Natalia ISD Board approves nearly $400k in expenditures

NHS teacher Olga Contreras was recognized as February’s Teacher of the Month. She is pictured with Superintendent Dr. Hensley Cone and Principal Dr. Jane Harris.

In their regular monthly board meeting, the Natalia ISD board of trustees approved expenditures for school buses and band instruments as well as the school calendar for next school year.
Approval for the buses and band instruments came after an hour plus long executive session. Both Juan Rizo, Plant Operations & Transportation Director, and his assistant Chip Bluemel, were present for the meeting to explain the proposal to the board. They presented a five year plan to ensure that students riding the buses will be safe and unlikely to be stranded somewhere because of a breakdown.
The proposed plan recommends the purchase of two new 77 passenger buses and one 30 passenger “Micro” bus and another 15 passenger “Micro” bus. They also presented an alternate plan that asked for three 77 passenger buses. Bluemel explained that the purchase of the two “Micro” buses would give the district flexibility to transport sports teams in the smaller buses while still fulfilling state requirements for school buses. He said it would also save considerably on fuel expenses. Currently some of the buses are used simultaneously to run regular routes and turn around to immediately transport a sports team to a game or tournament. It’s hard on the buses and hard on the drivers.
The proposed five year plan for the transportation department involves the purchase of one 77 passenger bus each year until the 2021-2022 school year and retiring the oldest or highest mileage bus to sell in hopes of getting a good portion of the purchase price for the new bus.
The board asked a number of questions about the proposal and responded positively to the proposal. The board approved the lease/purchase of the busses not to exceed the amount of $272,430.
“We are dedicated to providing our transportation department with the best fleet available,” Board President Eric Smith said.
Band Director Sergio Mendez presented his request for new band instruments for the students. In the few years he has led the program, the band has increased from 15-25 members to a marching band over 100 strong to fill the football field with music during half time. And it is not just a lot of students filling a place. The band scored a Division 1 in the UIL competition this past fall for the third year in a row.
Mendez’s request was for a total of 40 instruments ranging from a couple of Sousaphones to four different types of drums…. all for the further increase he expects in the number of students participating in the program. He said some of the instruments the students are now using are over 30 years old. While he admits he will be losing 14 seniors at graduation, he said that he will be getting even more than that coming in from the Junior High School. The final total requested on the instruments comes to $127,047.00.
Board members congratulated Mendez on his work with the students and said that he had made due with instruments that were nearly impossible to play or that were otherwise undesirable.
“We are super excited about the growth of our band department,” Smith said. “The thought of having over 100 marching next year is something I would have never dreamed of. As a result, we are determined to provide our students with the best equipment we can.”
New Business Manager Barbara Flores presented financial information about the two purchases. She advised the board that the two could be combined into one lease of $399,477 and paid out in the same manner the district paid for the last two buses purchased budgeting the lease payment with each year’s regular budget.
She gave figures for the lease payments for both a three year lease and a five year lease and recommended that the three year lease be approved. Trustee Eric Owens made the motion to approve the recommendation and it was seconded by Board Vice President Paul Almendarez. The measure passed by a vote of 5-0 with Board Secretary Jack Bradley and Trustee Tiffany Rodriguez both absent from the meeting.
Superintendent Dr. Hensley Cone presented the recommended school calendar for the 2017-2018 school year. He said that the new rules for time of instruction is that school cannot start any earlier than the fourth Monday of August and is figured by the total number of minutes. This year that start time would be August 28th. The state mandates that actual class time is 75,600 minutes per year. The current year at Natalia is figured to be 78,000 minutes and the schedule for next year is 79,000 minutes.
He advised the board that the method used to determine the calendar included input by teachers and considerations on attendance. He also pointed out that the number of minutes planned would cover any bad weather days so they would not need to be added later.
One thing that teachers strongly requested was training before the school year began on new things and directions. They also wanted the holidays spread throughout the year aligned with the federal holidays. Dr. Cone advised the board that on MLK day, the district had an 80% attendance rate and on the Thursday of stock show, a 90% rate.
“It takes a long time to make up that type of attendance.” he said. “If the kids are not in the classroom, they’re not learning.”
Smith pointed out that Natalia has the longest school day of any district in the area and questioned if there was a way to add five or ten minutes to the length of the lunches.
“We need to give them time to just be kids,” he said. “By the time they stand in line and get their lunch, then eat it, it is time to go back to the classroom. There is no time for them to go out and run around.”
Smith requested that Cone bring back a fact finding report on the length of lunches at other area districts.
Trustee Fernando Garza questioned the length of the day and the effectiveness of tutoring students after an already long day in the classroom.
Following some more discussion about the merits and demerits of the calendar, Owen made a motion to approve the calendar as presented. The motion was seconded by Almendarez and passed by a vote of 5-0.
Addressing attendance at another point in the meeting, Cone said national holidays and the stock show affected attendance numbers. He presented the board with a comparison chart on the student attendance percentages so far this school year. The district achieved 98.13% in August, 95.40% in September, 95.53% in October, 95.11% in November and 93.39% in December. The new year started out in January with 93.39% attendance and 94.01% in February for a year-to-date total of 94.84%.
Cone said the district loses money whenever the attendance falls under 95%. During the month of January and February, the district attendance did just that. He pointed out making those numbers up takes a long time of really high attendance.
During the recognition awards during the first few minutes of the meeting, Cone had said he would explain why he was not recognizing the campuses for either student or teacher attendance.
The board also considered a plan that Smith presented to them based on a seminar he attended at the recent TASB conference in Corpus Christi. According to Smith a lot of interest was expressed in the idea of including student representatives on the school board to bring their views and concerns directly to the district. He said that schools in the north are implementing the idea with great success.
He asked that the board consider doing the same thing in Natalia to insure more student involvement. He suggested that the students be selected based on applications and that a subcommittee of the board determine a method for the selection and present it to the board for approval.
Trustee Andrew Besa made the motion to move forward and it was seconded by Owens. The measure passed by a vote of 5-0.
“I am super excited we are taking a huge step to get our students more involved,” Smith said. “I am excited about the potential of the program.”
Following executive session, the board returned to agree to place a bid on a property up for auction across from the elementary school. The board debated and approved for the district to bid on the property but a private citizen purchased it at the county auction with a higher bid.
Flores presented the food service report showing an increase in number of meals served making an improvement in the balance sheet. Actual expenses for the department are $431,716.26 and revenue is at $402,793.26. Last year the department finished the budget year with over $100,000 in deficit.
Flores reported that 82.5% of the taxes for both maintenance and operation and interest and sinking funds have been collected. Total uncollected taxes for M&O are $608,197.32 and for I&S $67,062.58.
Assistant Superintendent Donald Stewart, Jr. gave his report on the campus registration process saying that by May 1st, there would be consistent forms for registration throughout the district and the process would be explained to the community on that day. Before then, orientation for students from 6th through 11th grade would take place on March 21st tentatively. Students would make their course selections between March 27th and April 21st and the master schedule for the next school year would be complete by May 31st as well as a teaching schedule for all faculty members.
Cone made announcements for the district including Spring Break from March 13th through March 17th. Fourth grade STAAR writing testing will be on March 28th and the same testing for Fifth grade will be on March 29th. Prom will be on April 1st.

By Linda Sherrell
Staff Writer