By Nicole Kidder-Perry
As the Nine Mile Falls School District looks forward to impending changes in rapid housing growth, curriculum updates, and necessary facility improvements, Superintendent Jeff Baerwald said collecting widespread input is critical for creating a strategic plan.
“It has been a while since the school board has reached out to our community to identify some themes of concern and start following up,” Baerwald explained. “I know what my vision is for this amazing district, but we need to know if it aligns with the wants and needs of the school board, our staff, our families, our students, and the broader community.”
A couple of months ago, Baerwald started the process to bring in support by partnering with ThoughtExchange. The company utilizes an online platform to crowdsource information, allowing all facets of the community to give their opinions on a particular topic. While the scope can be expanded throughout the next year to focus on questions at the district and building levels, the first campaign launched on Feb. 2 with this single question:
“In your opinion, what is going well in the NMFSD and what challenges need to be addressed?”
The survey will be open for commenting until Feb. 14. Flyers are currently posted in area businesses with a special QR code that links straight to the survey. It can also be accessed on the district’s website at 9mile.org or directly at my.thoughtexchange.com/scroll/331089020.
More than 60 responses poured in on the first day. The goal, Baerwald said, is to capture somewhere close to 1,000 comments. Survey participants are able to give their feedback as well as put a star on opinions they agree with. The top comment of the afternoon was: “I think the district has done well handling the pandemic and keeping school in person this year. My student learns best in the classroom and surrounded by friends.”
“This will change as more input flows in, allowing us to really see the positives that we need to continue and the challenges that we need to address so that we can develop a solid plan,” Baerwald said. “We will dive in deeper on feedback at a later date by creating more thought exchanges with specific questions, but right now, we want to keep it simple. Let’s go accomplish something!”
He emphasizes that the district wants to ensure that money is being spent where the needs for students, and the community, are most critical. “By asking a single, open-ended question, we are hopeful that we can gather information on what is most important and how we can best partner with the community, not just our school-aged families. We want to be of service to everyone.”
One example he discussed as a huge deficit to the community overall is the lack of childcare choices in Nine Mile Falls. As a member of the Greater Spokane Incorporated’s Quality Childcare subcommittee, Baerwald said other bedroom communities, including Freeman and Riverside, are also considering whether their school districts need to step up to offer options outside of daycare facilities.
“As a school district, that looks very different because it goes beyond serving just high-needs kids. There are many advantages to offering a program, including getting our youngest residents Kindergarten-ready,” he added.
NMFSD Begins Addressing School Improvements
Another priority for the district is facility improvements, Baerwald said. He notes that the most recent school bond in 2008 to remodel both elementary schools and the 2018 capital levy for Lakeside Middle School did not fully address critical systems.
The HVAC systems have not been touched since 1995, he explained, resulting in massive failures at all four schools. ESSER funds, which were allocated to the district as part of the American Rescue Plan Act during the pandemic, can be spent on adding space for distancing purposes and improving air quality but not invested in renovations.
In total, the district plans to spend $1 million in ESSER funding on expanding classroom space and fixing the failing HVAC systems. Last summer, some of the funds were used to replace systems servicing eight classrooms as well as repair or replace boiler systems and air exchange handlers.
At Nine Mile Falls Elementary, there are six classrooms that were not included in the recent remodel. Additionally, the district is looking at swapping out the aging single-heat pump system with a single-system VRF, which is more expensive but will last longer, according to Baerwald. Longer-term plans include adding a portable attachment that will eventually need a brick structure replacement when the former golf course housing development brings more families into the district in the Fall of 2023.
Lakeside High School is facing similar boiler and chiller issues while several of the air handling units have failed, which means air quality circulation is suffering. The district is replacing all of the bearings and is exploring how to upgrade outdated thermostats to the more expensive pneumatic controls that are standard in today’s digital world. A portable for LHS has also been ordered to handle space issues, and the 12-year-old roof needs to be completely replaced.
“The leaking roof is one of the biggest challenges we are facing,” Baerwald said. “Its life is not supposed to be over. We are working with the insurance but are being told it is not covered. We are exploring legal options as well. We relied on a quick fix in November to get through the winter, but that is not a long-term answer. None of our options at this point offer a cheap solution, but we need good, safe facilities for our kids and staff to spend their time in.”
“We recognize that asking the community for help right now in the form of another capital levy will put a strain on everyone,” he continued, adding that he is starting to have conversations about what another bond would look like for the district, particularly with how to obtain a planning grant and matching funds at the state level. “It’s not the best timing, but with taxpayer help, we can do it in two to three years. A loan will take 10 to 12 years to pay off, and that money comes out of our general budget.”
The federal ESSER dollars can also be allocated to ‘learning quality’ issues, including updating textbooks and improving online access, so Baerwald plans to direct some of the money into curriculum modifications. He stressed that state standards are not changing, but new books and resources are being considered in Psychology, Math, Science, and English/Language Arts. Changes to core classes that impact all students will have parent committee involvement.
Another exciting rollout for the school district is the FirstView Bus App, which launched January 21. Parents and staff can now track their students’ bus in real time to determine if the schedule is delayed or running early. The district can also push out messages for unexpected schedule changes, such as route substitutions or early releases for snowy days. Within the first two weeks, 175 users have begun utilizing the app. Powered by the First Student bus system that began servicing the district this past fall, the app for Nine Mile Falls School District (note: do not choose the Lakeside option) can be downloaded on the Google Play and Apple App Stores.