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SALISBURY TOWNSHIP SCHOOL DISTRICT Decision on instructional model up for vote Oct. 14

The operations committee of the Salisbury Township School District board of directors held its monthly meeting Oct. 7 to discuss several important matters as the 2020-2021 school year marches on.

The most anticipated agenda item of the evening brought discussion of determining which instructional model the district will adopt after the close of the first marking period. Director of Teaching and Learning Kelly Pauling went over pros and cons for virtual, hybrid and fully in-person options for learning after Nov. 6.

In order to have the district change from the virtual model, a decision from the board will need to be made during the Oct. 14 school board meeting.

Currently, the district cannot accommodate five day a week in-person instruction due to space limitations preventing the 6-feet of social distancing required by government and health institutions.

When the district made their decision to adopt a virtual learning model back in August, the state COVID-19 dashboard indicated an incidence rate of 34.8 percent and a positivity rate at 4.09 percent. The current dashboard numbers reflect a 43.5 percent incidence rate and a 3.5 percent positivity rate, still situating the district in the “moderate” level. It is anticipated that switching to the hybrid-learning model will be met with staffing difficulties, as many teachers and staff have reported that they or their family members are situated within at-risk groups.

One of the recurring themes in the discussion centered around board members’ concerns they would decide to pursue one learning model and would need to change course quickly due to the ever-changing environment surrounding the virus. The desire for a sustainable model despite changing guidelines appeared paramount.

Board member Sarah Nemitz said if the children remain in a virtual learning environment, strategies and support for the health and wellness of students would be appreciated.

“Before we change (the learning model) … it has to be something we can say with a high confidence level that we can sustain,” Board member Samuel DeFrank said. “At this point, there are so many more questions than answers.”

All of the board members, when asked, said they were eager to see students return to the classroom, but a comprehensive action plan and additional details would be necessary in order for board members to make a well-informed decision.

In other business, Zach Williard of financial advisory firm PFM joined the Zoom call to present a refinancing analysis for the district. The options presented would allow the district to restructure its current debt in an effort to restore financial reserves.

The plan would enable budgetary relief on current payments in the short term, over the next one to three budget years. Lower debt payments would encourage the district to redirect savings to reserve funds. A depleted reserve account led to a weakened credit score and negative outlook for Salisbury Township School District, making borrowing more difficult.

Several large facility projects loom on the horizon, whether they be renovations or new construction for school buildings.

Williard pointed out this type of debt restructuring is not meant as a cure-all for district financial woes, but rather should be considered one aspect of a multiyear recovery plan. The time is ripe for refinancing, with interest rates currently at historic lows; however, the upcoming election will likely have an impact on these rates.

A decision on whether or not to pursue restructuring, which will cost the district more money in the long run yet save money on payments in the short term, must be closed by April 1, 2021. Board members took in the information, admitting there was concern over whether or not savings on monthly payments would indeed be allocated to reserve funds rather than spent on inevitable emergent expenses.

Dovetailing from Williard’s presentation, Superintendent Dr. Randy Ziegenfuss shared a full report from design firm Fielding International.

The report outlined options for district facilities, how they align with local needs and cost projections. The options for various combinations of renovations to buildings and new construction landed at price points ranging from $48 to $65 million. Ziegenfuss requested board members keep these options front of mind as they mulled their decision on options for debt relief.

The next meeting of the operations committee will take place via Zoom Nov. 4.