and high school office additions. Additionally the district remodeled the old district and high school office area into four special education classrooms, a tech center and offices for the school’s guidance counselor, social worker and therapist.

The district has three other smaller fund balances: food service, community service and debt service funds. According to the 2021-22 budget, the food service fund is the only one with a surplus projected. The district is receiving a higher reimbursement rate from the state for the free meals which the district serves. Community Education and debt service will each have around a projected $5,000 deficit. Anderson said he is not too concerned about this deficit because each year Medford has had to make a transfer money out of the general fund to cover the deficit.

COVID-19 money assists with school funding

The district has received several rounds of federal funding including Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund) as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, each with a deadline to spend the funding. Anderson highlighted some areas that the Medford school district has spent the federal funding during Monday’s board meeting.

“All the money we spent in 2021 was money that was going to expire in 2021, we didn’t touch things that had a longer shelf life on it than 2021,” Anderson said.

The district received $1.2 million in funds, with $260,407 spent in the 2020-21 school year. The remaining amount will likely be split between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school year, but how exactly that will be split is yet to be determined.

If enrollment goes as predicted, and the district splits the remaining funds evenly with about $450,000 each year during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, that would create a deficit for both years. The district would then need to make tough decisions, such as adjusting the budget, next year and continuing those tough decisions to the 2022-23 year as well. Or the district could use all of the remaining COVID-19 funding in the 2021-22 school year, then make the hard decisions in 2022-23.

“If we were to run into a middle-of-the-road scenario with enrollment and the state negotiation and our in-house negotiations and we spent more than $450,000 of our CARES money, we could make it through this year and break even,” Anderson said.

After discussing it, the Medford School Board came to the general consensus that the remaining funds would be split. Although what percentage allocated to each year is still up for debate. No official action was taken on the item, but the board intends to discuss the details further at a future work session.

A breakdown of the COVID-19 funding and its intended strategy/goal area, according to the budget presented on Monday:

Technology — $73,540

Facilities/Maintenance — $53,563

Mental Health — $230,501

Staff Development — $93,084

Summer School — $28,138

Continuation of Services — $656,851

Additional Distance Learning Para — $6,540

Nursing Supplies — $4,551

Instructional Supplies — $10,984

Absences-COVID Related — $19,049

With the unknown factors related to the budget, Anderson said he anticipates revising the budget once more information becomes available.

Owatonna School Board gives superintendent good grade
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The Owatonna School Board gave Superintendent Jeff Elstad a positive review during a recent work session.

The review explored Elstad’s performance regarding the Owatonna Public School’s four commitments: 21st century learning, high quality teaching and learning, safe and caring community and equity.

School Board Chair Mark Sebring presented a document with recurring comments and sentiment shared among school board members regarding Elstad’s evaluation at the June 14 meeting. No action was taken during the work session, but the board will revisit the evaluation in its regular meeting next week.

Under the 21st century learning aim, Sebring noted that Elstad encourages failure, risk taking and growth, adding that Elstad is also a collaborator and willing listener. The document also noted Elstad’s work on bringing a new high school building to fruition.

“When we hired Mr. Elstad four years ago, we made it really clear that that was one of the objectives, and it’s completely worthwhile to make sure that this is lifted up and brought up that this success was the result of tireless efforts on his part, and cultivating the spirit of trust in our school district,” Sebring said.

The board believes there is room for Elstad to sharpen the focus on the 21st century learning initiative and incorporate it into the operational plan moving forward. More information about what 21st century learning looks will come this summer, when the board reviews Elstad’s work within the community. This work includes gathering input on what is the desired daily experience within the Owatonna Public School system.

School Board member Nikki Gieseke further praised Elstad for his willingness to ask questions, learn and make connections with the local business community.

Within the secondary aim of high quality teaching and learning, Sebring noted Elstad’s ability to to build a team of professionals and build relationships.

“It’s wonderful to continue to read comments and hear the community, the teaching community, and the public talk about the importance of building those relationships with students,” Sebring said, adding there are still opportunities to find ways to demonstrate growth within the high quality teaching and learning aim that do not tie into assessment data.

As far as the safe and caring community aim is, the board feels Elstad’s ability to build positive and healthy relationships is the foundation to his approach.

“We have an excellent superintendent, leading the charge with regard to ‘how do we tackle a global pandemic,’ and how it affects our students and their families,” Sebring said.

Based on the comments received by other board members, Elstad did a good job of making the best out of a difficult situation. The board asks that he continue to identify clear boundaries and operate with transparency.

The final aim is equity, to which Elstad has been on a journey of raising awareness and having important conversations. The board asked him to sharpen his focus and help the community connect the dots as to “why” this equity initiative is so important.

School Board member Timothy Jensen pointed out that in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, these four aims were still reached.

Following the report, Elstad spoke about his need to continue his work within the aims and he said he is aware there are some areas where he needs to improve. He expressed his gratitude for having a great team, staff, students and community who are willing to step up and serve whenever they are asked to do so.

“My singular focus which has been, is now, and will always be my focus is on students and the growth of our students, and whatever it takes for us to do that,” Elstad said.

Elstad has served in the Owatonna superintendent role for four years.